The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 26, 2017
So how do we go about being faithful disciples of Jesus as we negotiate the world in which we live in the 21st century? Most, if not all of you, have heard the lesson of looking at a glass of water that is at the half way mark of the glass. The question is then posed as to how to describe how much water is in the glass. Optimists say it is half full, pessimists say it is half empty. I say neither, for I am not an optimist nor a pessimist. I am a “hopefulist.” I made up that word, by the way.
Here’s why. The 23rd Psalm, used today because of its connection to David as a shepherd in Israel, does not describe the cup as either half empty or even half full. It says what? “My head is anointed with oil and my cup is running over.” This is how it is with God according to the Psalmist – our cup is running over. We often look at life and our circumstances from a scarcity perspective. The biblical witness comes at life from a perspective of abundance. In God, our cup is “running over.”
This is part of what we are celebrating today in the baptisms of Lucca and Cynthia, and in the laying of hands of those being confirmed, received and reaffirming. We anticipate the promise of God’s new life in them and in every one of us as we offer ourselves to be transformed, made new, as the people of God in Christ. I wonder if you are aware that the last line of todays Ephesians lesson is from an ancient baptismal hymn: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” This is why I am a “hopefulist,” for again Ephesians tells us, “In the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”
Of course this is where it gets difficult. It is not easy to be light in a world that so often chooses darkness. We unfortunately saw it again in the attack around Westminster, London, as if we needed another reminder. It is not easy to be light in a world that so often tries to manipulate us with words and actions of fear, anxiety, manipulation and threat. These are our tombs of darkness from which Christ seeks to set us free.
Look at what transpires in the Gospel today. A blind man caught in darkness longs to see. His poor parents are dragged in and are afraid of going too far in their description of events as they are deeply afraid of being expelled from the synagogue for believing incorrectly, or giving credit to “a sinner,” whether it is Jesus or their own son. Then the religious authorities, acting as puppets of Roman domination, mistrust that anything good or of God could come from a new perspective, a new teaching, or from a person who does not fit the criteria established by those in power.
Our hope does not lie in you and me getting our act perfectly together. It does not lie in the Congress, the Supreme Court or in the President, no matter who they are or of what party they may be. Thanks be to God for that. Our hope lies in the One who is Light with a capital “L.” The blind man is delivered from darkness to light in his healing by Jesus. I hope it not lost on us that he was washed in the pool of Siloam – think baptism here. Then there is the example of David, of little or no account because of his job minding animals, shepherds being at the bottom of societal rank. Yet, he is chosen by God to be King, as unlikely as it was. Our call is always to be open to the new thing God may be doing among us: to see as Jesus sees; to think as Jesus thinks; to pray as Jesus prayed; to live as Jesus lived; in the light yes, but also as ones ourselves who are light, exposing the places of darkness that rob God’s people of dignity and hope.
Today, right in this service along with the folks coming forward, we renounce everything in this world that works against God’s love and mercy and say that we choose Jesus, his way and his life. He teaches us that the character of God is yielding, healing, openness, embracing, solidarity, with all who suffer, all who are pushed to the margins and regarded of no account, and daring to be a people of hope and promise – “hopefulists” if you will. It is precisely into the places of darkness we are called to go and expose it all to the light of God as we refuse to perpetuate the lies that tear us apart.
I will never forget a moment some years ago when visiting a leper colony just outside of Calcutta, India. I was walking down a hallway and heard a song being sung with great fervor and apparently joy. At first I couldn’t find the source, but imagine my surprise when eventually I came upon a group of men, ravaged by leprosy and given up as dead since they were considered worthless to the living. As translated for me they were singing these words: “Jesus, we who have no eyes, be our eyes; Jesus, we who have no hands, be our hands; Jesus, we who have no feet, be our feet; Jesus, you are our everything.” Yet the most amazing thing is this – every day out of the soup kitchen run by those same lepers they feed 300 townspeople. They are “hopefulists,” – light in the darkness.
