waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 10, Tuesday, December

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Wrath. Yea, O Lord Jesus, I laud Your Welcome, yet I dare not forget Your Wrath; You Who, angered by the desecrating exploitation of Your Father’s House, cleansed the Temple.(1) As Your Apostle identified the body of the Christian community, verily, the bodies of Christians as temples of the Holy Spirit,(2) by Your same Spirit, consume with cleansing fire all dross within me that dishonors my creation in the imago Dei that I may glorify Your Father, my God in my living. Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-16
(2) 1 Corinthians 6.12-20

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of loyalty & love

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.15-22, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2017

Charles Dudley Warner,[1] essayist, novelist, and friend of Mark Twain, among his many bon mots was noted to have said “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” The expediency of self-interest has the magnetic power to draw together folk who otherwise stand apart, indeed, who otherwise can’t stand each another.

The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus (Les pharisiens et les hérodiens conspirent contre Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Pharisees, devoted to the Law of God, detest the oppressive Roman Empire. The Herodians, a political party of King Herod, the puppet ruler of Judea set on the throne and kept in power by Rome, are loyal to Caesar. These two strange bedfellows, at best, begrudgingly tolerate each another. Yet they agree on one thing. They despise Jesus, whose proclamation of “repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”[2] poses a threat to their religious and political status quo. They set a trap, first with deceitful flattery, “Oh, Jesus, you’re so sincere, truthful, and impartial”, then the zinger, “Is it lawful to pay Caesar’s tax?” Gotcha, Jesus! For if you say “lawful”, the people, who hate the Roman Empire and the burdensome tax, will hate you, and if you say “unlawful”, you will be guilty of sedition against the Empire.

But Jesus, more than wiggling out of a well-laid trap, takes the matter, as he always does, to a higher level of meaning. But first he says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Jesus’ pockets are empty. He doesn’t have a coin. The Pharisees and Herodians do. Thus, Jesus, by the very fact of their possession of the coin for the tax, exposes their entanglement in the exploitative economics of the empire. I can hear Jesus say, “Gotcha!”

Regarding the higher level of meaning, I do not believe that it is either the separation of politics and religion or the importance of obedience to the government. The issue, simply, profoundly is this: To what, to whom do we owe our greatest loyalty, our greatest love.

Caesar_s Coin (Moeda de César) (1790), Domingos Sequeira (1768-1837)

Jesus looked at the coin, which bore Caesar’s image and title. Thus, it belonged to him and to pay the tax is to return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. However, long before Caesar, indeed, at the dawn of creation, this was, is, always is God’s intention: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”[3] Thus, we, bearing the image, the likeness of God, in all that we are and all that we have, belong to God. Thus, in all of our living, we return to God what belongs to God.

In our daily living we deal with manifold competing, at times, conflicting loyalties, and Jesus calls us alway to discern, to be clear – and to act accordingly – that our greatest loyalty, greatest love is to the One in whose image we are made.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus (Les pharisiens et les hérodiens conspirent contre Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Caesar’s Coin (Moeda de César) (1790), Domingos Sequeira (1768-1837). Note: I love Sequeira’s depiction of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Herodians. As I view and interpret the painting, Jesus, literally center stage, elevated above the one handing him the coin for the tax, and with his right hand pointing upward, gives visual testimony that he, in his teaching, is about to take the matter to a higher level.

Footnotes:

Charles Dudley Warner 91829-1900), photo c 1897[1] Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) (photograph c. 1897). The saying ostensibly was adapted from a line in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

[2] Matthew 4.17

[3] Genesis 1.26

the push and pull of mystery

I awoke this morning in a melancholy mood thinking about the cares that beset any human under the sun, the daily reminders of our limitations, the not (never?) having enough time, energy, or money (or any two or all three), in the face of our desires and needs, to complete, compete, or compensate.

Then I pushed beyond my personal, largely small cares, thinking about greater current woes of the world. Among them:

  • The horrific destruction of hearth and health and hope wrought by the winds and waves of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the tectonic tumult of earthquakes; turning verdant lands barren, bringing darkness, save for still-shining stars, to what seem endless nights, cancelling the coming day for the final closing of the eyes of the dying, and
  • The dread specter of rising, billowing nuclear clouds, and
  • The social, cultural unrest of an America stirred by the symbols of flags, anthems, and statues, and actions, whether to stand and salute or lock arms and kneel.

Then pulling back from these painful thoughts, as I oft do, I meditated on mystery – not a riddle to be resolved by human reason, but rather the reality of all things beyond human power to control, perhaps even human ability to understand and, thus, to amend.

mystery - Hubble telescope

My meditations provoked, as they always do, questions. Among them:

  • Why do, must people suffer?
  • Why, after centuries of observing and studying the futility of war to resolve disputes, do we, as peoples and nations, continue to lust for combat and long for conquest; the latter, given the superior and spreading nuclear capacity to destroy both enemy and self, being a fool’s goal?
  • Why, despite our best ambitions toward equality, do we continue to separate ourselves along lines, some invisible, yet all seemingly inerasable, of race and class, culture and clan, party and perspective; resulting in our apparent inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of another point of view?
  • Why, long recognizing the incontestable truth that we occupy one planet (notwithstanding the dreams of lunar and Martian colonization) and that we form a global community of inseparable, interlocking interests, do we remain blinded by our prejudices, refusing to see the common humanity that we all irrefutably share?

