the heart of the story

a sermon, based on Mark 1.1-8, Isaiah 40.1-11, and Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”

Saint Mark (Saint Marc) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn MuseumI love Mark the evangelist’s account, his “take” on the Jesus-story. Not that his narrative is better than the others; for each has a chosen audience and a particular emphasis. That’s why the canonical New Testament has four. (One is good. Two or three are better. Four are best!) Rather I love Mark because he begins by leaping into the heart of the story.

Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t begin with the genealogy of Jesus, which, yes, is important, tracing Jesus’ earthly heritage through the generations of his Hebrew forebears, beginning with the patriarch Abraham,(1) followed by an account of his birth and the coming of the Magi from the East…

Unlike Luke, Mark doesn’t begin with that amazing visit to Mary from the angel Gabriel, which, yes, is important, announcing that she would bear God’s child…

Unlike John, Mark doesn’t begin by pulling back the curtain separating earth and heaven, which, yes, is important, inviting us to peer into the infinite cosmos in search of the workings of the mind of God before all things, before anything: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”(2)

No, Mark begins, again, by leaping in to the heart of the story: The proclamation of the good news of salvation. Thus, we are bidden to hear the cry of John the baptizer, a messenger heralding the coming of Jesus: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness!” The same utterance of the prophet Isaiah centuries before to the people Israel trapped in Babylonian captivity, announcing their soon-to-come emancipation. John, daring to repeat these sacred words of liberation, daring to declare that God, in a new day and time, does what God always is doing – redeeming, reconciling – announces that human captivity to sin and separation from God is over! For, as John only can proclaim salvation, “The one more powerful than I” – Who will perform it! – “is coming after me.”

So, in the words of the psalmist, let us “listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace” – redemption, reconciliation; no longer estranged from God in sin – “to his faithful people.” And, in our listening, let us be those “who turn their hearts to him.”

And let us not only listen, but take note how John appears. Not in flowing robes of finest silk or linen and not at a banquet table groaning under the weight of a smorgasbord of epicurean delights. No. John is dressed as the great prophet Elijah(3) in camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist and he dines on locusts and wild honey.

And let us take note where John proclaims his message. Not on a paved street in the great city of Jerusalem, but rather, having tread the rutted, dusty pathways of the barren wilderness, on the banks of the River Jordan.

desert

This means that the good news of God’s salvation beckons to us in the margins of our lives, yea, verily, that the good news of God’s salvation belongs in the margins of our lives. It is as light when we walk in darkness, food when we hunger, water when we thirst, comfort when we are distressed, hope when we despair. No matter where we are, surely at our best, yet more…most importantly at our worst, there is nowhere where God’s good news of Jesus Christ does not, cannot, will not reach us and redeem us.

 

Illustration:
Saint Mark (Saint Marc), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:
(1) Yet, provocatively enough, including non-Israelite women, some of questionable reputation: Tamar (Matthew 1.3; for her story see Genesis 38), Rahab (Matthew 1.5; see Joshua 2.1-21; 6.22-25), Ruth (Matthew 1.5; see the Book of Ruth), and Bathsheba (Matthew 1.6; see 2 Samuel 11-12).
(2) John 1.1
(3) 2 Kings 1.8

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thanksgiving forgiving redux

What happens – and, I am bold to say, I believe this to be a common (universal!) human experience – when one you have forgiven for past indiscretions continues to behave indiscreetly?

I asked myself this question when, during our Thanksgiving Day gathering, I took rueful note that one I had forgiven,(1) continued to act, in my view, in ways that immediately refreshed my memory of prior indiscretions.

Before retiring, as Pontheolla and I recounted the wondrously pleasant day, I relayed my observations, saying, “It almost makes me want to rescind my forgiveness.”

As I seek always (well, chiefly) to be honest with myself and with others, I hasten to add, no, not “almost”. For, given how I felt, I did desire to retract my forgiveness. And, no, not “makes me”, for I don’t believe anyone can compel me to do anything against my will (barring, I think, confronting me with a credible threat to my existence). Rather I would withdraw my forgiveness as a matter of self-righteous choice (which, I confess, is not beyond me) and, thus, at minimal best, not hold the other person responsible for my act of conscious volition.

However, I cannot, did not, and will not revoke my forgiveness…for a host of reasons.

I cannot – I am unable to – withdraw what is not mine, though, paradoxically, yes, I did possess it to give. Jesus teaches, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”(2) Yet the truth, his truth is that God always acts first to forgive us, thus, empowering us to do the same, therefore, in the words of the Apostle, we are to “forgiv(e) one another, as God in Christ has forgiven (us).”(3)

I did not withdraw my God-given forgiveness because of what I believe to be an existential truth of all human living: No one arrives at any place of good or ill without, in the former case, the helpful hearts and hands of countless folk, known and unknown, seen and unseen and, in the latter case, without the labors of hurtful hearts and hands. Believing, knowing this to be true, only God knows (surely not, never I) and, thus, can judge the measure and consequences of the influences of good and ill on another.

