Friday, July 17, 2015

Shore Leave, 2015

For the next couple of weeks Susy and I will be off to Massachusetts to enjoy a bit of beach time in the pleasant seaside town of Scituate

--which is Susy's ancestral home.

Many thanks to Deacon Jean Chess and Assistant Dean Byrom for attending to pastoral concerns (call the Church Office if you need to be in touch with either of them) while I'm away.

Susy and I will be slipping into a back pew at St. Luke's, Scituate, for the next two Sundays, where my friend Grant Barber has been rector for a number of years now . . . .

And in the meantime on Sundays, July 19th and 26th, the 10 a.m. St. Andrew's service will be led by a good friend . . . the Rev. Canon Cathy Brall, former Provost of Trinity Cathedral, downtown Pittsburgh, and now Canon Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

I of course will return rested and ready for action on Sunday, August 2!



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Seventh after Pentecost

Mark 6: 14-29

Good morning and grace and peace.  The reading from Mark familiar to us not simply from our Bible reading but also and perhaps more vividly from countless paintings and plays and cinematic representations.   The passage begins as King Herod begins to hear the buzz about Jesus--his preaching of the need of repentance and new life, his miracles of healing, casting out demons, announcing that the Kingdom is at hand,  gathering great, enthusiastic crowds.  

This is “Herod Antipas,” one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was the king we heard about back when the Wise Men from the East came searching for the newborn king.   It’s not clear that Herod Jr.  makes any connection, whether he might be recalling some story his father might have told him about his fears  when he first heard of the supposed birth in the Davidic City of Bethlehem of  a Jewish Messiah foretold in the ancient scriptures. 

But what he hears about Jesus does trigger another memory for Herod, and a then a powerful cascading of anxiety.  Just as Jesus was doing now, John the Baptist had some time ago rolled onto the scene with a passionate and compelling message.  Also gathering big crowds, which always worries tyrants and dictators.  Calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea to take their blinders off and to see just how far they and their political and religious and cultural leaders had wandered from the pathway of life that God had intended for them.  How bad things are both in how they are conducting their personal lives and in terms of the society around them.  Calling them to turn around before it was too late.  Before they would be swept up into the chaos of complete darkness and evil.   Revolutionary talk.

And at that John had with boldness pointed the finger not simply at some generic  class of leaders, but directly at the conduct and character of Herod himself.  He made it way personal.  Although Herod ruled this Jewish people he was not himself Jewish, descended from the line of Greek autocrats that had first shown up in the region with Alexander the Great--and Herod’s public manner of life was rife with harsh in-your-face  immorality, shocking and offensive certainly to the sensibilities of a Jewish community rooted in the moral culture of Scripture.  He was known and even seemingly proud and ostentatious about his greed and cruelty, his gluttony, his disregard for any ordered sense of sexual conduct or the dignity and sacred character of marriage.  

John made it all real personal, pointed the finger, denounced the unholy marriage of the king to the woman who had been his sister-in-law--and the consequence was inevitable.  Arrest, imprisonment, torture.  You just don’t mess with the king.  And it would have been automatically a death sentence, except—and this is so interesting--except that Mark seems to say to us here that somehow  in spite of everything John had managed to find a chink in the armor of the king.  His word had penetrated, touched a place of vulnerability.   Herod hated John for what he was saying, and yet he found it hard to turn away, to stop listening, because at some deep-down level, Herod found himself wrestling with his own conscience, some glimmer of recognition, the poignancy of conviction, with a sense gradually emerging that what John was saying  just might be true.  The Evil King wanted to turn away from John, turn to a different channel, but he just couldn’t.

I don’t know.  Maybe you’ve been there.  I have, that’s for sure.  A little Herod in all of us.  That moment when the people who seem to be against you suddenly seem to be the people who know you best.  Maybe even better than you know yourself.  Who see right through the fa├žade.  So Herod is torn, until this cinematic dinner party, music, feasting, drunken laughter, and behind the scenes the plotting of Herodias, the wife of the King, who is beginning to see that her husband is beginning to question his actions in regard to their marriage.  And then Salome’s seductive dance—the alluring highlight of all those C.B. DeMille movie scenes--and the rest is history.  The gruesome head on the platter, now haunting the dreams of the king as the days and weeks and months and years roll along.
And now: Jesus--and it all comes back at once, and the sudden crushing weight of the memory is such that Herod can hardly breathe.  As if the Baptist himself has returned from the dead.

