Experiencing Jesus

       The process of discerning a call to ordained ministry is messy.  Every diocese has different requirements, timelines, and processes.  Every person has a different life story, a different calling, and a different spiritual life.  Meshing these together can be difficult, especially for those pursuing a call to the priesthood and studying in a residential seminary environment.  At VTS back in the mid-aughts, it seemed the only thing that all of us had in common was the requirement to do one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education.  I spent the summer between my first and second years as a chaplaincy intern at Goodwin House in Alexandria.  Goodwin House is a tiered care retirement facility owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  At the time, it had two locations, both of which offered independent living apartments, assisted living, skilled care, and memory units.  I got all kinds of experience.  Our CPE Supervisor was a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel turned Episcopal priest named Ruth Walsh.  I’ve thought a lot about Ruth over the past week or so as she died of COVID-19 complications on January 21st.

       As you might imagine, given her resume, Ruth was a no-nonsense kind of person.  As a CPE supervisor, she was kind, but direct.  She said what needed to be said.  I remember one time, she asked me flat out, “Steve, do you think you’re better than the rest of your colleagues?”  I learned to check my attitude that day.  Ruth was also deeply spiritual, and wanted the same for us.  Once a week, she would lead us through an hour-long guided meditation.  I’ve always struggled to drown out the monkey chatter in my mind while meditating, but there is one session I still remember quite vividly.  We were on the roof-top patio one warm, summer afternoon, gathered as a group on the outdoor couches, Ruth asked us to close our eyes, become aware of our breath, and find a happy place.  I found myself beside a lake, watching the water ripple along the shoreline, when she invited us to imagine Jesus standing right in front of us.  I’m not sure why, but the Jesus I saw was just his face, kind of like the image imprinted on the Shroud of Turin.  I think the strangeness of Jesus’ appearance is part of why I remember this meditation so vividly.  Anyway, from there, Ruth invited us to spend forty-five minutes talking with Jesus, sharing our hopes and our fears, listening, as we were able, to words of encouragement, grace, and love.  It was one of the deepest experiences of prayer I’ve ever had.  As our time ended, I felt refreshed and empowered to finish that difficult summer in CPE.

       I think about that experience often.  How wonderful it was to have a sit down with Jesus.  I think about how much easier life would be if Jesus were here among us to teach us, by his example, how to live into the way of love.  In fact, this week, in particular, I found myself getting jealous of the congregation gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum who got to see and hear for themselves the Good News of God’s salvation live and in the flesh.  They certainly didn’t show up that Saturday expecting to meet the Holy One of God, but they sure picked a good day to go to services.

       A small fishing village of about fifteen hundred residents, Capernaum will play a prominent role as the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and it all started right here, as Jesus, Andrew, Peter, James, and John entered the Synagogue one Saturday.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to speak.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but in other Gospels we hear about him proclaiming freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  We know he often called on his listeners to repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near.  It wasn’t the content of his teaching, however, that got the congregation’s attention this day.  Instead, they were enamored by how he taught, as one with authority, unlike the scribes.

       Jesus taught of God’s love, not as one who had studied it, but one who lived it.  Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him. He taught as one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength.  Human beings aren’t accustomed to that kind of authority, so it is no wonder the congregation was astounded.

       In the Greek, Mark says that the crowd was ekplesso, a compound word, that literally means “to be blown away.”  That’s where my jealously sets in, and maybe yours does as well.  We are blessed with some pretty good preachers here at Christ Church, but none of us is Jesus.  We can share from our experience of God’s grace and love, but none of us is the human embodiment of it.  You might be blown away by my rhetorical skill and humility, but it is impossible for anyone to teach with the same kind of authority as Jesus.  Gosh it would be nice if Jesus were here, right now, so that we too might be able to be blown away by his authoritative teaching on God’s love, but of course, he isn’t here, and we, like generations of disciples who have come before us, have to find ways to experience that grace and love for ourselves so that we too might be able to share it, with some level of authority, with those around us.

       This is, I think, the fundamental task of discipleship, seeking ways to experience God’s love so that others can experience it for themselves.  How we do that, when we aren’t the Son of God incarnate, requires effort.  In the seemingly never-ending days of COVID-tide, it probably even requires extra effort.  The Season of Epiphany, however, is the time we set aside to specifically look for the ways God is at work in the world in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  In our Eucharistic Prayer C, would that we could pray it, we would ask to have our eyes open that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

       Allow me, then, if you will, to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Notice your breath.  Be aware as you breathe in deeply… And out… In… and out…

Think back over the course of this week.

