making meaning – a view from the mountaintop

epiphany-1-22-17 the text of the sermon, based on Matthew 17.1-9 and 2 Peter 1.16-21, that I had prepared to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017.

However, as happens on occasion, in the moment, something else occurred, truly, stirred within me, leading me to preach a similar, though extemporaneous, thus, unscripted message. As the words that came to me were not recorded, with apologies to my dear readers, the following sermon text is all I have to share!

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Living requires, demands the art of making meaning. In every encounter, every experience, moment by moment, we add to our ever-increasing trove of memories, our constantly-evolving personal histories. With our physical senses, we hear, see, smell, taste, and touch and with our intuitions, perceive above and beneath, around and through all things; our observations taking shape in our opinions, our perceptions in our points of view. All of it giving shape to our sense of what is real and true.

We always, often unconsciously, are making meaning. Without this constant labor of life (of love!) our existence may seem to be, and perhaps can be nothing else than a random series of unrelated events; the only connection being that we are the ones living through them.

Now, I confess that most of the time when I reflect on my experience the meaning I make tends to validate the worldview I already have conceived and constructed. True, in every moment I can’t afford absentmindedly or, worse, apathetically to abandon my standpoint. In order to continue to be and to become someone, I must stand somewhere; not everywhere. The problem, the danger is that sometimes my perspective can harden, holding, locking me in place, blinding me to new discoveries, constraining me from considering contrary viewpoints. That is, until I am stirred, shaken out of the comfortability, the complacency of my outlook by something so astoundingly “other” I can’t ignore it. Something so unreal that it demands I try to make sense of it.

Jesus, at a crucial moment in his ministry, asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”[1] Peter answered, “The Messiah.”[2] I suspect Peter spoke out of his understanding of who the Messiah was, God’s anointed one, and his understanding of what the Messiah would do, save Israel from Roman oppression and restore the nation to the prominence of the time of King David.

Jesus had another destiny. He would not spare the people from suffering. Rather through his suffering he would show another way to live. In God’s Name, confronting the secular and religious powers and principalities, he would die, and then, be raised from death, demonstrating that abundant, eternal life with God is real and true and to be shared with all. Would his disciples, expecting, wanting another kind of Messiah, a-this-world-liberating-from-all-suffering-saving-Messiah continue to follow him? If not, what would it take to convince them?

This coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent, when we, with Jesus, will begin again his journey to Jerusalem where he, facing the cross of his crucifixion, demonstrates this new way of life of surrender and sacrifice for a cause greater than self. Will we continue to follow him? If not, what would it take to convince us?

the-transfiguration-la-transfiguration-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Today, this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we read of a great revelation. A wholly, completely, and holy, “other” moment when the boundaries between time and space, heaven and earth, temporality and eternity dissolve. When a triple confirmation of Jesus’ identity is given. He glows in effulgent – radiated, not reflected glory. Moses and Elijah, the chief representatives of the Law and the prophets, appear as witnesses to the truth of Jesus. The vox Deus speaks. In this astonishing and terrifying moment, all questions resolve. The disciples are called, wrenched out of the comfort of their commonly held convictions. They behold and believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Basking in the brilliant light of that revelation, they want to remain. But, no! They who follow Jesus must come down from the mountain.

Jesus commands they tell no one. Perhaps in fear they would be considered mad, babbling nonsense or, more truly, in the awareness that there are times when words fail. How does one, how can one describe the ineffable? Later, Peter tried, remembering and reflecting on his experience of being “eyewitnesses of (Jesus’) majesty”…(and hearing) this voice (of God) come from heaven, while we were with (Jesus) on the holy mountain.”

Coming down the mountain, Jesus continues to show his disciples his new way. They are met by a crowd. A man kneels before Jesus begging for the healing of his epileptic son. Jesus cures the boy.[3]

the-possessed-boy-at-the-foot-of-mount-tabor-le-possede-au-pied-du-thabor-1886-1896-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

The meaning of the mountaintop, where on a clear day, we can see forever, is clear. The transfiguration of Jesus is to be encountered and experienced by all. And the disciples of Jesus, then and now, thus we, with the words of our lips and the works of our lives, are to share with all this transfiguring revelation – that abundant, eternal life with God is real and true. Let us, we who behold and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, follow him and do that.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

The Transfiguration (La transfiguration) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

The possessed boy at the foot of Mount Tabor (Le possédé au pied du Thabor) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 16.15, my emphases

