Basel to Rome

Arrival in Rome tomorrow …parts of the office that jump out:

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, *
drops of dew and flakes of snow

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, *
O shining light and enfolding dark.

Romans 14:19

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 14:22

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve.

John 8:58-59

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer 

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your Name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those
who sin against us.

Save us from the time of trial,
and deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours,
now and for ever. Amen.

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Romans 15:13

Back to WNC

Getting ready to go back to the US after a very intense, yet very rewarding summer.  We’ve had much higher attendance this summer, got to spend 8 weeks with Cate Hendren (ministry intern from Davidson), and the refugee peace flag and jewelry collective is starting to take off. I am thankful for how God continues to bless us here at St. Paul’s.

It’s been 6 weeks since I’ve seen my daughter and I can’t wait to give her a big hug tomorrow.  Will spend time with family and friends, get to study two books (Love Wins by Rob Bell and Love Alone is Credible by Hans Urs Von Balthasar) with my seminary classmates, and hopefully have some alone time in the mountains to reflect.

Hooray!

For Christian Unity Week

I was invited to preach this sermon at the Centro Pro Unione this week.  The lecturer was Ladislas Orsy, a 91 year old professor at Georgetown who attended the second Vatican Council.  Orsy spoke about Dignitatis Humanae and what it has given to the church and the world.  It was an honor to be asked to preach, and an even greater one to share the moment with wonderful ecumenical colleagues in Rome.

Luke 24:13-35, Dignitatis Humanae

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

January 24, 2013

Centro Pro Unione, Piazza Navona

“If we had the right kind of eyes, the right ears, we would look at a person and we would see their divinity shining through.”

Desmond Tutu, the famous Archbishop of Cape Town, said those words at a church service a few years ago in which unity was the theme. Now 81 years old, Tutu is best remembered for his faith, and the groundbreaking work he did in South Africa because of it. Most of us are quite aware of the racial segregation that was part of the South African political and cultural landscape during the middle to latter part of the 20th century–the system known as apartheid.

Tutu not only led the economic boycott movement following the Soweto Uprising in 1976, which eventually paved the way for the fall of apartheid, but he then chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, which brought victims and perpetrators of crimes face to face in public hearings.

Deep pain and divisions surfaced in the hearings as both abuser and abused told the stories of their lives, sometimes in front of several of their peers. While that truth telling did not undo the violence which had been perpetrated, nor bring back the lost loved ones or innocence of a past age, it did help transition the nation into a new era.

And as an impressionable 2nd grader, I remember being totally in awe of the Archbishop who helped orchestrate that healing, with God’s help, of course.

I remember very few school assignments or projects from that stage of my life, but I will never forget the report I did on Bishop Tutu, as our class remembered and celebrated Black History month, nor the football-esque head I gave him, which was balanced precariously on his pencil-thin frame.

Mrs. Howell, my teacher, was so proud, namely because I had not produced yet another report on Michael Jackson (it was the year of Thriller after all!), or Magic Johnson, the famed Los Angeles Lakers basketball player. As large as those figures were in my childhood imagination, it was Tutu, and that work of reconciliation and truth-telling…the work of the gospel itself…which towered above them all.

Those of us gathered here today in Rome, in the year 2013 and in this week of Christian unity, are called to the work of reconciliation and truth telling as well. Indeed, we are called by Christ to engage in this work will all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.

While the stain of apartheid may not haunt us directly, we still have past hurts and scars that must be brought into the light of God’s grace, so that we may move into a deeper experience of the reconciled unity we share through our common savior.

That work happens on a conciliar level, no doubt, and it happens on a personal level, as we seek deeper understanding of each other, so that we might act and witness together in a an advancing secular age… and more fully engage Christ’s work of proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

Thank God for all of you who are devoted to this work, and for the great lengths to which you go, with God’s help, in the pursuit of unity. In the short time I have been here among you, I have witnessed sincere affection, rich dialogue, and a genuine desire to live into the one-ness we both know and are called to in Christ.

That oneness is Trinitarian in form: it is a unity borne of the fundamental relationships within the divine self… a unity that does not erase difference and diversity, but rather proclaims the full personhood of each of its members as essential to establishing relationship. One substance, three persons.  One body, many members. It is a unity that cannot be coerced, but rather, invited and accepted.

Like so many of the intangibles we strive for as human beings: faith, hope, love …truth.

No amount of coercion would have brought about healing and reconciliation in South Africa following apartheid.