Look around where you’ve been.

Listen again to the words you’ve heard.

Where did you see God?

Did you have the opportunity to be blown away by God’ love?

Did you take the chance to share God’s love with someone?

In… and out… In… and out…

Amen.

Reacting to Jesus

As unremarkable as the miracle that Jesus performed in the Synagogue might have been, the focus of Sunday’s Gospel really seems fixated on the various reactions that people and spirits had to Jesus. Less than halfway through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already engendered several strong reactions. At his baptism, the heavens reacted to Jesus by being torn apart and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The [Holy] Spirit responded by whisking Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan tempted him for 40 days. Simon and Andrew reacted to Jesus invitation by dropping their nets and following him. James and John, sons of Zebedee, did the same.

Our story follows, with Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum. He taught with a particular kind of authority, and the congregations reaction was, in the Greek, ekplesso, which literally means, they were blown away; not by what he taught, but how. Immediately, the scene cuts to a man with an unclean spirit. Just like it was with Satan in the wilderness, the unclean spirit knew something was up and their reaction is telling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” It seems the spirit could see beyond the flesh, and knew the heart of Jesus. The spirit was afraid of what Jesus might do, but we should be careful reading too much into the title that the spirit calls Jesus.

While most of us reading this passage would assume that the spirit knew that Jesus was the Messiah, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 61) notes that this phrase, “Holy One of God” mirrors a title given to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9. Rather than a messianic title, it is a comparative title over and against the evil spirit. Instead, it makes clear that unlike the spirit, which belonged to the evil one, Jesus belonged to God. What follows is an example of how the power of God’s holiness is stronger than the power of evil, as Jesus casts out the spirit, leaving it disembodied and unable to act in the world.

The final reaction, then, is the crowd’s response to what they just saw. They were thambeo, astounded. Mark seems to use ekplesso and thambeo interchangeably, as both variously refer to the reaction people have to Jesus teaching and to witnessing miracles. Still, it is worth noting that even though the spirit saw Jesus as holy, the crowd is struck particularly by his authority. Their response isn’t worship, at least not yet. Instead, they are awestruck, flabbergasted, and astonished. It would behoove us, I think, to pay attention to how we respond to Jesus in our own experience. Are we amazed by the wisdom of his teaching? Are we astonished by his holiness of life? Are we fearful of his call upon our lives? How do you react to Jesus?

An Unremarkable Miracle

Due to a last minute scheduling change, I suddenly find myself preaching this week. With the need to write a sermon on my mind, I read the Gospel lesson for Sunday again this morning, and realized that in all my excitement at the word “authority” yesterday, I had totally missed what the story is about. Did you know that Jesus performs a miracle in this week’s text? Apparently, I didn’t until today.

My quick-and-dirty reading of the Scriptures notwithstanding, this miracle that Jesus performs does, in the grand scheme of things, seem somewhat unremarkable. First, it is the cleansing of an unclean spirit, which seems pretty common place among the Feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, and raising the dead. What’s more, in a Gospel that tends to be sparse on details, Mark tells us that this all happened in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and nobody gave a darn about it. Normally, when Jesus performs a miracle on the Sabbath, everybody gets all up in arms about it, but here, nobody says a word. It’s not a thing. It’s totally unremarkable, well, kind of. I wonder why that is.

Rhetorically, it is probably because it occurs in Mark 1, and there is no need to raise the tension level between Jesus and the powers-that-be quite yet, but is there more than that? This unremarkable miracle didn’t get Jesus in trouble, but rather, is started the spread of his fame. He performed many other miracles that day, at least one, the healing of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law, we’re told came before sunset. What does the preacher do, if anything, with this unremarkable miracle?

One with authority

I’ve spent this weekend on Zoom. Not like all weekend, but several hours, each day, from Friday through a meeting scheduled in about 15 minutes, on Zoom as a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church. Lots of words get spoken over the course of some 12 hours of online meetings, and not all of them are worth hearing, let alone repeating. Occasionally, however, you hear something through glitchy internet and bad audio that you want to remember. That happened to me on Saturday morning, during the presentation on the relationship between the Church Pension Fund and The Episcopal Church. Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, 11th Bishop of Ohio, noted that this purpose of our conversation was to clear up lines of authority, not for the purpose of one party holding authority over another, but rather, to clearly articulate responsibility for.

