Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.

a restless prayer in perilous times

my-hands-2-27-17O Lord, our God, our times are perilous; our days o’ershadowed by threat of war, our nights, enshrouded by fear of what sorrow, whether on this land or half a world away, may befall before next light. Rocketry’s spears aim skyward, targets in sight, tipped with bombs; the only purpose of launch to rain doom and death. Leaders, comme des enfants terribles, trumpeting infantile bellicose threats of annihilation, disfigure the face of diplomacy and threaten to make nonviolent, even if uneasy resolution less an imagined ideal and more an impossibility.

O Lord, our God, though You ne’er herald our liberty from all trial and tribulation nor that our hearts ne’er will be made anxious by what transpires in time and space at the hands of despotic human wills, You alway assure, come what may, come whene’er, as Your Apostle saith, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor 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 (Your) love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] By Your Spirit, O Lord, our God, speaking, breathing through us “with sighs too deep for words,”[2] let us pray for Your presence and power to cleave to the impregnable peace of this Your eternal promise.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 8.38-39

[2] Romans 8.26

Lord, show us a sign!

a sermon, based on Luke 9.28-36 and Exodus 34.29-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] His identity confirmed it was important for Jesus to declare what kind of Messiah he was: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”[2] and, therefore, what kind of disciples they were: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[3]

Hard words to hear. Harder to heed. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had heard his great teaching, beheld his grand miracles, experienced his wondrous love. Now this! The promise of his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice. What on earth would, could compel them to keep going, to continue following? Perhaps nothing on earth, but rather only a heavenly sign of their destination, their destiny.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520

“Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” There, the first sign. Jesus is transfigured; his face and clothing blindingly bright. The Greek indicates that Jesus does not reflect, like the moon, like Moses on Mount Sinai whose face shone, mirroring the glory of God, but rather, like the sun, radiates light. His transfiguration is effulgent; the external emanation of his internal glory of God.

Second sign. Moses and Elijah, chief representatives of God’s Law and the prophets, appear, speaking with Jesus about his departure, his death, resurrection, and ascension that he will accomplish in Jerusalem thus, confirming the truth of everything Jesus has told his disciples about his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice.

Third sign. If the disciples want or need additional proof of Jesus’ identity, the vox Deus, the voice of God resounds from the heavens: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

One of our Epiphany season hymns of praise to Jesus glories in his transfiguration:

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,

where disciples filled with awe Thy transfigured glory saw,

When from there Thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem,

cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.[4]

There on that mountaintop, for Peter, John, and James, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Messiah, the revelation, the revealer of God!

So, now what? What do we do with this story? We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that’s a good thing.

Peter had an idea: “Let’s build houses!” We can’t blame him. We’d want to stay, too. But funny thing about this and any other mountaintop transfiguration when God’s glory unmistakably is revealed. They don’t last. Transfigurations, appearing in numerous ways – a ray of sunlight through dark clouds, a brilliant rainbow after a storm, a kind word when we’re discouraged, a tender touch when tired, forgiveness when we have offended, acceptance when all we see is the worst about ourselves – come and go as splendid serendipity, beyond our power to command or control, encouraging us to keep going, continuing to follow Jesus.

Transfigurations don’t last. But “on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, a man begging that his ailing son be made well approached Jesus, who healed the boy.[5]

This is a sign that the mountaintop transfiguration, whilst never enduring forever, can be repeated in our daily living. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we become signs, revelations, revealers of the glory of God.

 

Illustration: The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520. Note: The Transfiguration is depicted in the upper part of the painting. Jesus floats aloft, with Moses and Elijah, bathed in an aura of light and clouds, as, below, Peter, John, and James, bowed and supine in fatigue, shield their eyes from the radiance. (The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be St. Felicissimus and St. Agapitus, two 3rd century Christian martyrs.) The lower part of the painting portrays Jesus’ disciples seeking, without success, to cure the demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.40), who, in his agony, is naked to his waist, his flesh pale, his body contorted, his arms outstretched, his eyes rolled upward.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 9.20

[2] Luke 9.22

[3] Luke 9.23-24, paraphrased

[4] From the hymn, Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, The Hymnal 1982, #135, verse 4; words by F. Bland Tucker

[5] Luke 9.37-42

Jesus, the subversive

Note: At yesterday morning’s service, as I ended my sermon, an additional word about the appointed gospel (Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52) occurred to me, which I shared during announcements. It rarely surprises me when things other than what I intended to say come to mind, for I am a person of constant second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth…on and on) thoughts. I cannot recreate precisely what I said, but it was something like this…