But sharing the stories of pain and loss, linked the oppressor and oppressed together and revealed their shared need for reconciliation. In the best cases, the invitation to tell the truth to each other, and the hard work of staying at the table and accepting that invitation, helped them to see each other anew.

No longer as enemies, but as children of the same God.

No longer as strangers, but friends.

The third section of Dignitatis Humanae contains the following passage:

“Truth… is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.”

The Second Vatican Council recognized that truth, freedom and faith go hand in hand.

Jesus, though seemingly a stranger, walks with Cleopas and the unnamed other disciple on the road to Emmaus, and invites them to speak the truth they have discovered.

They too had a painful story to share, because their hopes in the Messiah had been apparently dashed. They tell the truth about this as they walk beside each other on the road. Jesus goes on to “assist them in the quest for truth,” by interpreting the scriptures to them, by “teaching and instructing” them.

And, as so well stated in Dignitatis Humanae, Jesus does not force them to accept that instruction, but offers it to them freely, respecting both the human dignity and the free will with which they, and we, are endowed by the Creator. In fact, it is Cleopas and the other disciple who come closest to coercion!  As Jesus begins to move on into the night, they “almost force him” to stay as he begins to go on (the Greek is parabiasanto meaning “to urge strongly”), but stop just short of it.

\I imagine they were impassioned for sure in their invitation since “their hearts were burning within them,” but stopped short of forcing Jesus to remain with them for a meal, out of respect. However, Jesus accepts their invitation, and is ultimately revealed to them as the resurrected Messiah for whom they hoped in the breaking of bread.

In this reading from Luke, we see Jesus establishing a pattern for future ministry and engagement, and we see his followers choosing to accept the pattern and put it into practice. Jesus invites them to speak their truth, they accept. Jesus instructs them about the scriptures, and they put his ministry of hospitality into action, which leads to the revelation that he was already among them the entire time they walked together.

Telling the truth leads to action and ultimately to the revelation of a unity that can never be broken, not even by the sting of death, because we are bound together in the very heart and womb of God.

It is a pattern that has been repeated through generations of the faithful bound by Christ, from Tertullian to Teresa, Theodore to Tillich, Thomas to Tutu. And it is a pattern that may yet guide us as we seek to more fully follow the one in whom our unity was won.

“If we had the right kind of eyes, the right ears, we would look at a person and we would see their divinity shining through.”

On this auspicious occasion, may God grant us shared vision and an even deeper desire and will to hear the truth through each other’s stories, and respect each other’s dignity.

May we reach forth our hands in love, as Christ did, and witness to the truth as one body, one substance—diverse, beautiful, and holy.

And may God be revealed, praised, and proclaimed among us fervently ‘til the end of the age.

Welcome Back Sunday and Christian Witness

I, like many Americans abroad, have been carefully watching the situation concerning the bombing of the consulate in Benghazi and the ensuing protests around other embassies throughout the Middle East.  Not only because we have several members of the diplomatic community that attend our church, but due to the presence of 150-200 predominantly Muslim men who come into our refugee center each weekday, requesting assistance as they stuggle as political refugees.

As a relatively well educated Western Christian, I have a hard time understanding how a video (it is little more than that from my view) can somehow be raised up as representative of my country’s views on Islam.  My gut says that it is more an excuse for violence than the cause, and I suspect that those who would prefer a world of violence to one of peace are using it to their advantage.  More than anything this exposes the shadow side of our global communication networks and the rapid dissemation of information, even mis-information.

I do not condone such portrayals of Muslims or Mohammed (nor such poor use of blue screen tech!), but at the end of the day, freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of what it means to me to be American and to be free.  Even when it is abhorrent to me, or when something is done in poor taste, there is something about suppressing speech, especially under the threat of violence, that smells like fear and totalitarianism to me.  How many times have Jews had to deal with assasinations on their character or their faith tradition?  How many practicioners of Earth religions have been persecuted for their faith and practices? And let’s not even mention Christians, who daily have hordes of assaults from all sides.  Each religion of any import has had to deal, at one time or another, with mischaracterization and those who fundamentally disagree with them about their understanding of the world.  Do I like when angry atheists talk about Jesus’ followers being idiots who follow a “zombie Jesus?”  No.  But, I believe that their freedom to say that should be protected.  Where I draw the line is when that free speech calls for violence on the others, or the objects of their hate.  At this point the speech ceases to be the expression of an opinion and moves into the realm of marching orders or incitement.  Protecting free speech is important, but protecting the lives of those who fall victim to hate and intolerance is even more important to me.  As an extreme example, even the KKK should be protected from violence against its members, as misguided and abhorrent as their message is to me.  But if they rely on violence rather than merely the non-violent expression of their views, then police action is needed.