[2] Matthew 16.16

[3] See Matthew 17.14-18

the penance of penitence

thinking

I closed my most recent blog post (February 21, 2017: to bear or not to bear) with these words – Lent is my life…My life is Lent – by which I meant that the penitential character of this annual pre-Easter season resounds within my soul, boring down to the core of my viscera. Since then, I’ve been given, called by some inner urging to ponder why. Today, reflecting on some aspects of my life that I believe I have known and some new insights, which arose as I pushed, punished myself through at least one sleepless night to discern something, anything new, I write…

I was raised in a household encompassed about by the expanse and limitations of American history (true, of course, for any person or family, though each and all, by necessity, I think, need define the nature and range of each)…

lolita-william-c-1940

My father, William John Abernathy, discouraged by a society and his family, each and both constrained by racism, to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematician (as he was possessed of a highly analytical mind), for the sake of providing for his family, settled for being a postal clerk. Moreover, his father, my paternal grandfather, Pedro Silva, was Cuban; that identification, evidenced outwardly in my father’s dark complexion and straight black hair added to his exclusion from circles white and black. My father lived a frustrated, melancholy, and angry life; his essential and volatile ire fueled by his alcoholism (also a symptom of his essential ire). He also was a deeply religious man, given to daily Bible study and prayer (his pietism and alcoholism being, for me, two contrary dimensions of existence that were difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, as a child, to comprehend; though, as an adult, I can conceive and, in my own life, perceive a similar discomfiting coalescence of contradictory elements of human ontology)…

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts, raised in an austere Baptist household, a schoolteacher by vocation and by avocation, under the strict tutelage of her mother, my grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, always to be a saint-on-earth-in-training, was, in her quiet and reserved, but no less demonstrative way, a puritanical disciplinarian.

To these two folk, I was born. Each, in his and her abiding care and near constant reminders that I be upright in my behavior, my doing (though, in my view, much less, indeed, seemingly little concerned for who  I was, my being) held for me a certain awe, in reverence and in fear.

My father, raised a Methodist, and my mother, believing the adage that “a family that prays together stays together”, determined that the Episcopal Church, with its ordered liturgy built on a biblical foundation, was a fair, middle-way compromise.[1] All Saints’, St. Louis, was our parish home; during my youth, a vibrant community and the largest African American Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River. There, I was tutored in The Book of Common Prayer 1928, through which I was steeped in the annual custom of a 70-not-40-day Lenten season beginning not on Ash Wednesday, but including the three prior Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima,[2] by which, my parents having instilled in me that I was defined by my good-doing (which never would amount to enough that I might become good), I found an oddly discomfiting solace, indeed, likeness. Penitence was my life. My life was penitence.

soren-aabye-kierkegaard-unfinished-sketch-by-his-cousin-niels-christian-kierkegaard-c-1840

As I reflect, long possessed of (by!) a brooding spirit, it is little surprise to me that I, seeking to see and to know myself as a self, gravitated toward the discipline of existentialism with its central concern for the meaning of existence and its core questions of identity (Who am I?) and destiny (Where am I going?). It surprises me less that, in my ongoing pilgrimage toward my understanding of life and myself, one of my chosen companions, verily, champions is Søren Kierkegaard;[3] philosopher, poet, theologian, considered the Father of Existentialism (and, along with Hamlet, a melancholy Dane!) whose life’s vocation was his apprehension of individual truth and whose life’s journey was that of always becoming a Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus through the story of his life and ministry, death and resurrection. A story made my own, revealed to me and incarnate in me through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A story I daily strive and fail to live fully, for which I am grateful for the grace of the correction and the consolation of penitence.

 

Illustration: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, unfinished sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840

Footnotes:

[1] Earlier and during my parent’s era, The Episcopal Church, historically the church of many of America’s “founding fathers”, also for some middle class (both aspiring and having arrived) black folk was “a destination church” (long before that term became popular to describe a religious community’s raison d’être to fill a particular cultural/societal or theological/liturgical niche).

[2] Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, derived from the Latin meaning “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”, respectively, were the names given to the Sundays coming seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter Day. Because of this, for most, esoteric knowledge, I recall handily winning an elementary school Spelling Bee when the final word was Quinquagesima!

[3] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

to bear or not to bear?

