an epistemological epiphany about life and legacy

My mother named me after St. Paul. (Perhaps she knew something!) I’ve always had a kinship with the Apostle; one of his words long being a touchstone for me: Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part.[1]

It never ceases to amaze me how much I don’t know. About anything. God. The creation. Others. Myself. In this daily state of conscious ignorance, I also always am amazed when an epiphany, especially about myself (which, of the four aforementioned things, I think I should know most well, but oft do not!) dawns. It usually happens in a moment of sheer serendipity, verily, from that proverbial realm “out of nowhere.”

It happened today. I was in conversation with a friend, Carolyn. Our subjects of interest, covering a wide range – meditation, prayer, God, eternal life, reincarnation – had a common core of spiritual beliefs and practices and, even more, epistemology, and that, still more, in its most basic sense concerning how we know what we know.

I spoke of my life as a writer, mostly sermons, but also poetry, novellas, and my blog. I told Carolyn that usually I never know where the words will take me until I arrive at an “Aha!” moment of deepened self-awareness.

William John Abernathy

As an aside, I referenced my blog post of yesterday – at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)… – a personal reflection about my father, which Carolyn had read.

And then, it happened. “Aha!”

For years, truly, so long ago that I cannot recall my first awareness, I’ve loved history; the chronicle of human life in time and space is a principle lens through which I perceive reality. And as a philosophical and theological existentialist, I long have been enamored by the questions of identity and destiny; constantly asking myself who am I and who am I becoming as a person, as a creation of God?

PRA 6-19-16

In yesterday’s blog post, I wrote of my father’s largely vain pursuit of his history and identity. And it wasn’t until today as Carolyn and I talked that I realized that I bear in my blood and in my bones my father’s legacy. I now know that I, on my father’s behalf and for myself, live to fulfill his quest.

 

 

Footnote:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.12

recognizing the risen Jesus

a sermon, based on Luke 24.13-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 30, 20017

It is the evening of that first Easter Day. Cleopas and a companion, dispirited disciples of the crucified, dead Jesus, leave Jerusalem, walking slowly toward the town of Emmaus. Their only consolation, a sorrowful recount of the past few days. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people, believing him to be the long expected Messiah, crying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and strewing palm branches of welcome along his path.[1] His righteous indignation in driving the merchants from the temple.[2] The mounting opposition of the religious leaders. Their escalating conspiracy to kill him.[3] His intensified predictions of his death.[4]

Cleopas and his friend repeatedly, emotionally recite these details; as I imagine them, engaging in a broken-hearted mind game of sympathetic self-delusion, conjuring up a different outcome, yet always coming to the same frightfully, tragically speedy end: Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death. Even the astonishing tale told by some women of an empty tomb does nothing to assuage their grief.

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road (Les pèlerins d'Emmaüs en chemin) (1884), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus joins them, but they don’t recognize him. “What’s up?” he asks. They retell their sad story, concluding, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped.” With this classic cry, this melancholy chorus in the timeless song of disconsolation Cleopas and his friend speak for anyone, speak for us in times of disappointment and loss.

Yet as the risen Jesus joined them, so I believe he walks with us on our roads to Emmaus, asking, “What’s up?”

And, today, I ask what’s different for us for whom Easter Day has come and gone again? What’s different for us who have proclaimed, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” again? If we answer, “Not much, really” (and I suspect for all of us, at least in some aspects of our lives at least some of the time, that’s true), then I invite us to enter this Easter story to look for the risen Jesus. How do we recognize him; a recognition that can make a difference, make us different today?

Cleopas and his friend didn’t recognize Jesus. They were in good company.

On that first Easter morn, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus standing near the empty tomb. She thought he was a gardener. When he called her by name, then she knew who he was.[5] The disciples, even after Jesus first appeared to them, not knowing what else to do, went fishing. They didn’t recognize him standing on the beach, even in the light of day. When he gave them successful advice on where to catch fish, then they knew who he was.[6] In both cases, a familiar word or action evoked the response of recognition.