I admit the lines between what consitutes hate speech and free speech are fine indeed.  I am no constitutional scholar, but just a man of faith with an opinion on these matters.  I tend to lean toward a postive presentation of my position, rather than choosing to denigrate others to make my point.  I am Christian, and Episcopalian to be more specific, and I have good reasons why if you would like to hear them.  But I see as a requirement of my following Christ, a certain worldview that includes even those I disagree with, even those who would make themselves my enemy, as fellow children of the God I proclaim.  My energies are spent working to increase understanding of that “shared” heritage, rather than in promoting unhelpful division.  I often fail at doing that fully; I often fall short of being the person I am called to be.  But I am convinced that the only way we move closer to the ideal is by walking forward, falling, getting back up, and walking again.  It is a shared work within community, and yet one which happens personally within the very fiber of our individual beings.  I pray that as I get older I will improve, that my resistance to the insults of my enemies will grow stronger, and that the gospel of love and grace that I have experienced and known in Jesus will be translated to those I meet in greater ways.

And I give thanks for the freedom of speech that allows me to say so!

I am printing here the sermon I gave yesterday at St. Paul’s as a further meditation on this issue in the context of our worship yesterday.  Blessings to you all,

+Austin

Mark 8:27-38

Proper 19 / Welcome Back Sunday

September 16, 2012

St. Paul’s Within the Walls

The Core of Christianity

It has been quite a week in the world.

This Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, new violence began to spread throughout the Middle East.

US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed in a rocket attack in Benghazi, Libya, and US embassies in several countries across the region were attacked by angry protestors.

It is hard to say what is the true root of the violence.  Many of the protestors have cited outrage over a third-rate film which depicts Mohammed and Muslims horribly, though the film is little more than a badly made home video.

Others suspect that the film is an excuse for violence and is being used to whip up fury by groups and organizations opposed to any Western involvement in the predominately Muslim region.

It is difficult to see where all this will lead, but as I’ve watched the situation unfold, read articles and comment streams, and I thought about how all this worldly violence and uncertainty affects those of us gathered here today, I found myself praying for a way out of such madness. And then I found I couldn’t help but weigh the words of our Gospel today with the angry words I read in those comments and the violence I saw in news clips.

I must admit that I had some reticence about even addressing the issue, noting that on the first of our two Welcome Back Sundays, in which we are celebrating and encouraging both new and old members to engage in ministry here at St. Paul’s, it may seem heavy to talk about international politics. I mean, look at this amazing physical space in which we worship!  Listen to our choir!

Just as we are surrounded by hardship and horror in the world, so are we also are surrounded by beauty and glory. It is indeed tempting for me to focus solely on the beautiful and leave the difficult for another time and another day.

However, if we are to be Christians… If we want to claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, then there is no running away from the consequences of God’s kingdom made known to us in Christ. To be Christian is to face the challenges of our day and age directly, relying on guidance from Scripture and Sacrament, reason and tradition, and above all following the lead of our Savior.

My friends, my brothers and sisters, I want to take this opportunity to reflect together on what I see as the core message of Christianity, that comes to us in this Gospel passage in Mark today.

That message is this: We Christians proclaim the reign of God in Jesus Christ, combatting fear and its effects with radical love, and follow Jesus in faith to the cross and beyond to resurrection and new life. This message informs how we respond to violence, to insults, and to a world of principalities and powers… a world of competing kingdoms and kings.

It is not an easy message, or a popular message, but it IS Christ’s message.

So let us turn our atte ntion to it.

The first part of Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus asking a question:  “Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus has been going about the land, healing, casting out demons, and feeding large amounts of people.  It only seems right that he’d be interested in what kind of effect this ministry was having on the masses.

The disciples, Jesus’ closest advisors respond:

“Well, Jesus, they are mentioning you among the greatest that we’ve ever known.  Some say John the Baptist–you know, your cousin? who was executed by Herod recently? –they think you may be a reincarnation of him.

“Others say Elijah, that greatest of the prophets during the time of the kings.  Our ancestors say he ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot and the people think you may be him, since you are doing God’s deeds of power as he once did.”

