Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Aim of Life

Like most people, when I was in my twenties,  I was focused on trying to figure out my life. I struggled to figure out what I was going to do to make a living, what I valued and what was important to me. Along with some friends of mine I found my way into practicing a form of Buddhism that focused on chanting. The idea was that the chanting had a harmonic resonance with the universe and would literally align one’s entire being, like a magnetic field aligning electrons, with the spiritual pulse of creation. One chanted every day with an intention held in one’s mind, something that one wanted. My chanting was grounded in the hope of finding a deeper relationship with the divine and aligning my life with the creator. I suppose, then, that it was really no surprise when one day while chanting, I realized that I was not a Buddhist, but a Christian. At the time this was actually a startling realization because I thought I had left Christianity behind when I was 15. I thought that Christianity was too narrow minded, too legalistic, too judgmental. But in my thoughts that morning I was ruminating on how much I appreciated Christmas and Easter, and not just as family time, but because I had also started going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and Easter morning services. It’s true that I had no desire to go to church on a regular Sunday. In fact the idea of stepping foot in a church on a Sunday morning filled me with trepidation and fear, fear that they’d “get” me and before long I’d be a narrow minded judgmental person too.
Eventually I realized that this form of Buddhism was in some ways just as legalistic as my perception of Christianity because it taught that if one ever stopped chanting one’s life would fall apart and one would live in chaos. I was just as afraid to stop chanting as I was of entering a church on Sunday morning. But eventually I found my way back into church. It helped immensely that I found a church that invited questions and was open to ideas and exploring faith. It has also helped that becoming part of a faith community and worshiping on Sunday mornings anchored me in a tradition that had a long history, that had roots, which then formed roots in me and gave me the foundation I needed to navigate the complex nature of life as a person of faith.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, is addressing this idea, that we become more ourselves when we become more like Christ. The primary aim in life, Paul writes, is to know Christ. 
Paul, before he became a Christian, was an educated Hebrew, a Pharisee. He was wealthy and had high standing in his community. He was all the things that Jesus addresses when he calls the Pharisees out for their hypocrisy, their strutting around as if they are perfect but failing to be faithful to God because of their judgmental self righteousness, of their rigid attitudes for who belongs and who does not. 
And then Paul had an epiphany and he changed completely from that narrow minded Pharisee to a follower of Jesus, striving to love as Jesus loved. Loving those on the fringes of society as much as he loved his closest friends. He spent the rest of his life living the teachings of Jesus - going out into the world to serve others. He tended to the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, loved the marginalized, and taught entire communities how to do the same. His letters to the churches in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth are profound teachings on how to live in community as followers of Jesus, how to love as Jesus loved, how to reveal the love of God in human flesh. He taught communities how to listen deeply to God.
The rise in violence over the last decade, and especially the last couple of years, from mass shootings to terrorism, to murders, human trafficking, the world crisis caused by displaced persons who have no country to call home, the intense rise in natural disasters from hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes leaving entire islands and countries devastated and perhaps to never recover, and the cruel and violent language people use to speak to one another across the spectrum of social media and even in person - this rise in violence speaks to a world that has lost its moorings. 
Karen Armstrong, a world religions scholar, once wrote about a phenomenon that happened about four thousand years ago, which caused all the world religions of that era: Judaism, Buddhism, Confusionism, and Hinduism, to almost simultaneously develop the concept of the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would done to you. This concept changed the course of human relationships, rooting humankind in the idea that our purpose in life, however one understands the Word of God made flesh, is to love one another. It raised to awareness that the Word of God, which was with God from before time, speaks into the human condition, into all the world religions, guiding human beings to treat each other with love and respect, everyone equally. This higher calling asks that human beings change, like Paul, from living a narrowly defined life to a life that embraces all people equally. As Christians we understand this as the teachings of Jesus, who we also know as the Word of God made flesh.
As your spiritual leader, your priest and Rector, I am convinced that the only way we are going to truly find our purpose in the world today is to practice actively listening to God and making room for God to speak to us and guide us. I have every confidence that if we stop and listen intentionally, offering space for silence, that God will enter that silence and lead us. 
Recently with the Vestry and then with the Renaissance Strategy Task Force, I led us in some silent prayer and guided meditation.  These ancient prayer forms are designed to help us make room for God’s presence in our lives and to awaken our antenna, our capacity to listen and to recognize God speaking to us now. 
How will we know if the ideas we have, and the pulls we feel, are of God and not just of our own limited sense of direction? How will we know if we moving out of a Christmas and Easter service only experience and into a life transforming every day experience? 
The mystics and other Christian teachers, including Paul, tell us we will know it is God speaking if the direction we discern is one that pushes us out of our comfort zone, out into the community, out into the world to learn and grow and build relationships with others. 
We will know this because that is how God always works. This is how God worked through Jesus and it is how Jesus worked through Paul and it is how the Holy Spirit works through us. Its how the Word of God spoke into the world thousands of years ago and caused a seismic shift in self awareness and the awareness of others. It’s what we’ve reflecting on all year in the Gospel of Matthew. And especially what we hear in Matthew 7: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