The gospels share John the Baptist with us as a kind of anticipation and forerunner and even key and clue about Jesus.  All four gospels seem to say that for us really to understand the story of Jesus, the story of John the Baptist is essential.  Like Jesus, John’s birth was remarkable, foretold in scripture, announced by an angel.  Like Jesus, John had a work of proclamation about repentance, calling the people to a renewal of life in a restored right relationship to God, who was about to come among us in power with judgment and authority.  Like Jesus, John came into conflict with civil and religious authorities because of this proclamation.  Like Jesus, John was executed by those authorities.  Like Jesus, John had disciples who cared for him, even in death, and who took his body out from the place of execution and laid it in a tomb.  “A voice crying in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”

If we want to understand what God is about in Jesus, what God has done, Mark is telling us, we can let this story of John the Baptist settle in and teach us.  To show us first of all what it is that we’re up against.  Which is where this story of John’s execution brings us.  The Herods of this world.  What Paul in Romans 8 may be thinking of.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril or sword?  As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  What drove Herod the Great to the Massacre of the Children of Bethlehem—and what pushed his son in that moment of drunken vulnerability to order the execution of John.  This cosmic battle not “out there” but in here—inside, in the human heart.  In me, in you.  Serious business.

If we want to understand what God is about in Jesus.  If we want to understand what Jesus had in mind for us, for you and me, as he held us in his mind and in his heart at the Cross, we can let this story of John the Baptist settle in and teach us.  If we need to be taught.  About the cruel and dark and horrific inevitability of sin and the consequences of sin. The children of Bethlehem in all their innocence were helpless, without defense.  Even John in the strength of his spiritual power and proclamation of the truth fell before the power of wickedness.  On our own any of us might put up a good fight for a while, but the end is darkness.   If we don’t get that, we won’t every really understand why Jesus matters.  How desperately we need him.

As Martin Luther sang, “Did we in our own strength confide, that striving would be losing.  Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.”  John cries in the Wilderness, and the pathway is opened.  “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”    “He is on his way!” John announces.  And then as promised, Jesus arrives with power, Cross and Resurrection.  Again Romans 8, which I keep connecting to as I read this story:  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor thing things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Herod may be strong,  but there is one who is stronger still.  The forces of Evil are great, but their end is certain.

The John the Baptist story seems to be one that is about defeat, the good falling before the bad, the worst of our humanity triumphant over the best that humanity can offer.  A story that may be one we sometimes believe even about ourselves.  That we are powerless and doomed to defeat and darkness.  But then we would see that the story of John pushes us on further.  Forcing us to look straight on into the darkness, and then through the darkness to what God has done and is doing.

I’m reminded  of what is as you might remember one of my favorite films.  

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns there is a scene at the beginning.  Superman has returned to Metropolis after many years on some kind of unspecified task far away, I can’t remember the details.  A sabbatical.  And he discovers that in his absence things seem to have changed.  At one time he was cheered as a hero, but now he seems to be regarded more as a problem, a disruption.  He wants to be involved, but he is turned away again and again by people who feel like they no longer need the kind of help he can offer.  Even his old flame Lois Lane has moved on.  A new job, a new boyfriend.  A boyfriend that Superman has real concerns about.  Not that Lois will listen to what he has to say.  She has this amazing conversation with the Man of Steel.  “You seem to think it’s your job to save the world,” she tells him.  “But the fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”

The fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior.  

Well—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Lois has spoken a bit too soon.  Lex Luthor and his evil gang are even as Lois is speaking at work to bring on chaos and destruction, with a full dose of Kryptonite, and things are about to go very bad indeed. 

That’s what Mark’s gospel has for us this morning.  To say, to remind us, that if we think we don’t need a savior, that Jesus is optional, then we’d better think again.  Because the reality is that in our world and in our lives, without that savior, it’s going to be all Herod, all the time.

Thanks be to God, that’s not how the story ends.  And for us to remember that as we open the newspaper and as we look into the mirror and into our own heart.  Not how the story ends.  No matter how deep the darkness the lights come on at last in the singing of the old Easter hymn.  “Death is conquered we are free, Christ has won the victory.”

Sixth after Pentecost, July 5, 2015

Our preacher this morning was our Parish Deacon, the Ven. Jean D. Chess.

2 Samuel  5:1-5,9-10
2 Corinthians  12:2-10
Psalm 48
Mark 6: 1-13

"He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two"

It's been awhile since you started following him.  Although some of the details of that day when you first encountered Him along the shores of the Sea of Galilee have faded - other parts of that encounter are as vivid as the moment they happened - and that is what keeps you going.  