I will not withdraw my God-given forgiveness because I look “in a mirror, dimly,”(4) unable to see and know myself fully.(5) Thus, the plea of the psalmist resonates within me: “O God, who can detect their sins; cleanse me from my secret faults.”(6) As only God can know and, thus, judge the measure and consequences of my self-awareness and self-ignorance, as I pray the blessing of divine mercy, withholding the just punishment I deserve, so I ought and do pray the same for others.

 

Footnotes:

(1) See my previous post, thanksgiving forgiving, November 25, 2017
(2) Matthew 6.14
(3) Ephesians 4.32b
(4) 1 Corinthians 13.12
(5) Indeed, as I live and breathe, I ever am in the process of being and becoming. All I am is greater (at least, different) than what, who I was. And all I will be is greater (again, at least different) from what, who I am.
(6) Psalm 19.12. On immediate reflection, I have enough difficulty dealing with my sins and faults of which I am aware, let alone the ones of which I am not conscious, that is, that are “secret” to me.

an assault on creation

The air abounds with allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Mostly by women against men. The responses of the accused have fallen into two primary camps. Admissions of responsibility coupled with expressions of accountability and apology. And abjurations of impropriety and, equally sadly, following a now age-old, morally bankrupt playbook of the best defense being a good offense, further attacks on the character and motives of the accusers.

As I continue to reflect on the stunning social phenomenon of the #MeToo movement, I think, I hope that it harbors the potential, indeed, that it is the portent for grand cultural change; moving us – humankind – farther along the path of the equality of women and men…

equal

Instantly, as I reflect on what I just wrote, I realize that moving us farther along is truly moving us back to the path of equality; therefore, making the #MeToo movement inherently radical (that is, from the Latin radix, taking us back to the root, the origin, the beginning).

As a Christian whose worldview is fundamentally biblically-based, I refer to the Book of Genesis; principally the first creation story of chapter 1, and especially: God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(1)

The Creation of Eve (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

It is later, after the disobedience of the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, after their fall from the state of grace of creation, that God, in response, speaks, in part: To the woman he said… “(your husband) shall rule over you.”(2)

In a word, man and woman were, are made equal. The inequality of man’s domination and woman’s subordination is an insidious sign of the human sin of the rebellion against God, the rejection of the divine intention of creation, and the repulsion of human nature itself. May the #MeToo movement help us to go back to the way it was meant to be back in the day.

 

Illustration: The Creation of Eve (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 1.27

(2) Genesis 3.16a, c. As I read it, “your husband”, by extension, can be interpreted “man” (as in all men).

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

when…then…

a 4th of July epigrammatic poetic meditation

Statue of Liberty

when Martin’s misty dream crosses the as yet insuperable obstruction

from the ethereal theory of virtuous ambition to righteous action,

from the hallowed declaration of a half-century plus four past[1] to the corporeal reality of daily realization,

and character, not color becomes the fairest, truest measure of human perception…

 

and when gender remains an aspect of human identification,

yet no longer a veiled, vile justification for subjugation…

 

and when this land’s loathsome chronicle of injuries unto others

(the venal seeds of prejudice yielding the poisoned fruit of injustice) –

because of

color and gender,

race and culture,

lineage Native or immigrant or slave –

is read aloud by public penitent voices within the hearing of a moral heaven,

and, in acknowledging the sin, repenting, promising, “never again!”,

 

then the American experiment will become the American experience…

 

then America will “be America again –

The land that never has been yet –

And yet must be – the land where every one is free.”[2]

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech, I Have A Dream, August 23, 1963

[2] From Let America Be America Again (1935), a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967); altered (one substituted for man)

restless ease, a poem

thinking

Prologue: I am one, from my time in this world as far back as I can reckon unto this very day, given to untempered and unfettered swings of mood from highest jollity and raucous laughter to nadir-depths of sadness, deep discordant sighs my only song; the shift, sometimes sudden, spurred by life’s griefs, yes, mine own, yet largely those of others, some whom I know, most I do not, for I, provoked, I believe, by the Spirit, embrace – not always willingly, but nonetheless unavoidably – creation’s pain, which clings irremovably to my heart’s hands. As a follower of Jesus, I pray, I trust that in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, he hath broken – and hath made possible the bearing of – the curse of care. In that faith, amid another, the latest of these anguished spells, during the small hours of this morn, the following words were given to me…

+

In my days, a weighted, unbreakable chain of restless ease

decrying the world’s ceaseless woe,

advancing, retreating to sleepless nights of supplication endless

my mind and heart, soul and spirit tossing hither, then yon,

I lean on the love of Jesus,

the One who lived and died for us

forsaking safety from the storms of human sin

seeking alway to enter in

our very blood and breath,

our pain of flesh,

our experience of life to share;

His heart to care,

His body to bear

the cross of our indignities

that One dare die to set us free.

we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)