Perhaps Cleopas and his friend couldn’t recognize Jesus because they were looking for the redeemer of Israel who would rescue them from Roman oppression and make things right.  They weren’t looking for one who, like them, suffers and dies. Yet when Jesus broke the bread, a familiar action, yet also an unmistakable symbol of his body broken on the cross, then they knew who he was.

The Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

So for us. Weekly, we, in familiar fashion, in holy habit gather in community at this altar to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood. I pray that we can, that we will behold and honor, love and respect the risen Jesus.

Where?

Not where, but rather in whom!

In one another and in the reflections we behold in our mirrors!

How?

In the weakness of our human fragility. There is the risen Jesus!

In the sureness of our subjection to death. There is the risen Jesus!

And most assuredly in our hopefulness of eternal life. There is the risen Jesus!

As we see and recognize in one another and in ourselves the risen Jesus, Easter dawns for us in all of its real-life, resurrected-living present possibility. Easter is not back then, over there, up there, out there, for the risen Jesus is with us, the risen Jesus is in us here and now.

 

Illustrations:

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road (Les pèlerins d’Emmaüs en chemin) (1884), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Note: Caravaggio captures Cleopas and his companion at the moment “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24.31). The artist also included himself in the painting as the servant standing to the right of Jesus.

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 19.29-40

[2] See Luke 19.45-46

[3] See Luke 19.39, 47; 20.1-2, 19-20, 22.1

[4] See Luke 20.9-16 (especially verses 13-15), 20.17-18, 22.21-22

[5] John 20.15-16

[6] John 21.1-7

eternal life today!

a sermon, based on John 11.1-45, Romans 8.6-11, and Ezekiel 37.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

Lazarus is sick. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus.

At this point in John’s gospel about the marvelously magnanimous and miraculous Messiah, if I were reading it for the first time, to the question, “What would Jesus do?” I would expect him to rush to Bethany. But what does Jesus do? He delays! Two days! Then goes to Bethany, arriving after Lazarus has been in the grave four days, which is a biblical way of saying Lazarus is really dead![1] (Martha, later, speaks of the stench of her brother’s decaying body, which the King James Version renders more dramatically, “He stinketh!”)

The disconsolate sisters express their disappointment, “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus cries at the grave of his friend. Some bystanders say sympathetically, “He really loved Lazarus” and others, more skeptically, “Why couldn’t, why didn’t he save Lazarus?”

Jesus testifies that his love for Lazarus is a power greater than death. To Martha’s declaration of belief in the resurrection from the dead, Jesus responds with this momentous word, “I am resurrection!”

Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco (1715-1740), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This word, the opening exhortation of our burial rite,[2] expresses the heart of our Christian theology: Yes, we die, yet, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have eternal life.

Eternal life. Often understood as life after death, life beyond the grave, particularly in an exalted tranquil state of existence. Yet I say to you that eternal life is not only about dying with the hope that we will rise again like Lazarus, like Jesus on some future, everlasting tomorrow to dwell with God, but also to live with God today! When Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life,” he means now!

Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God – God’s life, the realm of God’s being and doing, God’s unconditional love and justice for all – is at hand.[3] Available today! Not only did Jesus come teaching, he came reaching out with arms of love to all in acts of justice for all.

This Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life” today!

This Jesus came to Bethany and comes to Laurens today! This Jesus comforted Mary and Martha and comforts us today!

This Jesus raised Lazarus and raises us today!

This Jesus loves us justly and just loves us today!

This Jesus lived and died and rose again to call us not merely to worship him, saying, “Lord, Lord,” but to follow and serve him as people of love and justice today![4]

As Christians, eternal life is not merely a matter of living and dying, then being raised from death to live forever. Eternal life is living life now filled with God’s Spirit.

So Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again!”[5]

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

So Paul wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit is life…and the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

So God set Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, they came together – bone and sinew and flesh – but there was no life until God sent ruach, wind, breath, Spirit!

The vision of the valley of dry bones (1866), Gustav Doré (1832-1883)

God’s Spirit gives life. Spirit-filled life is God’s life. God’s life is eternal life. Therefore, we don’t have to wait until tomorrow on that “great gittin’ up mornin’” in heaven![6] We have eternal life today!