As I read about the response to Jesus teaching in the Synagogue, I can’t help but wonder if the astonishment that the people experienced upon hearing Jesus was because his teaching was based in “authority over” but “responsibility for.” That is, Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him, one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength. Human beings aren’t real accustomed to that kind of authority. It is no wonder the people who heard Jesus teach were astounded.

Amazed by Authority

I’ve written a couple of times on the topic of authority, but it seems to be a popular one in the Gospels.  Sunday’s lesson is bookended by it.  In the Synagogue, the crowds were first astounded by Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one with authority.  Then, after he heals the man with the evil spirit, they are amazed (a different Greek word, btw), again because of the authority with which Jesus both taught and acted.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  I don’t mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus had such authority, though if we believe him to be the Son of God, we shouldn’t be.  What shouldn’t surprise us in this story is the reaction of the crowd.

True authority is so rare in this world.  It is true today.  One need only to look at Washington, DC or Frankfort, KY to see that many who claim to be leaders lack any real authority.  It was, it seems, equally true in Palestine in the first century.  It is also true that people are hungry for leaders who have true authority.

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My favorite definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on the “all authority” passage in Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability.”  Many people follow many leaders because they have to.  Plenty of governments, businesses, and even churches operate this way.  Someone is in a position of authority because of a job title, and others follow because they say so.  In the case of the authority of Jesus, it seems clear that people followed him not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  People were drawn to Jesus not because he was born in the right place or studied at the right school or was the son of the High Priest, but because God had poured out on him the gifts that are necessary to bring people along.

One of the things we don’t like to talk about in the church very much is this type of real authority.  In the name of the cult of nice, we don’t put much stock in followability when it comes to raising up leaders, both lay and ordained.  I can’t help but wonder if we do this to our own detriment.  The Gospel writers were not afraid to name the authority of Jesus.  Jesus, as he commissioned his disciples to be apostles, was not afraid to name their authority.  As the Church seeks leaders, we ought not be afraid to seek those who have that natural followability, the true authority that comes with giftedness rather than position and education.

Our Unending Prayer

As I write this post, police are on the scene at yet another school shooting.  This one happens to have occurred in the geographical confines of the Diocese of Kentucky, where I am canonically resident.  I have a friend who graduated from Marshall County High School.  Because of these things, in spite of living in a world that has made me numb to such tragedy, this one feels different.

It won’t take but but few hours before the lives turned upside-down by this act of violence will be traded for political capital.  The sides will line up as they always do, wagging their fingers at the other.  Religious leaders will follow suit.  People will offer thoughts and prayers.  Others will respond by lambasting their thoughts and prayers as hollow.  I fear that we are on the verge of an era in which things are so politicized that as Christians, we forget what a powerful force prayer is.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I received word of the Marshall County High School shooting while reading the Collect for Epiphany 4.  According to Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, this prayer was originally found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, which means that it is roughly 900 years old.  For 900 years, the people of God have prayed this prayer.  For eleven hundred years of Christian history before that, it can be assured that people prayed that God might grant peace.  Even before the advent of Christ, the Jewish word of greeting to stranger and friend alike was Shalom, a wish for peace and wholeness.  It is our unending prayer.

I agree with Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  When we pray for peace, it requires that we are ready to work for it.  This doesn’t mean that we work only so our political agenda can win the day, but rather, we work toward the restoration of all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other.  It means praying for and working toward a spirit of cooperation, in which our government can make sensible choices around gun control, mental health spending, and law enforcement policy.  It means praying and caring for those who are ostracized and marginalized.  It means sacrifices on our part in order to make the world a safer, healthier, and holier place than it is right now.

Prayer works.  And so, today, I invite us all to add our voices to the unending prayers of the saints who have asked God to bring peace to our world.

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Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

Are you ready for Jesus – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

If statistical research and everyday conversations are any indicator of real life, then the most important thing I do in my work is preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon.  Hours of study, prayer, and writing go into each fourteen hundred word text.  This summer, I took a class on preaching that was co-taught by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal Priest, Lauren Winner, who noted that preaching presents a unique opportunity in modern life.  With TVs and iPhones and cars that have Internet access, the average American will rarely, if ever, choose to sit and listen to another human being talk for 15 minutes, except for Sunday morning.  Dr. Winner was adamant that “There is no excuse for not taking seriously the extreme privilege that preaching is.”  I get that, which is why I work so hard to craft the sermons I preach.  I also know that a 2007 study from LifeWay Research says that 87% of church-shoppers say preaching is the most important factor in their deciding where to worship.  Again and again, studies by Episcopal seminaries say that the number one thing people want their priest to be able to do it preach a decent sermon.  I really don’t think human beings have changed much over the last two or three thousand years.  I think preaching has always been an important part of the religious life of the faithful.