Lent. The Christian 40-day season of preparation for Easter. It’s chief character and call, penitential self-reflection and spiritual renewal. A primary image, wilderness.

jesus-tempted-in-the-wilderness-jesus-tente-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Jesus, after his baptism, was thrust by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan[1] (or, interpreted existentially, to wrestle with his own inner tensions between sharing power with others or seeking it for himself, sacrificing himself for others or seeking to serve himself).

Following Jesus, Lent, then, is an annual opportunity to reenter the inner desert of one’s soul, where, in its stark barrenness, one may see again one’s self clearly so to emerge with a renewed sense of self and of life’s purpose.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, this year falls on March 1. However, I feel as though I’ve been in my personal Lenten season for quite a while. It’s been and continues to be a time of intense wrestling with myself in thought and feeling, intent and action…

Some of it in relation to externals. A big part being the current roiling temperament of support-and-resist-Trump people and parties[2] and what I perceive as the resultant sorrowful broken relationships among families and friends, associates and acquaintances and the seeming woeful incapacity of folk on all sides to speak with clarity, listen with charity, and reason fairly with those with whom they disagree and the dreadful rise in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist hate crimes and civil rights violations…

Most of my wrestling, however, is with me…

Some years ago, at a weekend retreat focusing on team building and personal self-awareness, participants were invited to take part in a small-group activity, The Animal Game. The scenario: You are in a group of different animals gathering at a watering hole. You watch the other animals, their appearance, their manner. The task: Name and describe the animal you perceive each person to be.[3]

Of all the descriptions of me, I remember only one. It was spot-on in accuracy. A member of my group said, “Paul, you are a circus bear.” Surprised and uncertain as to the meaning, I could feel my eyebrows rise above my hairline. He continued, “You are bright and glib, attractive and entertaining, and inviting. People want to draw near to you, but they need to remember you have claws. If they get too close, you’ll swat them.”

graffitie-put-on-your-happy-face-the-boyds-collection

How true. Then and now…

In public, I tend to wear a wide-eyed, brightly smiling countenance of accessibility and availability to others. This persona is true. For as long as I have strength, verily, breath, I am a Christian minister who has pledged his life and labor in the service to, for, and with others. Nevertheless, those who know me well have beheld my private self (veiled in the still powerful, in some measure, not so healthy elements of my familial formative years). The alway self-questioning Paul who wonders whether I am loved, respected, and valued as a person and who often enough worries that I am not (that I cannot be!), and who, therefore, is cautious of being too well known, for those drawing near will see and dislike who I fear (believe?) is the “real” unlovable, unrespectable, and unvalued me.

All this comes up for me, for recently I lashed out, “swatted” some friends for failing, as I viewed it, to give me the care I desired. In this instance, as oft is the case (because of which Pontheolla always advises me to wait and to think through what I’m feeling before I react, for almost always, I, intemperately, don’t pause and give loud air to my hurt!), my friends, given their über-busy lives with myriad stresses and strains, hadn’t had a chance to respond. In this and all other instances when this pattern prevails, I am thrown back on myself to ponder anew my faulty inner psycho-wiring, to reexamine my flawed internal emotional workings.

To bear or not to bear the bear within? My internal, eternal question. Suffice it to say, Lent, for me, is no annual 40-day interval, but rather a lifelong sojourn in the wilderness of my soul…

Lent is my life…

My life is Lent.

 

Illustration: Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Photograph: Graffitie…Put on your happy face, The Bearstone Collection®; a collectible, capturing well my circus bear persona, I purchased some years ago

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.1-11

[2] Though, on this score, I believe that for some time this American political distemper has been brewing, then boiling, now bubbling over in the election of Donald Trump. For as a student of history, I also believe that nothing, whether predictable or unprecedented, happens in the course of the proverbial “overnight”, but rather always is years in the making. Thus, I further believe, those who could not anticipate, even conceive of Mr. Trump’s election were not giving due attention to the growing seeds of conservative and disestablishment discontent in our national political soil.

[3] An underlying socio-psycho-political aspect of this “game” involved the self-question: Will I choose to be (will I risk being!) transparently honest in my assessments of others or will I, if, when my judgments may be deemed (heard) as harsh, not wanting to cause dismay to others or fearing the reprisals of others, choose to speak less candidly?

Jesus, are you crazy (or are we)?!

me-preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 5.38-48, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017

Crowds “from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,”[1] hearing about Jesus and his healing power and wanting more, followed him, gathering around him. So vast a multitude, Jesus, in order to be seen and heard, ascended a hill, and began to teach.