So, may this song be our daily prayer:

Breathe on (us), breath of God,

fill (us) with life anew,

that (we) may love what Thou dost love

and do what Thou wouldst do![7]

And:

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on (us).

Melt (us), mold (us), fill (us), use (us).

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on (us)![8]

 

Illustrations:

Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco (1715-1740), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The vision of the valley of dry bones (1866), Gustav Doré (1832-1883). Note: Doré depicts the resurrections of the dead in various stages of the reconstitution or re-membering of their bone, sinew, and flesh; in the foreground, skeletal remains and in the background, on the left, fully enfleshed figures. Note also Ezekiel silhouetted against the clouds.

Footnotes:

[1] According to an ancient Jewish belief, the soul stays near the body for three days after a person’s death, then departs, never to return to the body.

[2] I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord and I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord (The Burial of the Dead, Rite One and Rite Two, respectively, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 469 and 491).

[3] See Matthew 4.17 and Mark 1.15

[4] Here, I refer to Matthew 7.21: Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

[5] John 3.7

[6] A reference to the rousing Negro spiritual, In Dat Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’

[7] From the hymn, Breathe on me, Breath of God, verse 1; words by Edwin Hatch (1835-1889); my alterations

[8] From the hymn, Spirit of the Living God; words by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977); my alterations

fired from life!

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 16.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2016

“(The owner) commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

What?

This parable, at first reading, lacks plain sense. I wonder. Did Jesus have an off day, perhaps beginning with a good idea, but losing his train of thought? Or was he misquoted, Luke not remembering accurately what Jesus said?

parable-of-the-unjust-steward-marinus-van-reymerswaele-1490-1546

A manager, soon to be fired, reduces the bills of the owner’s debtors, hoping they, in gratitude, will care for him when he is out on the street and the owner applauds the manager for his prudence.

What?

Creative grammatical analysis of the Greek word translated “commended”, suggesting that the owner’s praise really was bitter acceptance or begrudged admiration, cannot make this appear other than nonsense. It does make sense that the manager was shameless and the owner was stupid!

But, on second glance, I bid we take this story seriously for one reason with three points.

First, Jesus tells this parable to his disciples then and now us concerning our possessions and how we use them; a subject Jesus talks about more than anything else, including sex! (Given the unending raging debates in the church about human sexuality, based on presumably clear biblical mandates, one might think Jesus would have given us more instruction on this matter. He didn’t! If he did, his teachings weren’t documented. He does talk about our possessions and those sayings were recorded!)

Second, what we do with our possessions is about stewardship; our honest to God use of our life and health whatever the quality and our wealth whatever the quantity.

Third, Jesus talked, taught so much about our possessions because our attitudes and actions about how we use them are not merely material matters, but profoundly spiritual. How we deal with our possessions testifies to who we are. The depth of our belief about God as Giver of all things – life, “our daily bread” to sustain life, and, at our life’s end, the blessedness of the fullness of eternality. The breadth of our worldview, whether we look at ourselves and life around us chiefly from the position of abundance, trusting that as we give of ourselves and our substance, we receive or from the perspective of scarcity, harboring, hoarding our resources to take care of ourselves…stated another way, the height of our generosity with ourselves toward others or our security of ourselves for ourselves.

Now, there’s a “back story” to help us interpret the parable’s obvious problem of the owner’s seeming admiration for the manager’s seeming deception. In the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, managers were agents empowered to conduct business, not merely servants attending to the owner’s bidding, needing the owner’s authorization at every turn. And it was accepted practice for managers to charge commissions. So, when the manager rewrites the bills, he is cutting, yes, the owner’s profit, but also his percentage. The owner will be repaid the original amount of the debt, no more or less.

Dispensing with that conspicuous, apparent nonsensicality, again it’s all about stewardship. And Jesus, making the point about our possessions and what we do with them, calls us to look into the face of crisis.