It was certainly important for Mark and his Church.  This morning we hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ first public act, and what do you know, he preached a sermon.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to the congregation gathered at the First Synagogue of  Capernaum, but we know their reaction: “they were amazed at his teaching for he taught as one having authority.”  I imagine the people in the crowd that morning weren’t that unlike you and me.[1]  They’d come to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons.  Some where there hoping to find healing from a deep hurt.  Some were there hoping to see and be seen.  Some where there because their grandmother had made sure they went to Synagogue on Saturday and their grandfather had built the place with his bare hands.  They’d come to the Synagogue in all sorts of conditions.  Some where there hoping to hear the voice of God.  Some where there hoping to shake off the cobwebs of a late Friday night with friends, hoping for forgiveness for another week.  Some were hopping mad at their children for putting up such a fuss about getting dressed.

No matter the reason, no matter the mood, the congregation in Capernaum headed off to Saturday morning services expecting what most of us expect on a Sunday morning, routine.  Whether you’re a Baptist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a non-denominational type, a Muslim, or an Episcopalian, everyone heads to their weekly worship service expecting it to look like it did last week.  The folks in Capernaum, like most of us this morning, came ready for a fairly predictable liturgy: a reading from the Bible, some prayers, a few songs maybe, and a sermon that would either make them feel warm and fuzzy or make them think, just a little bit, but not too much.  What they certainly didn’t expect was Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus is exactly what they got.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for a guest preacher to be asked to speak.  Travel wasn’t easy, so when you had someone from out of town, especially a Rabbi, it made sense to invite them to share a word.  Presumably, Jesus would offer greetings from the Synagogue in Nazareth, news he had learned on his journey, and a brief reflection on a safe text.  I’m sure when he was introduced as being from Nazareth; the reaction was not unlike Nathaniel’s from two week’s ago: a groan or two, maybe some eye rolls, and someone muttering under their breath, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But then Jesus began to preach, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but a few verses earlier, he did offer the crux of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  It wasn’t that this was a new teaching, but it was the way he said it.  It wasn’t like the preaching of the Scribes: who had to rely on their brains, their studies, and the Holy Spirit for the words they said.  No, Jesus spoke with conviction, with a new authority.  He spoke as if the message about the kingdom of God was fulfilled in his speaking – as if his saying it made it so.  There was a depth and a power to his teaching that was unrivaled, even by the best preachers: the John the Baptists, the Billy Grahams, the Michael Currys.  Jesus spoke and immediately everyone sat up at attention, amazed at what they heard.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus showed up to preach at Saint Paul’s this morning.  Would we be inclined to listen?  Would we sense the same authority and depth the folks in Capernaum realized?  Would we find ourselves amazed?  Or would our experience be more like Jesus’ first public act in Luke’s Gospel, also a sermon.  This time, he isn’t in Capernaum as a guest preacher; he’s in his hometown of Nazareth.  Having preached my first sermon in the congregation in which I grew up, I can tell you how that goes.  As you stand up to preach, the people start to smile.  The congregation is transformed into proud adopted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as they await your first word.  My first sermons there were awful, but the people were so kind.  “Great job,”  “I’m so proud of you,”  “You’ll do great things,” they said to me.  Jesus looked out on that hometown crowd and said to them basically the same thing he said in Capernaum, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” You’ll do great things,” they said, but Jesus kept talking.  The kingdom wasn’t going to look like what they thought it should look like.  He wasn’t going to bring his hometown buddies riding in on his coattails.  Much like in Capernaum, the crowd in Nazareth recognized the authority of Jesus, they sensed his conviction, and they felt the weight of his words, but in Nazareth things went south quickly.  The room flipped from proud smiles to enraged scowls in seconds, and Jesus was run out of town.

Are we ready to answer the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the good news?  Can we hear about freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the forgiveness of sins for all people without getting nervous?  Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our preconceived notions about what the world should look like?  Or are we hoping that he’ll offer us a safe word, one that might make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at worst make us think, just a little bit, but not too much?  Are we ready for the sort of authority that Jesus claims over our lives: about how we vote, how we shop, and more importantly, how we treat our neighbors and our enemies?  Are we willing to have our lives changed by Jesus, or are we stuck in the same old ways of living that lead only to death?