a reflection on the readings for Proper 22A: Philippians 3:4-14

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Does the world see Christ in us?

The summer I was 19 years old was they first time I visited my father in Puerto Rico where he had just moved to work for Goya foods. My dad lived in Puerto Rico for about 20 years and I visited him several times. Puerto Rico is a beautiful island and distinctively different from one side to the other. San Juan is a large metropolitan city with an historic district known as Old San Juan. El Morro, an old stone fort built in the late 1500’s guards one end of the city. The fort is high on the cliffs and looks out across the Atlantic Ocean toward Spain. The rest of the city is a mix of gorgeous white sand beaches and ritzy hotels intermingled with extreme poverty. Driving across the island one encounters industry, like the canning factory of Goya foods, mountains with thick rain forests and waterfalls, and the Arecibo Observatory on the western end. From its construction in the 1960s until 2011, the observatory was managed by Cornell University. The observatory's 1,000-foot (305-meter) radio telescope was the largest single-aperture telescope from its completion in 1963 until July 2016 when the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China was completed. It is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy. I’ve been to it, and it is quite amazing. 

On the south end of the island one comes to Ponce, a beautiful old city and the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, with it’s amazingly beautiful teal blue waters. From one end to the other Puerto Rico is a gorgeous, lively island filled with lovely people. 

Or, at least it was. The one-two punch of hurricane Irma and the even worse hit by hurricane Maria, whose eye went directly over the Arecibo Observatory, has devastated the island. Rescue and recovery efforts are hindered by everything from the challenges of providing gasoline to the lack of water, to government assistance or the failure of assistance, to private individuals using their own planes to fly sick people out, to cruise lines using their ships to transport people off of the island, to people giving monetary donations to organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development, in an effort to help people before more lives are lost. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, has been in the news reporting that while the disaster brings out the best in people, people helping people, this is not a “good news” story. People are desperate and dying.

In the seven years that we have used the worship materials for Season of Creation, we have never had a year filled with this many disasters: three major hurricanes to make landfall in the USA and two devastating earthquakes in Mexico, all within weeks of each other. Not to mention the intense monsoons, flooding, and loss of life in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. If ever there was a year for us to be attentive to creation and the needs of others, this is it. 

Typically on this first Sunday in October I speak about St. Francis and the blessing of the animals and our role as stewards of God’s creation to care for the earth and all its creatures. The feast day of St. Francis is October 4th, which inspires both the Season of Creation materials and the blessing of the animals.

These disasters point us not only to our worship liturgy, and to the care of creation, but to the very question that our readings ask today: Does the world see Christ in us? Can the world see in us, in our actions, the love God being manifest in ways that help others?  Paul is asking this question in his letter to the Philippians. And in a way this is also the heart of the Gospel. This entire year we have been studying Matthew, and the focus of the Gospel of Matthew is to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets - that Jesus is the way. 

And the way of Jesus is to love, to go out and serve others, tending the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and loving all people equally. 

How are we doing this? 

Does the world see Christ in us?

In the verses leading up to our reading today, Jesus has gone into the temple, the symbol of those with power and authority, and overturned the tables of the money changers. 

It’s a complicated story that deals with atonement of sins, the ability to purchase animals to sacrifice as a symbol of atoning for sins, and the greed of merchants in the temple selling animals and providing change for the purchases. Jesus sees the hypocrisy in the temple and reacts with anger. 