In hearing this exchange, I couldn’t help but think of how much we humans care about what others say about us, sometimes especially those who only know us from afar. In fact, despite of the complexities of the situation straining US and Middle Eastern relations this week, in some regard, part of the problem is that we humans are all too willing to believe and act upon what others “are saying” about us. Positive or negative, what others “out there” say about us, whether it be from abroad or from the virtual distance of cyberspace, is rarely the real story. The violence engulfing the embassies today seems to stem from this kind of incomplete information, whether it be gathered from anecdote or from an obscure but suddenly internationally “important” film.

Secondhand sources, whether offering uncritical praise or simply damaging, false gossip, give us but partial pictures of our identity. This is why Jesus follows up that first question with a question of greater import.

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

It is quite a different matter to ask this question of a friend, from a trusted source, from one who has seen you at both your best and worst moments and who can look you in the eye and tell you the truth.

Peter, of course, replies–“the Messiah,” God’s anointed or, in Greek, the Christ. Even though I imagine that this was more a hopeful anticipation than an assured statement on Peter’s part (more ‘The Messiah?’ than ‘The Messiah!’), it remains the foundation of our proclamation about who we Christians believe Jesus to be.

As we celebrate this first welcome back Sunday here at St. Paul’s, I want each of you to know that our proclamation about Jesus, who we say that he is, remains important in this day and age.

We are called to announce Jesus as the Christ, and as Episcopalians, doing so boldly is not always in our comfort zone. But we must confess Jesus as Lord even yet, though we may have a different understanding of what it means to do so than our brother and sister Christians in other denominations. Who do we say Jesus is really? Do we proclaim him to be the Christ to the best of our abilities?

We here at St. Paul’s strive to be a community in which this proclamation is supported, encouraged, and experienced.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I no longer call you slaves, but rather friends,” because as he says, friends know more than servants do about what is really going on with their fellow friends. Peter is first a friend of Jesus, and it is from this proximity and intimacy in which his proclamation comes forth.

The ministries and programs you will hear about in the garden later are just some of the ways in which we attempt to proclaim Christ’s messiah-ship in this city and the world, and to provide a structure for our friendship with each other, and with Christ, to grow.

But as I’m sure you must be thinking or feeling, saying the words alone is not the ultimate point of our proclamation.

We are people of meaning… searchers seeking to understand what it means to proclaim Jesus as Lord, and what consequence those words have on the way we live our lives, both individually and communally.

The second half of the Gospel today gives us a glimpse of the answer, although the answer is not an easy one.  We current followers have the benefit of knowing how the gospel ends, while Peter and the other disciples have to listen to Jesus’ words in the rest of the passage, words about “losing our lives to save them,” and trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter had perhaps envisioned a Messiah or Christ as a political savior, or a conquering king in the King David sense. Commentator Matt Skinner puts it this way, “By calling Jesus ‘the Christ,’ at this point in the story, Peter declares, ‘I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.’”

But Jesus turns that idea of Messiah on its head and asks us to embrace a counter-intuitive gospel.

When Jesus says, “”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” they aren’t just words.

We know that he is going to show us exactly what this means through his own trial, cross, and resurrection. It is no accident that from this point on in the gospel, Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem, where his words will become action, where promise will become actuality.

At times we forget just how radical the call to follow Jesus is. Following Jesus is, as my daughter mentioned this week, “like following the leader,” but the kingdom he proclaims is so unlike any other that we know in the world.

Other kingdoms tell us that our power is found in our associations and our wealth: who we know, which family we were born into, and what we have accumulated. Jesus asks us to “Deny ourselves and follow him” and he sends his disciples out with nothing extra so that they will not be defined by anything other than the proclamation of God’s kingdom and the love that binds them.

Other kings lead their followers into battle against their enemies, conquering their foes and showing the greatness of their culture and kingdom. Jesus exposes the violence of our earthly kingdoms as utterly meaningless by going to the cross, and asks his disciples to “turn the other cheek” rather than be swept away in the never-ending cycle of tit for tat, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.

He tells us to love our enemies and shows us what that means through his passion.

Jesus’ form of Christ-hood, is not easy or attractive by the world’s usual standards. But it is the road that leads to life if we have but the courage, the tenacity, and the communal strength to follow it to the end.

When I read the comment streams on those articles that had to do with the current political unrest, I read a lot of hateful speech. I read posts that called for the death of all Muslims, or the death of all Westerners, and in the midst of it, I heard the voice of Jesus beckoning us to proclaim a kingdom in which all God’s children could be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Not through assent to an emperor, but through the grace of another type of king.