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

Over the last three Sundays, we have read portions of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount.[2] We have heard his surprising pronouncements of blessing on the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted – the marginalized folk on the fringes of society.[3] We have heard his stirring encouragements to those blessed folk to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; through their lives and labors seasoning, preserving the earth and dispelling the world’s darkness.[4] We have heard his stunning declarations, truly, his radical reiterations of God’s commandments, “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times…but I say to you…”[5]

Today, Jesus continues his examination, his illumination of God’s commandments, truly his description of the nature of life in God’s kingdom. He speaks of lex talionis, the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” At inception, this law was intended to be an act of justice as fairness, justice meted out measure-for-measure to assure that the punishment for an offense was neither arbitrary nor more severe than the crime.[6] Nevertheless, Jesus gives his followers an alternative to doing unto others as they have had done unto them (which, in this case, when followed to its logical conclusion would render everyone blind and toothless![7]). His followers are to face and overcome evil with good.[8]

Sometimes I wonder why anyone, once listening to Jesus, his miraculous healing power aside, would continue to follow him. For most of the people who gathered around Jesus were society’s least, last, and left out. They possessed little to nothing of material or political capital. Therefore, daily entangled in poverty’s snare, they were most susceptible to the disruptive change of life’s fickle chance and circumstance and most defenseless against the cruelties of an oppressive Roman Empire. Therefore, Jesus’ counsel not to fight as evil fights, but rather to turn the other cheek, to love the enemy, to pray for the persecutor, so to be perfect as God is perfect, indeed, to perfect, to fulfill the intent of God’s law, truly God’s very nature, I imagine must have sounded crazy!

Still does! For the world hasn’t changed. Power still takes shape in vast armies and stockpiles of deadly weaponry, mounds of money and expansive empire, relationships with those in control, connections with those in the know, and the threat of violence and the use of force.

And that’s the point. The world into which Jesus came was the same as it is today and ever shall be. And this world, our world is the same as that world, his world that responded to him and his message that truest power is the sacrifice of love by killing him.

And that’s the paradox. Jesus, in his life and ministry, confronted the world with his kingdom-challenge, his kingdom-bet that God, God’s life, God’s nature, God’s kingdom of unconditional, universal love was, is the greatest power of all time and the greatest power before time and the greatest power beyond time. And the world (and this point, I believe, is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even more, I daresay, at the foundation of all divine revelation), thinking itself wise, demonstrated its foolishness, taking Jesus up on his challenge, his bet by murdering him, thus proving itself wrong and him right. For the world in murdering Jesus convicted itself for always doing what it first and last, ever and always does: Kill…

But nothing kills love. Love always lives. Lives in Jesus. Lives in his message. Lives in all, in us who believe and follow him. Lives whenever our anger leads to reconciliation, not retribution. Lives whenever we retaliate against an enemy with love, not hatred, with the compassion of understanding and not the violence of indifference, even and especially when we do not and cannot agree.

And when, not if we struggle to believe and follow Jesus, verily, when we think Jesus is crazy or…and that we’re crazy to believe and follow him, then let us pray in the words of our Collect: “O Lord…Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love…”[9] For it is only the abiding presence and the abundant power of the Holy Spirit that makes the love of Jesus, as he declares in his teaching and as he demonstrates in his life, live in us!

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustration: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.25

[2] Matthew, chapters 5-7

[3] Matthew 5.1-12, The Beatitudes

[4] Matthew 5.13-20

[5] Matthew 5.21-37, my emphasis

[6] See Exodus 21.24, Leviticus 24.19-20, and Deuteronomy 19.21

[7] I borrow this thought from Martin Luther King, Jr., who, making a case for the utter uselessness of violence as a vehicle to achieve equity and for the persuasive, non-corrosive power of love, wrote, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers” (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958); my emphasis.

[8] The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5.39), which can be interpreted to mean that one is to offer no defense against an opponent or an offender. However, the Greek infinitive (antistenai) translated “to resist” or “to oppose”, infers that resistance or opposition to an evildoer is to be done without violence. In other words, a follower of Jesus is called to contend against evil, but not with the force that evil has employed, but rather with the power of love.

[9] The Collect for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (full text): O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

is brown the newest black?