In today’s reading, as a result of his disruptive behavior Jesus is in a discussion with the leaders concerning his authority – who does HE think he is? Jesus enters into his typical debate and concludes with a parable that describes the hypocrisy, greed, and entitlement of those he is speaking too. Jesus sees deeply into the human condition and tells these people that the temple is a place of formation, a place to know God in their lives, but then they have to go out from the temple into the world and care for people. Staying in the temple has led to self centeredness, entitlement and greed. 

God, alive in Jesus, compels people to move out into the world to serve others. It’s what Jesus did. It’s what the disciples did. It’s what we are to do.

Does the world see Christ in us? 

For the last month I have posted opportunities on our Facebook page for us to contribute to recovery and relief efforts in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. 

Abagail Nelson, Senior Vice President of Programs for Episcopal Relief and Development offers frequent updates, which I have posted, on ERD’s coordinated efforts with the Episcopal Dioceses in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to get supplies and recovery efforts into the local communities, despite the huge challenges of transportation and housing. I hope some of you have seen the posts on Facebook and contributed to ERD or an organization of your choice. 

The readings today are a cautionary tale for us, reminding us that this church and our worship is where we come to be formed. But we are not to get stuck inside, we need to venture out. As a faith community, as part of the Renaissance Strategy, the primary question I have been asking us to consider is, what we are doing as a whole, as the body of Christ, to reach out and make a difference in the world?

Another way I could ask this questions is: “Does the world see Christ in us?” and if so, how?

a reflection on the readings for Proper 21A: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Saturday, September 16, 2017


When I was a new mom I read every book and magazine article I could find on parenting. I felt a need to be the perfect parent raising perfectly healthy children. I’ve shared enough stories about my childhood that you can probably understand why I was worried about my ability to be a good parent.

Likewise when I became a priest and a Rector I had a similar drive to be the perfect priest. I have read countless books on church leadership, church growth, stewardship, conflict, vision and mission, pastoral care, you name it, if it applies to church leadership I have read it, gone to a conference on it, and applied it in my ministry. Not to mention that I am a licensed social worker trained in family systems, group facilitation and group dynamics, and individual and couple therapy. And, I am a trained Spiritual Director, educated in the ways of listening for God and helping others listen for God. 

But the one thing I have learned through thirty years of parenting and twenty years of church leadership and despite my driven type A personality, it is that I will never be perfect. 

On any given day I will let down as many people as I have helped. On any given day I will fail perhaps more than I succeed. For every thoughtful sermon I preach there will be someone who is bored, someone who criticizes what I say or don’t say or how I say it. For every pastoral care concern I meet there will be one I fail to meet. For every word of inspiration I offer there will be a time when I fail to be inspiring. For every learned opportunity I present there will be times when I fail to know what to do. There is no way that I can ever be all things to all people, not even to myself.

I remember studying psychotherapy theories when I was working on my masters in social work. One theorist named Winnicott developed a theory that has become known as the “Good Enough Mother.” It applies the principle that no parenting, no care-taking, will ever be perfect. Caretakers will always at some point in time fail to respond to those they care for. That’s as it should be, because those failures actually produce in the other the opportunity to develop a sense of self and the ability to self-soothe, to learn how to care for one’s self. Children develop the capacity to care for themselves in those in-between moments when parents fail to provide an immediate response.

Here’s the thing. Knowing this hasn’t take away my impulse to be perfect. It has however helped me learn how to be kinder to myself when I fail, and therefore also kinder to others. And its helped me accept that no matter how much I know, there is always more to learn, and that having an open spirit, willing to ask questions, wonder, and learn, is crucial to growing in my faith, into the kind of mature faith that Jesus asks of us and which Paul is forever writing about. 

So here’s another thing. Every Sunday I show up. Standing here is about as vulnerable as a person can be.  I stand here and share stories of my life and my struggles with faith, and the ways I am trying to listen to God and follow God. I do the best I can knowing that in many ways I will fail. And I’m okay with that. I’m only human, after all. The best I can do is be authentic, respectful, and true to the values I believe in, to love God, love self, and love others, as best as I am able.

I show up every Sunday with probably a similar expectation that you have. That God will show up in our worship service and there will be a holy moment of awe, of inspiration, of hope, of transformation. But most Sundays feel bumpy and imperfect: we start late, we can’t sing the hymn, the sermon was boring or someone hates the way it was communicated, the bread and wine are distributed in a clumsy way, we forget to pray for someone or the announcements are too long, the kids are restless, the service is too long, there are typos in the bulletin, and all the many ways that worship has mistakes or fails to be inspirational. 