Our bottom line as Christians is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our mission, our hope, must start there or we have no mission. We do not do so for our own sake, to feel better about ourselves, or even to get more people in the pews. No. It is so that through us, the people of the light, the world might be transformed and discover with us that in Christ “the cup is running over” with love, hope and mercy for every single human being no matter who they are or from where they have come. It is why we baptize and why we lay hands today on God’s beautiful people. It is why this parish of St. Stephen’s exists. What matters in the end is that eyes are opened, hearts are renewed, the darkness is exposed to the light, and we see Jesus.
The Annunciation by Andrea del Sarto, 1528, via Wikimedia Common
The Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary
March 25, 2017
Announcements come in many forms. I recall with some measure of fondness the morning announcements over the intercom in the public schools I attended. There are announcements we receive by mail, email or Facebook proclaiming significant moments in life such as a birth, a wedding or a graduation. Today’s celebration marks the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary announcing a birth that is yet to come. If you do the math you realize that Christmas is nine months from now.
We have here the beginning of a succession of characters in Luke’s rogues gallery of people with little or no status in the culture, such as women, and in this case most likely a young teenager, being called upon to do great things with God. Even Nazareth was a tiny out-of-the- way town of no more than one hundred fifty people. So I wonder. To how many young women did Gabriel go before a yes came back in reply? Could we have had the Blessed Virgin Rachel, or Zipporah, or Hannah?
One might argue that the biblical text in Luke does not indicate Mary had a whole lot of choice in the matter: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son.” Yet we also learn that she was “troubled” by such a greeting, indicating some sort of internal wrestling. Well, yes! I find this to be one of the great understatements in all of scripture. Of course she was troubled, even disturbed and overwhelmed I would think. This is no ordinary day in one’s life. Then being told not to be afraid, which means of course there was indeed something of which to be afraid, she does give her assent: “Let it be to me according to your word.”
It is that assent of Mary which has prompted many to say that she is the model believer as she accepted her vocation as the God-bearer, “theotokos” in Eastern Orthodoxy, with perfect conformity of will. I do not want to overly romanticize Mary’s “yes,” however. In dialogue with the Annunciation event, I want to push back a bit and ask if we have here a conflated chronology. I guess it is my own humanity which wants to believe that Mary’s troubled pondering lasted more than the seconds it takes to read of it. Discernment of God’s call on one’s life, especially when it is transformative and involves a complete redirection, takes time in prayer that comes out of a deep grounding and preparation. It reminds me of other’s acts of obedience in the biblical witness such as of Abraham. In modern times we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Whatever the process of discernment that occurred, the theological point is made. Through the angel Gabriel, God announced a call to faithfulness and Mary said yes. Her wonderfully grace-filled response to God is beautiful and the Church has admired her for it throughout the centuries since: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Know too that you are full of grace and out of that deep embrace of God may you find the will to say yes to the angel as close to you as your own breath.
The Third Sunday in Lent: March 19, 2017
Complain less. Love more. That’s what I hear emanating from today’s readings as we peer into the experience of the Hebrew people in the wilderness and the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
We all know that people, from time to time and sometimes a lot of the time, complain and grumble. Why did he cut the line or cut me off in traffic? How come she gets all the breaks? Why can’t the neighbors be more agreeable? Then there are the Hebrew people, in the wilderness with Moses having been set free from the slavery of Egypt, complaining and whining about not getting the provisions they were promised. “Did God bring us out here just to let us die? Being slaves back in Egypt was better than this. At least we got a meal there. Is God among us or not?” How soon they seem to have forgotten that all they did in Egypt was complain, although there it was a bit more understandable.
Today we heard from Psalm 95, the Psalms being the hymnbook of the Jewish people. They were sung as a central part of the synagogue service and this particular Psalm, known as the Venite as you may remember, is at the heart of our service of Morning Prayer. In it we find words of joyful singing, worship and heartfelt thanksgiving. At the very end it admonishes the people not to grumble as they did in the wilderness.