Jesus launched a movement, going out into his first century world to share in word and deed the near presence of the kingdom of heaven, indeed, of God. The church, founded on Jesus’ life and labor, is an institution. Throughout human history, whatever the endeavor, in the transition from precipitating origin to permanent organization, something can be lost. At times, I wonder whether we, two millennia later, run the risk of domesticating Jesus, thus, losing any sense of his radical, revolutionary nature. Looking again at this morning’s series of five parables, I focus on the first three, for they reveal, expose Jesus’ subversive edginess.

Jesus, as a storyteller, as all good storytellers, employed familiar images and ideas, which his listeners readily recognized. Yet he frequently, outrageously turned those images and ideas on their proverbial heads, catching people unawares, arresting their attention. I picture Jesus leading us to a comfortable chair in which a long, sharp tack is embedded, inviting us to sit, all the while hoping we have not lost our sensitivity to new ways of thinking, of seeing our lives and world.

So, today…

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree where birds make their nests. No, it doesn’t! The mustard seed is small, but the mustard plant is no tree, but a weed (a shocking comparison when the fabled cedars of Lebanon would be a far better image!) that, spreading quickly, is difficult, impossible to uproot. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman (a shocking comparison in a first century patriarchal society!) mixing yeast (another shocking comparison, for yeast was an ancient symbol of unrighteousness!) in three measures of flour, which was a vast amount, yielding bread able to feed multitudes. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure in a field (so far, so good!) that a man finds, then hides (uh oh!), then sells all of his possessions and buys the field; all of which amounts to thievery! In Jesus day, a similar parable was in circulation. A man had a field with a buried treasure, but he did not know it. He died, bequeathing the field to his son, who later sold it. The buyer, plowing the field, discovered the treasure.[1] This version of the tale eliminates the immorality. Jesus, in his telling, retains it. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom! It is treasure, yet one, once found, that always calls, challenges, confronts us with choices between righteousness and unrighteousness.

Ah, Jesus, a storyteller with the soul of a subversive!

 

Illustrations:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Footnote:

[1] Gospel of Thomas 109

have we understood?

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. They answer, “Yes!”

Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ disciples. So quick to reply to a question of cosmic significance of the meaning of life, the nature of God, the character of the kingdom of heaven; all said, the meaning, nature, and character of life with God.

But the disciples were disciples. Students. They had come to Jesus to learn from him. And sometimes they seem like the children of any classroom. Faced with a question and with the approval of the teacher hanging in the balance, they either remain silent hoping one of them will speak up, usually the impetuous Peter, bearing for all of them the weight of judgment or, in boisterous solidarity, blurt out an answer hoping their unanimity will count for something.

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. All these parables piled one upon another? (Parable, as I shared with you last Sunday, from the Greek, parabole; literally a thing tossed alongside. Not the reality itself, but a story, a parallel image to help us understand that reality; here, the kingdom of heaven.)

“Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. Then comes the point of the question. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Huh? I confess that I don’t know what this means. I do have some guesses. And that, too, is the point.

None of us knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. About anything. About people. Others or ourselves. About life. This one or any other. All we have is our guesses. Our perceptions and presumptions about the reality around us, which are like parables; things we toss alongside to help us understand our experience.

Looking again at this odd saying of Jesus, my guess is that he is the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. He is the master of the household who, in his teaching, brings what is new out of what is old; new interpretations, new meanings from old, well known images and ideas.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven, the life of God, our life with God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows expansively, invasively everywhere or yeast that makes bread rise in bountiful measure or hidden treasure or fine pearls, priceless and worth every effort to obtain or fish nets that catch and hold all fish or all of the above.

So, let me toss some things alongside our reality.

The kingdom of heaven is like this Sunday morning when we, all alike in our shared humanity, yet each of us different in our individuality, come together to make community, gathered in this sacred space that, like a net, holds us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like this morning’s Holy Eucharist when we take what is familiar, bread and wine that we have made from creation’s ancient gifts of grain and grapes, and offer them to God with timeless words, “take, bless, break, give”, that we might partake of spiritual food to be strengthened anew to be like Jesus…that we may go out into the world as scribes trained for the kingdom, sharing with all the treasure of life with God.

Have we understood all this?

seemingly

(Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.

 

Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)