I have to remind myself what the purpose of worship is. The purpose of worship is to teach us, form us, and equip us to go out into the world and be witnesses to God’s presence by serving others. Jesus sends the disciples out to feed, heal, and tend to others. We know this because the very end of the service sends us out into the world with a dismissal - instructions for going out as the body of Christ, to love and serve the Lord. 

In all the bumpy imperfection of being together in a worshipping community we learn how to be people of faith. Over and over our scripture readings bring us stories of people just like us, imperfect people who are wrestling with other imperfect people, striving to figure out what it means to love and forgive as God does.

So some of the work we’ve been about this year is exploring what Spirituality is. We’ve found that it’s very difficult to define and even more difficult to describe. But simply put, spirituality is an experience of God, the divine. And no doubt, hoping to experience God in worship is a reasonable hope, even though that is not the purpose of worship. It’s reasonable because worship is our primary opportunity for formation. Experiencing God in worship can be a completely spontaneous event. But its also possible to develop opportunities in worship to help increase our capacity to listen and our awareness of what we are hearing, so that we can recognize God when God speaks.

In your worship bulletin is a Spiritual Style Sorter. It has 12 questions with multiple choice responses. Each of the four choices correlate to a type of spirituality: thinking, feeling, doing, being. Some spirituality is experienced intellectually in study, reading, thinking. Some spirituality is experienced in feelings - an interior movement. Some in doing something and some in just being, like prayer and meditation. There is no right answer, no judgement.  

Please fill it out, choosing the best response you can, the one that comes closest to what you think. I will collate these and share the responses with you to give us a sense of where we are as a congregation. If you want to know where you stand individually put your name on the paper and I’ll get back to you. Take a few minutes now to answer the questions and leave your responses in this basket or put them in the collection plate. 

a reflection on the Matthew 18 for Proper 19A

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Holy Rage, Holy Action

When I was in 7th grade the middle school band, in which I was second chair clarinet, played a concert at the high school. After the concert I walked the hallways looking for my family, expecting them to be there cheering me on and, of course, take me home. But my family was no where to be found. Eventually I faced the obvious, and walked home. Arriving home I found the lights on, and my brothers,  quietly playing in their bedroom. My father was not home and my mother was in the basement, in a rage, recklessly throwing and breaking dishes and yelling. I remember thinking that my mother was furious because my father had not come home to take them to my concert. It was the 1960’s and we were a one car family. No doubt both of my parents could have made different choices that day, although afterward we always had two cars.
Today, everywhere I turn, there are people who are struggling with anger, with how to express their rage, their worry, their fear, their concerns. Some people insist on not expressing it, working to keep everything neutral and calm. But often this is just a surface calm, ignoring the deep well of anxiety that lives beneath the surface. Others rage on and on, blaming, name calling, treating others horribly. And some people are struggling to be focused and active, without resorting to reactivity and increased angst nor suppressing their feelings.
No doubt we live in challenging times. And what are we to do? 
Kaj Munk, a Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 is quoted as saying this in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne: 

"What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: 'Faith, hope and love'? That sounds beautiful. But I would say--courage. No--even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature....we lack a holy rage--the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth...a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God's earth, and the destruction of God's world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.”

I suppose, if I had not had the childhood experience that I had, I might be more inclined to agree with Munk, that a faith-filled response to the injustices in the world, in order to bring forth the kingdom of God, requires a reckless holy rage. I do agree that reckless holy rage can be our catalyst to act, but it cannot determine how we actually act. To feel the reckless rage is to acknowledge the depth of injustice and an abiding passion to right the wrongs. That holy rage can inspire action motivated by passion and inspiration. But to recklessly act in rage is to act out of control, saying and doing things that are often not helpful in reconciling situations or bringing forth justice. Transforming the rage into inspired but more thoughtful responses is taking holy action. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he inspired in the 1960’s is a perfect example of taking holy rage and transforming it into holy action for the sake of justice, bringing us closer to the kingdom of God on earth. 