It's why you're here this morning, actually, still following him.  Because somewhere, deep inside, His words and the example of His life and His faith and just His presence have struck an ancient chord deep inside you and you just can't walk away.  You see other people in the crowd today, listening to His teaching, and you know that they've been touched as well.

This Jesus, he's a man on a journey and you want, actually you need, to be part of it.   It gives you hope.  And we human beings, we are creatures of hope - we need hope as much as we need air to breath, water to drink, and food to eat.  This Jesus, and his followers, well they - we - are bearers of hope.

The book "Hope as Old as Fire" is a series of short daily meditations written by Steven Charleston who is the former Bishop of Alaska and a member of the Chocktaw nation.  I had a chance to hear Bishop Charleston speak to a conference of deacons several years ago and have found him to be a compelling and unique voice in our wider community.

In reading his book, alongside our summer book 'Always we begin again' and reflecting on the idea of journey and the journey of Jesus and his disciples in Mark's Gospel... I was particularly struck by this meditation...

One more day. God gives me one more day. With each sunrise I see, God gives me one more day to make right what is wrong, to open what is closed, to find what is lost, to be what I long to become.  I can work miracles today.  I can change the course of history with a word. In these few hours I have the chance to shape time itself into timeless love.  One more day. That's all I need to live one day as if it were eternity.

On this day, the disciples are gathered with the crowds who are listening to Jesus teach in the villages outside Nazareth.   As they listen to Him, all of a sudden they hear him call them by name to come forward and before they know it, Jesus is sending them out to teach, to heal, to love and to bring a word of hope to all those they encounter on this day.  Stop, Listen - do you hear him call your name?  Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Fifth after Pentecost, June 28

While the rector was in Salt Lake City for the General Convention our Priest Associate the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright had the pulpit . . . .  Text 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17-27

Jonathan and David

The Old Testament reading we heard this morning provides an example of what Jesus is talking about when He says love one another. David’s expression of grief at the death of his closest friend Jonathan and Jonathan’s father, Saul, arises from a relationship that I’d suggest is perhaps the best example in all of Scripture of Jesus’s point.

The key expression of David’s grief is found in vv 25 and 26: Jonathan lies slain… I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. Before I can say anything else about the love David and Jonathan had for each other, I need to say something about this verse, since some very bizarre explanations of it are occasionally made. What can trip us up here is translation; the Hebrew has been translated by the word ‘wonderful’ since the 16th century, so modern translators tend to go on using it, even though that English word has changed its meaning, at least in conversational use, over those five centuries. The word ‘wonderful’ actually doesn’t mean ‘very pleasant indeed’ or ‘really exciting’ or any of the things we use it for in casual speech; it means ‘surprising, unexpected’, something that makes you wonder. The Hebrew word it’s translating can even mean ‘difficult to understand’. ‘Astonishing’ would be a better translation today, I think. And Jonathan’s love for David was astonishing because, the verse goes on, it surpassed the love of women, at least the love women had for their husbands, although perhaps not the love that women had and have for their children. We’ll see how that is the case in a moment, but I just want it to be clear from the start that the verse is not saying that Jonathan’s love for David was astonishing because it was deeper or better than the love that David’s wife had for him or that Jonathan had for his own wife. Jonathan’s love for David was greater than his love for his own father, as well as greater than his love for his own life, and that’s how it surpassed the love of women.

 In David and Jonathan’s day, the love of a woman for a husband took second place to her love for her father. If a woman began to feel love for a man and to think of marrying him, she asked her father about him. If the father said “No, that’s not the man you should marry,” the woman accepted that judgement and began to work at getting over her feelings for the man. And it was not the father’s patriarchal bullying but the daughter’s great love for and trust in her father that made that possible. Jonathan loved David even more than he loved his own father, and was ready to disobey his father for David’s sake; that was what David described as wonderful, in the original sense of the word.

Jonathan’s love of David is an illustration of Christian love from the first moment it is mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus taught that the Old Testament verse, Leviticus 19.18, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, was one of the key verses in God’s word, and illustrated it with the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about how to love someone as you love yourself, it’s about who is your neighbor. If you want an illustration of someone loving someone as he loves himself, you turn to Jonathan. His love for David is first mentioned in I Sam 18.1: the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. The phrase as his own soul is repeated, twice, just to make sure we don’t miss it. It’s repeated almost immediately, in 18.3, and then again in 20.17, by which time Jonathan’s father hates David and is trying to kill him, but Jonathan assures David that this makes no difference to Jonathan’s commitment; he still love[s] him as his own soul. Jonathan’s love for David is the perfect example of the love Jesus commends to His followers.