I wonder how different our proclamation of Jesus’ lordship would be if we made sure our actions and our words were concentrated on following the example of Jesus in the way of the cross.

We certainly do not condone violence, nor do we accept the violence that issues forth from incomplete understandings of people, prophets, or proclamations.

We mourn for those who have died unjustly, and we mourn for the division that still exists in our world.

But the only way the world will be different is if we have to courage to follow Christ and live out the counter-intuitive logic of the cross in our own lives.

We may not be able to stop the misunderstandings, we may not be able to stop the elements that encourage hatred and violence, but we can respond as a community of Christians, and face the fire together.

And though following Christ inevitably leads us to the cross, though denying ourselves brings about a kind of death, we also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cross is not the end of the road, but just the beginning.

Resurrection, new life: these await us in the end, and are yet present to us as we follow Jesus in the way.

In the doing, in the following…the signs of the already, and not yet nature of the kingdom become evident to us. By proclaiming and being faithful followers, we help sow the seeds of the new creation in the midst of a world of death and discord.

As we embark upon this new year, I ask each of you to reinvest in following Jesus Christ as Lord.

I ask you to till the soil of your hearts and sow a seed of faith that we can help nurture together with God’s help. But I don’t want you to just say the words.

I want you to commit to following in the way of the cross, with this community as your support structure, as fellow pilgrims and friends in the journey. It is not an easy journey, but I can assure you, it is rewarding.

Pray about it this week.  If you need guidance talk to me, or another one of your fellow pilgrims upon the road.

I pray we will commit to doing what we can to build up the body, and to share the good news with each other, among friends who are close and enemies who may yet be far off. Let us discern together more fully what following Christ means and what the implications are for our daily lives. As your rector, I pledge to you that I will do my best to follow Jesus as well, and to make his saving reign known through my word and actions.

Will you pledge to follow Christ and to proclaim his reign through both word and example, even when the way is hard, the road seems hopeless, and the darkness of the cross looms in the distance?

Who do you say that Jesus is?

A violent, confused world is awaiting our response.

Romans & Edward Burne Jones

Today’s reading was the 5th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he describes his concept of the origin of sin, and the grace of God that brings justification through Christ.  Scholars much more versed than me in the intricacies of this argument have written volume upon volume about what this means, and how it works.  For my part, I could only think about the image that is captured in mosaic above our altar here at St. Paul’s, and how it participates in the discussion through its bold imagery.

Edward Burne Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who conceived this mosaic, particularly cherished this work.  In early sketches, he titled it “The Tree of Forgiveness,” but later on settled on the title, “The Tree of Life.”  Writing to a friend about it, he said, “It’s a mystical thing-Christ hanging with outspread arms but not crucified: the cross is turned into a big tree all over leaves, and the stems of the tree are gold” (from Judith Rice Millon’s, St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome: A Building History and Guide, 1870-2000).  For a church whose patron saint is St. Paul, in the city which bears the name of his most heady and hearty Epistle, this mosaic is an extraordinary gift.

Adam and Eve, dust and life (adam and havvah in the Hebrew) flank the tree in the midst of the garden of Eden.  Instead of the snake coiled around the tree, like in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction across the river, we see Christ himself, gesturing in blessing to a redeemed humanity.  The tree of forgiveness is really the tree of life, the axis mundi, and Paul’s vision in Romans 5 of the “free gift” humanity receives in Christ is realized in image.

My favorite aspect of this mosiac is that one only sees it during the liturgical service if coming forward for communion.  The arch that holds the Annunciation obscures it until you actually get close enough to receive that gift intimately in the bread and wine.

The text from our reading today in Romans 5:17 is,

“If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

I am an Episcopalian because I believe that our church is a good way to live into a life of blessing rather than cursing, of encouraging the world to receive this grace of God rather than imposing it unwillingly upon them.  The latin below this mosaic reads from John 16:33 “In the world you will have tribulation, but trust me for I have overcome the world.”  This is my daily struggle…to do what I can, with the gifts I have been given, but to finally rest in the grace and the security that the heavy lifting has already been done.  Life has triumphed, and our job as the church is to proclaim its dominion over death, live the grace of the gift out through ministry, and celebrate it fully.

May you be so blessed today my friends!