Crisis, from the Greek, meaning “to separate.”[1] The manager will be fired, separated from his job. Jesus confronts us with the crisis of being fired not from our livelihoods, but from life itself. By “fired from life,” I don’t mean the death of our bodies, but of our spirits in living our lives not wrongly, for who, save God, dare judge another, for judgment requires absolute information (thus, truth be told, we dare not judge ourselves!), but inauthentically. In other words, living apart and aside from the will of God who created us in the divine image, and, in that respect, living without acknowledging and acting in accord with this cardinal characteristic of life as God creates it…

There is nothing we “possess” that we have provided by ourselves for ourselves. Nothing. To greater or lesser degree, someone or something has placed everything in our hands. Even when our living has been attained by our zealous personal industry – the creativity of our thinking, the sweat of our brow, the might of our hands, the intensity of our commitment, the force of our will – there remain causative factors beyond our control or command: family connections and the good fortune of circumstance, genetic predispositions for strength, endurance, mental acuity, and the luck of chance. Therefore, no one can or dare say, “I alone have wrought this!”

Even more, each of us will die. And according to the trite truism none of what we claim to possess can we take with us. Paraphrasing an old saying: Brink’s trucks never follow hearses to the cemetery.

When we recognize that we alone did not, cannot provide all we possess and will not, cannot take it with us, then one of all possible responses to these unchangeable conditions of existence is prudence. We are to be shrewd, wise, again, honest to God, faithful to God in the use of our possessions.

And here’s the rub. Jesus is no rule-maker with tidy definitions and universally applicable instructions about prudence. He does clarify three things. One, life in this world is a terminal gift. Two, we are to be wise in our living. Three, each of us has to figure out what that means.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unjust Steward, Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1546), Kunsthistorisches Museum. A rich man (foreground, left), accusing his steward (foreground, right) of embezzlement, tells him he will be terminated. Then (background, right) the steward, seeking future reciprocal favor, returns the bills to the owner’s debtors so that they can alter them.

Footnote:

[1] Krisis from the verb krinein

a meditation – kingdom revisited, concluded

Throughout Christian history, God’s kingdom or, my preference, kin_dom, has been at the heart of the vocation to spread the faith, to evangelize, “to make” Christians. “Fishing for people” is a powerful image that has formed and framed much of the church’s self-understanding as a body of believers convinced of the cosmic proportion and universal import of its cause (after all, it’s about God and eternal life!) and, therefore, committed to calling others to embrace those beliefs. Though an oversimplified view of 2000 years of Christian missiology, nevertheless, it seems to me that the church, facing a world of many peoples, often has engaged in evangelistic efforts and battles of belief, which, in their fervor, at times ferocity have lacked the character of justice and compassion.

Today’s global conflicts along and across ideological and religious lines, bid that I look afresh at this central Christian concept, one at the heart of Jesus’ preaching (and one, which I, as a Jesus-follower hold dear): “The kingdom of God has come near…”

Not in faraway heaven, but here!

A community of justice. Not in eternity, but now!

A community of compassion. Not in an after (post-earthly) life, but today!

As I reconsider this good news of the kingdom, I perceive that it is not about salvation from eternal death to eternal life. This, I think, is what the church in its historical development has made of Jesus’ message. Rather as I hear the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom, it is about salvation from separation and isolation. Said another way, the kingdom-proclamation is less a call to adopt a set of beliefs and more an invitation to be in community. An invitation to live into the paradox that one might become more fully one’s self in the company of other fellow wanderers and wonderers, strivers and strugglers. An invitation to share in the search for this life’s meaning. (If there is an afterlife, I trust it will be there when I get there!) An invitation to live justly with compassion one with another. An invitation to carry that message, indeed, to live a life of justice and compassion in the wider world of the countless communities where peoples live and move and have their beings.

If (amazing to me how the vastness of life’s ever-present conditionality can be condensed into a tiny two-letter word!) I accept this invitation, a tension naturally, immediately arises: I want justice and compassion, indeed, I want to be just and compassionate, but I fear that I won’t find it, either in the world or in me. My fear notwithstanding, rather than my scanning the heavens (which is a metaphor for gazing anywhere and everywhere else), let me continue look to this world and in myself for these signs that God’s kingdom truly is at hand.