Our story in Exodus launches the Jewish season of Yom Kippur, a season of atonement for sins, with the directions for preparing a holy meal. It also portrays God protecting the Hebrews and punishing the Egyptians. The only problem is, if one reads Egyptian history, there is no matching story, there is no indication that something happened that killed all the first born sons of the Egyptians, including Pharoah’s son.  There is a story about exiled Hebrews being freed, but without the severe consequences for the Egyptians we hear in this reading. What does that mean? Only that the Hebrews and the Egyptians recorded different versions of a similar story. Versions that reflect their experiences, one version was of the perpetrators of injustice and slavery, the other as the enslaved and oppressed set free. 

There is a tendency for groups of people to claim that God is on their side and use that justification to support a one-sided set of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. And in small passages of the Bible one can even justify the idea that God takes sides. But when one reads the Bible in its entirety one hears that God does not take sides, God loves all, equally. God loved Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and the Ninivites, Jesus and the tax collectors, Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well.

While loving all people means respecting their dignity, it does not mean that there are not consequences for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. God holds people accountable for acts of injustice, cruelty, and downright evil behavior. God loves and at the same holds people accountable. That’s what we hear in Matthew, Jesus teaching us the process of holding others accountable, or being held accountable ourselves, in a loving way. 

There is no doubt that my parents could have handled their anxiety better and been higher functioning parents. On the one hand I understand that they did the best they could with what they knew. I could look back with bitterness on my childhood, but instead I choose to look back with compassion and with insight, knowing that I can be different. I can hold myself accountable for becoming a healthier person. I can be more mature and make better choices and teach my children and grandchildren to make good choices.

Our Christian responsibility in times like these, when people are recklessly raging, is to access the passion of that holy rage while responding in the least anxious way one can, aiming to respect the dignity of others by not shaming or name calling, gossiping or belittling, while also holding people responsible for acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other way that people diminish or devalue another human being or whole groups of human beings. More specific to us, as we begin our annual “Season of Creation” worship services, is to contemplate how we as a body of the faithful, and as individuals, can continue our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, and be good and wise stewards of the environment. 

It is not easy to both respect someone’s dignity and hold them accountable. I was not taught how to do this in my family, and have had to learn the hard way as an adult. But it is the kind of maturity that Jesus asks of us. It is rooted in our ability to access our holy reckless rage and utilize it effectively to make a difference, healing and transforming the broken places of our lives and world into wholeness, with love. Christian communities, now more than any other time in recent history, are asked to do this, to recognize anger and utilize it for holy action, to stand for justice and take effective action, to hold people accountable while respecting the dignity of every human being. Ultimately to love everyone as God loves. 

a reflection on the readings for Proper 18A: Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20                         

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Can't "Normalize" the Call of the Spirit...

It always cracks me up when I tell people where I work, at a church on the corner of Military and Cherry Hill and they have to pause, before they remember that there is a church on this corner. Humans have a tendency of adjusting to people, places, and circumstances, not really noticing what’s around us.

Who knows why the burning bush in our reading from Exodus burned all the time and was never consumed? It’s one of those questions that religious people have pondered for ages. 

One midrash, suggests that the burning bush always burned and was never consumed because it was waiting for Moses to notice it. Perhaps Moses had 
walked past the burning bush for years. But Moses, being preoccupied with his work, his day, wasn’t looking, wasn’t paying attention, and simply missed it. Until one da,y when, for whatever reason, he saw it. 

It reminds me of Gerald May’s description of the spiritual path in his book, “Awakened Heart.” 

 He describes the spiritual journey as a process of:  
yielding and stretching, 
and responding. 

Moses finally pauses and  notices a burning bush. He’s startled, which opens him up, stretches him, and he discovers he is on holy ground. Responding to God within the fiery bush calls him to yield to the mystery of God’s presence and then to have the courage to follow God on a sacred journey. 

This reading encourages us to think about the spiritual awareness God asks of us. The burning bush reminds us that God waits for us, for as long as it takes, until we turn and take notice of God. 

Until our eyes are opened and our hearts awakened. 

So, of course this thought begs the question: 
In what ways are we walking by God, failing to see God’s presence in our lives or in the world around us?

With the Renaissance Strategy initiative we are looking at the ways we  are being called, to learn from others, to be stretched, to take notice, to see in a new way - reaching out beyond the walls of this church -
to meet people where they are, 
to have the courage 
to follow God
to reflect the image 
of God in the world.

In our Gospel reading Jesus is talking to the disciples about their ministry in the world and once again he will not be stymied by Peter’s efforts to stay safe and comfortable.Instead Jesus pushes all of them outside their comfort zone, he describes it as “taking up the Cross.” 