Black. A basic (my wife, Pontheolla, truly a fashionista from birth, tells me, “a grounding, foundational”) color in the fashion palate; as such, the basis of the formation of many an outfit. Hence, the meaning behind the provocative title of the acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama, Orange Is the New Black, telling the tale of life in a federal minimum-security women’s prison where jumpsuits are prescribed attire and their color, orange, the new black.

Black, however, for me, as an African American, always bears the connotation of race. And, given my life’s experiences and my sense of American history, always brings a flood of memories of the discriminatory deferral, at times, denial of life’s opportunities and, equally, perhaps worse, the disavowal of God-given human dignity. And, as I believe that race and racism remain constant elements of the American “experiment” (for The Declaration of Independence’s promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has yet to be realized by all at all times), discrimination always, on any given day, at any given time, for any other color painfully can be renewed.

“Annalisa”. I wrote about her before (revelación, June 1, 2016), describing her as “an engagingly convivial twenty-something ambitious college student with a thoughtful vision for her future.” In that prior blogpost, I recounted how I was made freshly aware of the insidious nature of my own prejudice. For I had asked Annalisa how she planned to spend that year’s coming Memorial Day, adding (not assuming she would observe), “an American holiday.” I realized and later asked Annalisa’s forgiveness for my sin, for she, Puerto Rican, was, is American.

In short time, Annalisa has become a dear friend. Verily, Pontheolla and I view her as we would a daughter.

Today, upon greeting, Annalisa had a look. One I’ve seen before. Sadly, many times. In my mirror and in too many eyes of too many others. A look of sudden hurt; the sort of which comes from an unexpected encounter. I asked, “Are you alright?” She answered, with welling tears, “I had incident on the street.” A man, pointing at the decal of the Puerto Rican flag on Annalisa’s car, drove up beside her, gesturing wildly, madly uttering derogatory epithets. Even more, she told us that her fiancé, “Victor”, had had a similar confrontation. A man approached him in a threatening manner, making disparaging ethnic references. Still more, she recounted how she and Victor and their families and friends, in the light and shadow of the heightened racially-tinged tenor of these times in America, had begun having intentional conversations about how to respond with calm and care if, when they encountered discrimination.

Pontheolla, Annalisa, and I joined in caring embrace. Pontheolla and I, thanking Annalisa for sharing with us, expressed our sorrow, and, later, when she departed, bade that she “take care and be careful.” This last counsel, I feel, I fear is all too necessary in these times.

questing for equilibrium in a querulous age – a personal reflection

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On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States; this following a tediously contentious (or was it a contentiously tedious?) presidential campaign season. Through it all, myriad political pundits, social savants, mass media, and people spanning the spectrum of humankind seemed to be able, even willing to assent to one thing: the zeitgeist, the spirit of this age of America is tempestuous.

I agree. Wholeheartedly. Meaning completely, not enthusiastically. Two words I have begun to employ when describing my sense of the dis-ease affecting, afflicting America: calamitous and fractious.

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln, accepting the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination as United States senator (an election he lost), gave an address that has come to be known as The House Divided Speech. Casting an image of American disunion rooted in powerful antipathies regarding institutional slavery, Lincoln said, in part: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It may be an overreach to aver that the current state of contention in our nation is comparable, whether in the depth of animus or the breadth of involvement of the populace, to Lincoln’s time. However, as I wasn’t around in the mid-19th century so to assess by experience the possible equivalence, I’d say it’s close enough.

And I seek equilibrium. Not peace necessarily, if by peace I desire and define it as a countrywide calming of the roiling waters of our national temperament. I don’t see that happening. Rather I long for balance, a personal equipoise in our querulous age. For, as one who, with soul-deep and heartfelt compassion, strives, at times struggles to understand and accept “the other”, all others who think and feel differently than I…

I am disturbed by the clamor of strident voices on all sides. Many (blessedly not all), as I listen, seem to belong to folk who seem to see the world through a monocular lens. Seemingly able to espouse one point of view or one set of points of view, they seem unable to acknowledge as valid or principled any other. For example, as I have friends and associates on each side of our national political divide (and, truth be told, they always have been on each side), I’ve heard it said or written: “To vote for Donald Trump is to vote for an isolated America.” and “To vote for Hillary Clinton is to vote for a perpetuation of politics as usual.” These are the kinder statements. For to paraphrase what I’ve also heard said and seen written: “To (how could you?!) vote for Trump is a sign of a mean-spirited, sexist, racist, nativist mentality.” “If you’re not outraged and taking to the streets in protest, you’re not paying attention (read: “You’re either blind and deaf or dumb!).” and “To (how could you?!) vote for Clinton is a sign of a capitalistic, godless immorality.” “If you’re in the streets protesting, you need to get over it and let us get on with it (read: “We won and you didn’t!).”