We are all here this morning for different reasons.  We’ve arrived here having dealt with all sorts of different things.  Some of us are tired and in need of rest.  Some of us are excited and looking for a way to channel our energy.  Some of us are here to get our card punched for the week.  Some are hoping to be changed.  Ideally, all of us are here expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth.  In word and song and bread and wine, we come and ask God to enter into our lives, to usher in his kingdom and to set us free from anger and sadness; from routine and boredom; from the way of selfishness and death.  Are you ready to hear the voice of Jesus?  Or would you rather keep things safe and easy?

[1] I’m grateful to Scott Hoeze for helping me imagine this scene.  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel#sthash.5WeKqYDU.dpuf

Why I don’t like the word prophetic

It started in seminary, this dislike of the word “prophetic,” but it has lasted a lot longer than I expected.  I went through the discernment process in the shadow of two world altering events: 9/11 and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  Both events had their impact on my call as strong external forces.  For what now feels like a fleeting moment, in the days following 9/11 America stood united.  We were in some ways united in two directions.  We were united inwardly as we sought to heal a tear in the very fabric of our culture, the assumption that we were safe from foreign foes was lost forever.  We were also united outwardly as we came to realize that adherents to an extremist form of Islam were to blame for the tragedy.  Over time, however, we began to keep back toward division as our nation’s leaders tried to figure out how to respond.  Some argued that in the interest of national security, we had to find the leadership network of Al Qaeda and crush it.  Others argued that we had to follow the example of Jesus and turn the other cheek.  It was the classic just war vs. pacifist debate played out in real life.  Both sides had compelling reasons, and both were claiming that God was on their side.  I first heard the call to ordained ministry on late February 2002, five months after 9/11.  Certainly the way the world had changed in those five months were a part of my realizing this call.

On June 7, 2003, V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire, was elected Bishop Coadjutor.  His election was ratified at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis, MN.  Convention ended on August 10th that year, and I recall my meeting with the Vestry of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church being scheduled for that night.  What was once a meeting to discuss the validity of my call to ordained ministry was now the special meeting of the vestry in response to the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The divisions were easily seen.  One side argued a prophetic calling toward justice.  The other, a prophetic calling toward restraint.  Both sides were certain that God was with them.

I grew to hate the word prophetic during this time because two prophets saying the opposite thing is no fun.  We tend to run to that word, prophetic, when we want to win an argument, but the thing is, we don’t get to say who speaks for God, only God gets to do that.  To paraphrase what Moses told the people of Israel in Sunday’s Deuteronomy lesson, “you best be careful with that word.”

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die”

I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to justice and peace.  I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to holiness of life.  I do think we need to be careful about claiming a prophetic voice every time we do it.  Prophet is not a title that I desire.  Being a prophet is really difficult and is only possible with God’s constant support.  Speaking a prophetic word is a sacred and powerful thing, which I’m afraid we take too lightly these days.  So let’s listen for the voice of God, let’s speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, but let’s let God call the prophets.

Fear and Awe

As Jesus taught in the Synagogue at Capernaum, the congregation was “astounded” (NRSV).  After Jesus cast out the demon from the man with the unclean spirit, they were “amazed” (NRSV).  Mark uses two different Greek words to describe the reaction. of the crowds, presumably to point out that while both were reactions of awe, they came in different forms.  This makes sense to me.  The reaction I might have to a excellent teacher is going to look markedly different than the reaction I might have to seeing an exorcism first hand.  Both are awe inspiring, but one is perhaps more visceral.

As 21st century Christians, we’ve become pretty comfortable with awe being our go-to reaction to the divine.  Who doesn’t love to sing “Our God is an Awesome God”?

What we’re decidedly less comfortable with, however, is the fear of the Lord, which is what makes our recitation of Psalm 111 this Sunday so delightfully counter cultural.  The closing line of this instructional, acrostic poem of praise reads, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: all those who practice it have a good understanding.  His praise endures forever.”  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.  For the ancient Hebrews who sang this psalm, who used to it teach their children in the way of the LORD, that fear wasn’t about the Saw movie franchise or the feeling you get just before a roller coaster.  The fear of the LORD is the awe you feel in his presence.  It comes when we realize that God is so wholly other, so utterly holy, so unimaginably loving and desires a relationship with each of us.  Sure, they were afraid that they couldn’t handle the holiness of God and that it might wipe them out entirely,

but if that’s all we think of when we read “the fear of the LORD” in the Old Testament, we do a great disservice to the chosen people of God.  Our proper approach to God is with fear and awe, recognizing the great power of God while attempting to comprehend God’s great love at the same time.  Pondering that for a while is no doubt, the beginning of wisdom.