Note that Jesus doesn’t say “take up the cross”  nor does he say,“take up my cross” –  he says the disciples must “take up their cross.” 

To take up “one’s Cross” is what happens when one chooses to care for the marginalized and disenfranchised members of the world.

It’s what happens when we strive to follow our baptismal covenant to follow the mission of Jesus.

The mission that Jesus calls us on is:
to feed, 
to serve, 
to do justice, 
to respect the dignity of others.

To follow the mission of Jesus means to go out in the world and serve others.

So a man has a dream. An angel of God gives him a vision of the afterlife. 
First he is shown a great hall with a long banquet table filled with the most fabulous food imaginable. Each person sitting at the table is equipped with a three foot long spoon, but no matter how much they contort their arms, 
thrusting their elbows into their neighbors’ faces, their utensils are too long   to maneuver even a single morsel into their gaping mouths. They sit together in mutual misery.

“This,” says the angel, “is hell.” 

The angel then takes the man into another room and he sees an identical banquet table filled with the same delicious food and the same impossible silverware. Only here the people at the table are happy and content.

“This,” says the angel, “is heaven.”

Confused the man said, “What’s the difference?”

“In heaven,” said the angel pointing to a person as they lifted the long handled spoon and fed their neighbor across the table, “In heaven, they feed each other.” 
(Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch, “Remarkable Recovery”)

Taking up my cross, is like picking up that spoon. It can be a weight  that wears me down and starves me. Or it can be the means by which I feed 
and am fed. 

Taking up our cross is responding, becoming that sign,
the living body of Christ - 
noticing that beacon of light
yielding to God’s call
which can not be ignored,
and stretching 
outside of the walls of comfort,
responding to needs in the world.

God gives us the very sign we need, puts it right in front of us, and waits for us to notice its potential:
a building with lively ministries and beautiful land,
ministries of feeding kids with backpacks
and a pantry for hungry families:
a sacrament of  sharing holy food:
feeding people
in mind, body, and spirit.

Portions of this sermon were influenced by John Shea, “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” Volume One, Year A of the series, “The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers.”

reflection on the readings for Proper 17A: Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16:21-28 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

It's been awhile

I haven't posted on my blog in awhile. Lately, my blog posts seem to be limited to my Sunday sermons. I'd like to write more and about other topics, but sermons seem to be all I can produce. And, since the middle of July I've been on vacation, and then for the entire month of August I was facilitating sermon dialogues with the parish. This is the third year I have facilitated congregational dialogues during the sermon time for each of our three Sunday morning services. They are always a bit risky, will people be willing to be vulnerable and speak? What will they bring up? How much should I talk? We seemed to have hit our stride this year, with the congregation being more confident in speaking up and me being more adept at facilitating the conversation and keeping it going. The congregation brought up many good, insightful points, and really dug deep to listen and comment.

Now I am thick into preparations for launching the fall season and program year. One of my areas of focus is creating a Bible study on the Psalms. Each Tuesday we have a weekday Eucharist followed by a Bible study. Over the years we've study the parables in Luke and other Gospels, read the book of Revelation,  and read and discussed the book, Bible Women, All Their Words and Why They Matter. This year we read the book of Genesis and used Bill Moyer's book and accompanying DVD from his PBS series, "Genesis, A Living Conversation." It's been a terrific year of exploring these great stories.

This fall we'll start a new Bible study, delving into the Psalms. I am re-reading all my seminary books on the Psalms, Walter Bruggerman and others. It's curious to reread these books and experience how much more meaningful they are to me now, twenty years of preaching on the texts later, than they were when I first read them. Here is what I wrote for the September newsletter announcing this Bible study:

Tuesday Bible Study: praying, singing, learning from the Psalms

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, 
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, 
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. 
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, 
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Most Tuesday’s, following the 11am Eucharist, a group of women gather with Pastor Terri for a Bible study. We meet for about 35 minutes, from 11:40 until 12:15. Over the years we have studied the parables in the Gospel of Luke, we have read and reflected on the book “Bible Women: All their words and why they matter”, which is a book that discusses every word spoken by a woman in the Bible. This past year we read the book of Genesis along side Bill Moyer's 1990’s PBS series on Genesis. In this series Moyer's invited a large number of people, from artists to theologians, actors to professors, to read and discuss the main stories in the Genesis. The series is recorded, available on DVD and in a book titled, “Genesis: A Living Conversation.” These thirty-five minutes are formative and informative as we learn and grow, being shaped by the instruction of God revealed to us in this study time. It’s a collaborative time with opportunities for each person to comment, question, wonder, and draw conclusions about the meaning of the text as it applies to our lives today.