In this, I am distressed that many (again, blessedly not all) seem to have parted company with family and friends, associates and acquaintances – seeing and speaking with one another less or not at all, disengaging from long standing activities, traveling no longer in the same circles, unfriending one another on Facebook.

Now, it’s not that I don’t have deeply rooted opinions, strong beliefs, and durable political preferences. I do. And it’s not that I don’t think and feel, speak and act on them. I do. Still, at the proverbial end (and beginning and middle) of this day and age, praying we survive it, people and relationships are more important to me. Hence, by my faith in the Jesus I follow who, in the most unconditional expression of love, in the name of his and my God, forgave those who were killing him, I, at the least, choose to love and to listen to “the other”, all others. And in my loving and listening, I find my equilibrium.

choose?

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, and Matthew 5.21-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017

“I have set before you…life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s commandments…you shall live…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish…Choose life.”

So speaks Moses.

moses-restating-the-law-to-the-people-of-israel-before-they-enter-the-promised-land-henri-felix-emmanuel-philippoteaux-1815-1884

The Israelites, following their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness, stand on the threshold of the land God promised them. Throughout their journey, many were the declarations about the blessings of obedience to God’s will as codified in the commandments and warnings of the misfortunes of disobedience. Now, about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of their choice: life or death.

The psalmist echoes Moses’ praise of obedience to God, singing, “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.” Then, in addition to “law”, using, lest any fail to grasp the point, a cascade of words, verily, synonyms for God’s will: “decrees”, “ways”, “commandments”, “statutes”, “judgments.”

But an immediate problem arises. One inherent in our humanity, which our Collect clearly identifies: “O God…through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do nothing good…”[1] “Weakness” ironically, for me, conveys the power of our freewill, poetically expressed in the words of a prayer, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[2] Succinctly stated, we humans want our way, follow our will. In Moses’ language, we “bow down to other gods” – our bodily appetites and lusts of the flesh, our pride and trust in our intellects, our feelings and senses of how things and others should be, our hungers for self-attainment.

Jesus, speaking expansively of God’s commandments, amplifies our problem. In one example, Jesus reminds us of the olden law, “You shall not murder.” Then he declares that beyond our outward obedience in refraining from killing someone we, in our inward will, must renounce our right to be “angry with a brother or sister.” Given our egoistic freewill and our desire that things and others be as we want them, it is improbable, impossible for any of us never to be angry. Therefore, according to Jesus’ stringent definition, none of us can keep God’s commandments and therefore, according to Moses’ strict description, we unavoidably choose death!

No choice is no choice. So, Moses, what do you mean, “Choose life”?

The Israelites, at journey’s end, stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. An auspicious moment for Moses, the Lawgiver, to remind them of their life-or-death choice. We, near the end of the season of Epiphany, stand on the threshold of another Lent when we again will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. When we again will tell the story of his crucifixion and death. When we again will remind ourselves of our need to crucify anew all that hinders us, in the words of our Collect, from “keeping God’s commandments (that) we may please God both in will (what we desire) and deed (what we do).”

But given who we are, the way we are, how do we, how can we keep God’s commandments? To ask that question is the first step. The second and only other thing required is for us to trust, as our Collect also says, “the help of God’s grace” to do the rest.

Pontheolla and I have a dear friend whose company we enjoy. On most occasions when he comes to our home he dines and partakes of libations with us. Only sometimes does he bring anything to share to eat or drink. Pontheolla, being hospitable, doesn’t seem to mind. I, being territorial, take umbrage at what I consider his taking undue advantage. I once said to her, “Baby, all he brings is his appetite and you do all the rest!”

Precisely. In this, Pontheolla is an earthly, incarnational image of who God is and how God works. Whenever we come with even the barest hunger and thirst, as the Beatitudes commend, for God’s righteousness,[3] God, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, fills us, leading, guiding us into obedience.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustration: Moses restating the Law to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884)

Footnotes:

[1] The Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (full text): O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[2] From Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62.

[3] Matthew 5.6