St. Paul in Pozzuoli or Puteoli

In our Bible Challenge readings, we have just finished the book of Acts.  The last two chapters talk about Paul making the grand journey from Jerusalem to Rome, and the shipwreck in Malta.  The last time I read the whole chapter was some years ago, but I was struck by where Paul landed before making the land journey to this city in which I now reside.  Paul and his companions landed at Puteoli, or as it is known today, Pozzuoli, on the north end of the Bay of Naples.

The last time I read this, I had no context in which to reflect on the landing point.  However, I have now been to Pozzuoli myself.  In fact, it served as our port of departure the Monday after Easter when I set out with Jill and Tia Kim to visit Ischia.  The city was much like any port city, but once we got onto the ferry and in the water, the views were unique and stunning.

Today after finishing chapter 28, I kept thinking about what St. Paul must have felt when seeing the shoreline of Pozzuoli.  He knew his final destination was still an overland trip away, but he also must have had an inclination that he might never set foot in a boat, or be tossed by the waves, again.  The water is so blue and majestic in the Bay…I can imagine him peering into the azure mirror and considering just how far he had come in such a short time.  From zealous persecutor to convicted evangelist…what a turnaround.

As we get ready to delve into his own words, the letters he wrote to the churches and communities he loved, prayed for, and sought to build up, I am hoping that we here in the church named after him might be open to such a radical conversion as he experienced.  I am praying that the deep waters, those that bore him finally to shore in Pozzuoli, and the waters of baptism which brought him from death to life might carry us along in this new season.

When Institutions Go Bad

The Rios family has rediscovered the Little House on the Prairie series.  Watching these episodes as an adult is certainly different from watching them as a child, but they are just right for Aja, and bring up several moral dilemmas that are worth discussing.  We just began season 4 after making our way through the last month+ of previous episodes.

Last night we watched the episode, Times of Change, where Pa gets invited to attend The Grange convention (in place of Walnut Grove’s sick rep) in Chicago, where John Jr. (the orphan poet who was adopted by the Edwards’, got a scholarship to attend college in Chicago, and is currently engaged to young Mary Ingalls) is working at a paper in town.  Illusions are about to be shattered, as the nice, telegraphing 70’s music lets us know (let the viewer understand:)!

Pa soon finds out that The Grange is no longer an organization of farmers, but a vipers nest of graft, controlled by the railroads who are sysymatically buying votes for their preferred legislation.  It becomes clear that the nice railroad car Pa and Mary shared from Walnut grove, and the suite they were given, which is triple the size of their farmhouse, is an attempt to get him to vote no on regulation measures.  Even worse, John Jr’s paper is in cahoots with the railroads to not publish “unseemly” material about back room deals and the “desperate women” (care of Simonetta Ciccolini:) that have been brought in to appease the male clientele and curry favor.

This macro commentary on institutions is the backdrop for the withering relationship between Mary and John Jr, as he has fallen prey to the double dealing of the big city, taking another girl to cotillion while still trying to go with Mary.  His scheme falls apart when Pa comes back from an impassioned speech at the convention and finds him kissing another girl.

So, we’ve been reading about the building of the tabernacle, ark of the covenant, table, etc. along with the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus today confronted the Pharaisees who were watching him to see whether he would break the sabbath rules by healing on the day, or obey their rules (ostensibly God’s rules) and do nothing.  Of course, he heals him and the text says, “He was grieved at their hardness of heart.”  How had the people who in Exodus had been lifted up from bondage under Pharaoh, who had witnessed the effects of a powerful monarch/institution “hardening his heart” to God’s cry of freedom, have come to represent the oppression from which they ran?

As a member of an insitution called the Episcopal church, I am aware of the challenges that come when people who have gathered together to do good in greater numbers, have to face the reality that some of their members will seek to exploit that good will.  Most people of my generation or younger have a healthy to neurotic fear of institutions, which many older generations cite as the reason more of us are not in church on Sundays.  It is not hard to understand why.  Governments break their promises to the governed after gaining votes, religious institutions at times seem awfully more interested in maintaining their own rules and structures rather than engaging the daily challenges of peoples’ lives, and it seems inevitable that the more we invest in growing an institution, the more we invest in division, disappointment and deception.  We have seen how corporations remain slaves to the stock market and investors, while playing Pharoah with national economies and regulations.  We have seen environmental degradation continue because politicians do not have the will to stop it, nor mass scale polluters the conscience to quit.  What are we to do?