When you look at the context, Jonathan’s love for David becomes even more astonishing. Because Jonathan was the son of King Saul, and therefore heir to the throne of Israel. You’ll remember, however, that Saul disobeyed God, and God told the prophet Samuel that Saul would not stay king for long after that, and that Saul’s descendants would not sit on the throne of Israel, and Samuel told this to Saul, and then anointed David as the next king, even though it would be a few more years before Saul’s kingship would come to an end. We’re not actually told that Jonathan knew this, but it seems likely, because after Jonathan made a covenant or alliance with David, David becomes one of Saul’s captains, and Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow, 18.4. To give David his armor and his weapons is a symbol of his acceptance of David’s leadership in battle, and perhaps even of his kingship, although David never became Jonathan’s king. But there is no trace in Jonathan of resentment because he is not to inherit the throne, only love for the one to whom God had given it, truly a love that in worldly terms is astonishing.

The covenant between them was Jonathan’s initiative. It wasn’t something that David sought, but something that Jonathan could see was God’s will. Jonathan was a few years older and wiser than David, and he could see that God had a special purpose for David, and he was going to set his own interests aside in order that God’s will would be done. He became an older brother to David after David’s own older brothers had become jealous of him. As time went on Jonathan protected David from the anger of his father, and warned David when his father was about to seize him so that David could escape. He was of course risking his own life in doing so; ancient kings and even so-called Christian kings like Constantine were not above putting their own sons to death if they looked a bit too eager to become king in their turn. 

And the implication of Jonathan’s love for David being greater than his love for his own soul is that he is ready to die for David if necessary, and that is also the implication of 20.14f, should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to [me], and more also, if I do not disclose it to you, and send you away, that you may go in safety… If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord. Jonathan’s death in battle was not a sacrifice of his life for David’s sake—David was still in a sort of exile at this point—but many people have seen Jonathan as a foreshadowing of Christ simply because of his willingness to risk death for David’s sake. And Jonathan’s love for David is certainly a fore-shadowing of Christ’s love for us; notice that Jonathan calls it the loyal love of the Lord.

Which is no doubt why the Old Testament text makes it clear that it is divine power that makes such love possible. When Jonathan says goodbye as David makes his escape, he tells David Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever’. The Lord shall be between us. It is God’s love that is between them, that binds them together. We all know from our own experience that love like this is not possible unless the spirit of the Lord is at work. Jonathan began to love David as soon as it was clear that the Lord had chosen David. It was because Jonathan put God above his own family that he could love David in the face of the opposition of his own father. He is a good illustration of Jesus’s words, Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… He who loves his own father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

Jesus said, Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jonathan’s love for David is the shining example of the kind of love Jesus was talking about. It’s not theoretical love we are to have for one another, but the real thing, the kind of love which enables us to make sacrifices. Jonathan’s love for David meant sacrificing any hope he may have had of being king one day—but he did so gladly. Jonathan loved his father’s enemy against the wishes of his earthly father in order to be a good son of his father in heaven. And in his obedience to God he found that his enemy was his godly friend.

David had this kind of love, too. It would be easy to dismiss David’s love for Jonathan as pure self-interest—by making his enemy’s son his friend he undermines his enemy. But David didn’t only love Jonathan, he loved Saul, too. David’s cry of grief in today’s reading is for Saul as well as Jonathan: Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and gracious, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul. David loved Saul even though Saul was his enemy, and David had behaved towards Saul in love, refusing to kill him when he had the perfect opportunity, even though Saul had behaved towards him with such hatred.

David and Jonathan are great examples of Christian love, but I’m not suggesting that we follow their example in that, because it would be impossible. I’m suggesting that we follow their example in loving God, because it was their love for God that made their love for each other, and David’s love for Saul, possible. We can’t love one another in our own power, but we can do it in God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit. When we look around at each other we see fallible people, people making many mistakes, and sometimes we see people who don’t treat us the way we think they should. So when Jesus tells us to love them, we pretend we don’t hear Him. It’s only when we look at Jesus’s love for us that we can love the way Jesus calls us to.

And it’s only through a deepening love for Jesus Himself that our relationship with Him grows to the point that love for our fellow-Christians becomes possible. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, John 15.10. You are my friends if you do what I command you, 15.14. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, 15.15. We begin by obeying him out of duty, we grow by obeying Him out of love. May we all be helped to grow in that by the words of the Scripture we have heard today.