Underneath these realities, as I behold them, lies unfathomable mystery. Understanding so little, I cannot answer my questions. One thing I do know. I cannot end suffering, war, inequality, prejudice, and a legion of human ills. However, as a person of faith, I can and do pledge to repent, daily, praying the Holy Spirit to make me more conscious of my:

  • time, energy, and money and how to use what I do have to serve, to share with my sisters and brothers of greater need;
  • anger, oft rooted in my sense of an affront to my personal honor and how to channel its virulent energy toward efforts to make peace with others and myself;
  • individuality of self and my commonality with all, so that in acknowledging the former I never disavow the latter;
  • biases and how to peer more deeply into the eyes of “the other” and mine own to behold our common God-given image.

I am not sure how this does, can, or will work. For I perceive it as mystery. By faith, I shall trust God, the greatest Mystery, to bring it to pass.

presents of mind

Whenever I drive into town via Main Street, there he is sitting always on the same public bench. His wizened body swaddled in baggy trousers and a shirt as large as a tent, and long-sleeved, no matter the heat. By turns, he is calm, perfectly still, his arms folded across his chest, then agitated, flinching, fidgeting, running his hands through his silver mane. Oft I’ve wondered. Who are you? Why are you there? What are you doing?

He always catches my attention and, now, my imagination…

During last night’s waning moments (or was it in the small hours of this morning?), I dreamed about him, which really means, I think, that my unconscious had welcomed him, embraced him as a symbol of something both reflective and restless living (looming? lurking?) within me.

Having spent this day deep in reverie, I believe I know what that something is…

As of late, in the course of my nearly daily contemplation of aging and mortality, across my mind’s screen, I’ve beheld kaleidoscopic images of the faces of people I’ve known or, having lost touch (for a variety of reasons, uncontrollable circumstance and acts of commission and omission, some mutual, some not) people I used to know. Depending on the memory, when our last meeting and parting was pleasant, I am calmed by a spirit of serenity and when not, my soul is o’ershadowed by twin specters of discontent and lament that painfully afresh reveal, expose my flaws, my failings to have been the person I long wish I already was.

Either way, even, perhaps especially the latter, I accept these images as presents, gifts of my mind, which, when opened, compel me to remember, to reflect, and to repent. In this last, perhaps I, one day, before I die, will draw closer, will be closer to the image of God I’d like to see in me.

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

imago dei – a reflection on Earth Day, April 22, 2015

created in imago dei“Then (after all things had been created) God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, and all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” Genesis 1.26

Humankind was granted dominion. O’er time, we have confused that call and charge with our will to power, exercising domination over creation. The effects of our handiwork, despite the claims of those who deny our creaturely despoliation of the environment, are evident.

The English words “dominion” and “domination” both bear the overtones of rulership, ownership. However, for me, the determiner, definer of the Genesis’ warrant of dominion is expressed, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and…” Human dominion is a fruit of being made in God’s image, which…

By necessity, begs the question: What is the meaning of “image of God” (or imago dei) or rather, more properly, I think, how is it to be interpreted? (As I am wont to say, I do not believe that any two of us ever mean precisely the same thing even when using the same words, hence the constant prerequisite of any, all communication of defining our terms.) And, no surprise imago dei can be understood in a variety of ways; traditionally, substantively (that humans are, in some sense, of the substance, nature of God), relationally (that humans, having benefit of the gifts of reason and freewill, are unique among all creatures in being able to conceive and perceive, to know and, thus, be in conscious relationship with God), and functionally (that humans, by virtue of substantive relationality with God, have the duty to act as God’s representative in the created order). And, also no surprise, in each case (as with other definitions and descriptions), many are the digressions and distinctions, filling libraries and fleshed out in unending cybertext.

Concerning our parental abuse of Mother Earth, of the three traditional views of imago dei, the third, functional interpretation poses the greatest problem. So easy it has been and is for us to overstep the responsibility of God’s representatives, ambassadors to creation and, misusing our reason and freewill, usurping the role of “creators,” and, therefore, becoming destroyers.

As one who believes or rather who perceives (and, therefore, believes) the hand of God in creation as the profoundest and eternal (not once upon a faraway, long ago moment at the dawn of time, but ongoing and endless) labor of love, my conception of my imago dei, my being made in God’s image is rooted in, what I term above, substantive relationality. I, of the same substance of God, which, Who is love, strive to live in loving relation with God, with the creation, and with all creatures therein and thereof.