Institutions are faceless.  They are amorphous conglomerates in which identity is subsumed into “the brand.”  The church has an institutional role to play, but perhaps, as Israel was called to be post-Exodus, and as Jesus called the disciples to be in Mark today, we are called to be first and foremost, a community. I’m sure that is obvious, and seemingly simplistic, but hey, “I’m just a dumb hillbilly from Asheville.”  When the church works, and I have seen it work, otherwise I wouldn’t proudly do what I do now, we can help remind the world just how powerful community action and values can be.  And those values can be shared across faith traditions and ethical traditions other than our own, while we still retain our Christ centeres reasons and motivations.

The hallmarks of community as I see them, are: mutual trust and respect, care for neighbor, truth-telling, and all under the banner of celebrating diverse yet shared experience/destiny.  I am convinced that this can only happen when people know each other on a deep level, because of shared hardship and joys. And it takes time and energy to cultivate, which in an instantaneous world is truly counter-cultural.  However, when we stop caring about our neighbor with a withered hand, or a slave stacking bricks for monuments to “Egypt’s” glory, or the plight of “dumb farmers” in our midst, then we have lost the reason for becoming an institution in the first place.  We have lost our sense of community.

May our churches be know as communities where these sorts of values reign, and  let our denomination/church institution be known as a community of such communities.  What can each of us do to build up the communites we serve and of which we are a part today?  May you have the strength and will to do so dear friend.

Faceless institutions without community conscience and values may be able to dominate the world, but they will never have the power to transform it, nor will they be able to win hearts and minds forever.  That is the promise of God.   Ask Pharaoh and Egypt, ask The Grange in Little House.

Or better yet, ask Pa!

Blood of the Covenant

For the last two days we Bible Challengers have been reading about the details of the appointments for the tent of meeting, altar, and priestly vessels and vestments post Exodus event (Exodus 25-30).  The details of how the walls of the tabernacle should be put together with gold and bronze clasps is interesting, albeit a bit less so than the narrative sections.  I have been wondering how many times people have tried to recreate this liturgical space in the past.

Of course, in reading the account of the last supper and crucifixion alongside this, it was hard for me avoid connecting the “sanctification” of the tabernacle/altar/garments through ram’s blood with Jesus’ words accompanying the communal cup.  Whether blood is “dashed on the side of the altar,” rubbed on the horns of the altar, or put on Aaron and his descendants’ right earlobes and toes, it is obvious that blood was very important to the ancient Israelite understanding of the sacred and covenant-making.  A stark difference between that understanding and Jesus’ words, of course, lies in whether the blood of others (in this case animals) makes something holy or dedicates it to God, or if it is our own blood that does so.  Granted, we could say that Jesus’ blood is special in this sense, and that it is not our blood but his (as the symbolic Lamb of God) which inaugurates the new covenant, and makes us and the world “holy.”  I don’t know how you feel about that, but I’m interested to hear.  Taking this specialness of Jesus’ blood too far has always concerned me (watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion for a taste of what I mean in terms of a grotesque fascination with Jesus’ actual blood), almost as much as animal sacrifice, as a way to please God and be in communion with the divine.

I have to admit that the more I read about the nature of worship in ancient Israel, the more distant I feel from it.  I read this with the knowledge that most of my friends–Jews, Christians and otherwise– probably feel similarly.  But it begs the question, how are we drawn today into a connection with the sacred…with the holy?  Where do we get so lifted out of the normalcy of our lives to experience awe and wonder in community?  The design of the tabernacle surely must have inspired this, and the blood of bulls and rams, along with smoking entrails and incense must have been awe-inducing indeed.  We seek to approach such awe in our liturgy today…with incense and even the body and blood of Christ in Holy communion.  What is the connection between awe and sacrifice here?

The implications that come from self-sacrifice (or alternatively from “other” sacrifice) are vastly different.  Several of my friends have posted on their Facebook pages the youtube clip of Pastor Worley from Maiden, NC talking about how LGBT’s (or as he says, the queers and homa-sex-yuhls) should be corraled in an electrified fenced-in area, and since they can’t reproduce, they will eventually die off.  I read the above mentioned parts of the Bible in conjunction with Worley’s idea (a prevalent one sadly) that “other” sacrifice will somehow make God happy and be efficacious…whether it be LGBT’s, undocumented immigrants who face deportation and the Minutemen, African-Americans facing Jim Crow legislation, the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, or countless groups who have been seen as “the others” and been targeted and “sacrificed” in thought, word or deed on the religious and cultural altars of history.  For me, the defining (and awe-some) aspect of Jesus conception of sacrifice is that it does not ask us to place others upon the altar, but invites us to offer ourselves instead, and when need be, face the knife of those who would sacrifice them as “other” together, in solidarity.  I think of the Muslims and Christians surrounding each other at protests in Nigeria, protecting each other from the violence they each fear will be perpetrated upon the other in the name of God.  What is more awesome than that?