This year the Bible study group will read and reflect on the Psalms. The very first Psalm lays the foundation for what we will be pondering. The interpretation of Psalm 1 leaves much to be considered. For instance, the interpretation of the Hebrew word “Torah” as “law” reflects a bias of the interpreter to direct people toward the idea that if one follows a set of rules one will live a righteous life as God requires. But the word law is not the most helpful interpretation of Torah. A more accurate interpretation would be “instruction.” Likewise “righteous” is a term that points to rule following. In a more meaningful way it might be understood as “being open to following God’s instruction”.

Hear the psalm this way:

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, 
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the instruction of God, 
and on God’s instruction  they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, 
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. 
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 
nor sinners in the congregation of those who listen and follow God’s instruction
for God watches over the way of those who listen and follow God’s teachings, 
but the way of the wicked will perish.

The point of Psalm 1 is found in the center of the psalm: The righteous are “like tress planted by streams of water” - the righteous have a place to be grounded, take root, be nourished, and grow. The righteous “yield their fruit in its season…in all that they do, they prosper.”

The psalmist is not naive, but knew that the wicked appear to do very well for themselves. And the psalmist knew that obedience to a set of rules does not guarantee that one will be happy and satisfied in life. The righteous, those who follow God’s teachings, suffer. Psalms of lament and complaint are the dominant type in the Psalter and the wicked/foes/evil doers feature prominently. However, the psalmists repeatedly states that if the wicked can experience prosperity and a kind of peace, then the “prosperity” of the righteous must also contain a peace - but the kind of peace “not as the world gives.”

To be “happy”  or “prosper” from the central metaphor of Psalm 1 is to have a solid foundation, to have a place to stand. That foundation is to delight in and meditate upon torah, to be constantly open to God’s instruction. 

Delighting and or meditating on God’s instruction, God’s guidance for one’s life, means being open to God’s presence and the capacity to listen, trusting in God’s power to transform the most hopeless of situations. Psalm 1 encourages a deep dependence on God, an openness to God’s instruction, as one faces the wicked. This is similar to Paul’s call for “maturity.” Paul’s metaphor is the human body instead of a tree. For Paul maturity involved both fruitfulness/growth and a grounding that prevents one from being driven as if by the wind. (Ep. 4:11-16) - 

The fruits Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer by children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by poles trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But, speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way unto him who is the head, unto Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building up itself in love. 

Psalm 1 teaches us that meditating on God’s instruction is similar to what Paul means by reaching the measure of the full stature of Christ. Failing to be open to God’s instruction, to learning from others, to thinking that one can do it all one’s self, that one is all right by one’s self, is essentially wickedness as described by the Psalter and by Paul. 

We are living in a time when autonomy is our highest value and we strive to be self-reliant and self-made. Increasingly we are a people focused on individuality, on being self-fulfilled and self-actualized, on entitlement and opinions. Wanting or needing help is often interpreted as a sign of weakness. As a society we view it as a sign of maturity and emotional health when one can say, I am doing all right by myself. The Psalms help us understand why one of the most highly developed, healthiest, wealthiest an intellectually sophisticated countries in the world consistently fails to produce people who are “happy.” 

The condition of the church and of the culture of these times reinforces a need to recover the book of Psalms for what it can teach us. To embrace an openness and  develop the capacity to have a “teachable spirit” - open to God’s instruction. How do we hear God’s instruction? The stories of the Bible are one way. Learning from others, the leaders and teachers in our midst, is another. Just being willing to listen to another and be open to what they offer can afford opportunities for the Spirit to move and for God’s instruction to be heard. True, not every person necessarily brings or opens up the instruction of God. But there are learned, prayerful, skilled leaders in our midst who can and do, if we are open to hearing and learning. Thus, with the hope of creating the interior condition, of a willingness and openness to grow, may we move toward the full measure of the stature of Christ, toward a mature faith. May we be like trees planted near a river, with solid roots, leaves that do not wither, and fruit that nourishes souls.

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