Which makes it doubly frustrating to see those who claim to follow Christ, and his example, so easily offering others on the altar of sacrifice, almost without conscience, or worse, with a kind of perverted joy.  Loving enemies, especially ones who claim friendship with God like Pastor Worley and preach such ignorance and hatred, is a challenge indeed.

I hope and pray that God will teach me how to resist this form of other sacrifice, and give me the strength to see daily how the holiness I seek comes from giving over to God the only offering I truly have to give in this world.

Myself.

Plagues, Wages and Servanthood

Our reading today from Exodus (Chapters 7-9) had to do with the first plagues that God sends through Moses upon Egypt in an attempt to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go, so they can worship God freely in the wilderness.

 There are a lot of ways one could reflect on these plagues.  Like why can the Egyptians magicians duplicate them so easily?  Does God actually harden Pharaoh’s heart?  You get the idea.

I am most interested today in the connection between slaves of an empire, the laborers from Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20, and finally Jesus’ statement to the disciples, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”  I imagine you could get into some slippery territory if trying to apply Jesus’ statement in a forced way (rather than as a freely chosen orientation) .  It seems clear to me that God doesn’t approve of the slavery his people face in Egypt, a slavery that not only perverts their work lives, but affects their ability to worship.  However, we all know that generations not too far removed from our own have justified slavery through using the Bible.  What is a faithful reader to do?

Well, I can’t speak for you, but I will say that today I found a new connection among these readings.  When I read the story of the laborers who are hired at different parts of the day but paid the same wage by the landowner, I can not help but think of a scene that I first saw in Austin, Texas during seminary, and which was played out several other times as I worked with undocumented immigrants in North Carolina.  I saw Latinos, primarily Mexicans, standing on a corner in East Austin, clamoring into the back of pickup trucks that needed workers for the day.  Those that were slow, injured, or old weren’t always able to get into the back of the trucks, and were often left behind, unsure whether or not they would be able to make enough money in the day to provide dinner for their families.  Immigration issues aside, it was clear to me that instead of a parable about God’s unfairness (some worked longer hours and didn’t get paid more), this was a parable about God’s justice and generosity (all were assured of daily bread and no one was left behind).  I had visions of God coming by that corner in Austin with a truck that kept picking folks up until the corner was empty and everyone was in the vineyard together.

When I read it today, I heard a new connection between the wrongness of forced slavery (Exodus) which is upsetting enough that God interrupts the natural world order in an attempt to show Pharaoh how his decision to enslave is disrupting creation on a human level, and the rightness of work and freely elected servanthood.  In a time in which economies are crumbling, jobs are scarce, and slavery still exists, what do we Christians have to say about the nature of labor and servanthood that is faithful and hopeful?  There is a wide gulf between forced slavery and chosen servanthood, but often a fine line between work and slavery in  the contemporary economies. How do you proclaim the difference?

Things you just don’t read in church…

I forget about passages like Exodus 4:24-26 until I am forced to encounter them.  Thanks Bible Challenge!

After being told by God to go back to Egypt and announce the liberation of the Hebrews to a relutant Pharaoh (and the Hebrews themselves), Moses and his wife Zipporah get apparently assaulted by God on the road.  A very strange passage to say the least.  Why would the God who has just empowered Moses, seek to end his life?

I found this link that offers some textual and interpretive light on this little gem.  Check it out here:

http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/02-exodus/Text/Articles/Allen-Ex4-Bloody-BSac.pdf

For my own part, after reading this, I see this passage almost like Genesis 32:22-32 (Jacob wrestles at Peniel).  Is circumcision (the mark of the promise) what Moses has to wrestle with in this passage (whether it be for himself or for his son Gershom)?  Jacob asks for the name of God after wrestling, which Moses received in Exodus 3:14.  Is Moses now to receive God’s blessing through wrestling with this covenant requirement?

If you know of any other resources that might elucidate this passage please let me know!

While the theme of slavery/liberation rightly overshadows details like this episode in the book of Exodus, part of the joy of a daily practice like this is the opportunity to “wrestle” with the particulars.  Let’s just say that I am thankful our wrestling doesn’t require such blood sacrifices to determine the outcome!