When my children were growing up and Bonnie and I would, on occasion, hear some complaining that we thought was not necessary, as it had gone to whining. We told the story of the Israelites in the desert complaining to God when they did not get what they wanted. We taught the kids that the Hebrew word to complain or grumble is “luwn.” It became a strategy in our family when the kids would start to whine to say, “Stop luwning.” Guess what? It worked! Today it causes amusement to us from fond memories.
More seriously, however, we discover in the Psalm that perhaps the best antidote to chronic complaining is to live more from a place of thanksgiving or gratitude. That then opens us up to the possibility of love. Jesus shows us how as we observe the interchange between him and the Samaritan woman at the well.
It is important to know that Jews and Samaritans had a very checkered history to say the least. They had significant theological differences, most of which centered on a disagreement on the correct place to worship, whether it was Mt. Gerazim or Jerusalem. Perhaps even more astonishing, and the cause of great surprise to the disciples, Jesus engages in conversation with a woman. The detail that it occurred in the middle of the day is probably because she knew she wouldn’t have to interact with other people at that time of day as early in the morning was the usual time.
Yet she does meet Jesus there who, shockingly, speaks to her. When she admits to having had five husbands, many of us jump to the conclusion that she is an immoral person. Not so fast. It is also possible that since women were considered property that she is in fact a victim of abuse and has been cast aside many times by men who have owned her. Jesus has uncovered her pain and has done so casting no judgment! All he has offered is a liberating love that has set her free to witness to how she has been touched by him. Her life has been given back as she becomes a source of joy for the people of her community as everyone is blessed because of her witness.
Jesus’ love of her in boundary defying compassion broke down barriers and dividing walls. She did exactly what Psalm 95 asks of us – “Do not harden your hearts.” Stop complaining “as at Meribah (to quarrel), as on the day of Massah (to test) in the wilderness.” She might have had every right to complain, yet Jesus taught her to love as she received love and acceptance from him. Out of a strained relationship she was released for love and eventually mission in the Name of the One who is love.
I want to leave you with an image that I think captures the ministry of Jesus not only to the Samaritan woman, but also to so many others who are on the margins of acceptability. A man lived in a town where almost everyone practiced a different religion than he did. Nevertheless, everyone knew him as a person who was kind and loving to all, as he would always be present to help in any way he could. When he died, he could not be buried in the cemetery where everyone else was buried because he was not of the “correct” faith perspective.
This bothered some people, but they felt helpless to challenge the religious authorities and the man was buried outside of the fence of the cemetery. That night, however, someone went to the cemetery and moved the fence so that the man’s grave was also among the rest of the people who had been buried there.
This is what the ministry of Jesus was always doing: changing the boundaries, moving the fences, so that all would be included in his embrace of love. Because Jesus is the head of the Church and we call him Lord, just as with the Samaritan woman this becomes our mission and ministry too – to tear down all dividing walls, build communities of radical hospitality, and engage in a mission of love that embraces the dignity of every human being. As the Letter to the Romans teaches us today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Complain less. Love more.
Detail of St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Reni (1575-1642), via Wikimedia Commons
March 20, 2017 (transferred from March 19)
Some years ago a dear friend gave me an icon of St. Joseph and the Christ Child. We were at the time young fathers. I remember that when I first looked at it I stopped breathing for a second. I had many times seen icons of the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus. This was different. To see the Child Jesus with his cheek pressed close to that of his earthly father’s spoke of an intimacy of father and child that reached into my soul. I could not take my eyes off of that gossamer border demarcating two faces touching, portraying the love of a son leaning into the warmth of his father. I wondered what the icon writer was praying when he crafted such a window to gaze upon God.
Praying through that icon from time to time has been very rich. Sometimes I am Joseph, the father. I cannot help but ponder the responsibility he obediently embraced to be a model of faithfulness to the boy Jesus. The story of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple begins with the words, “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.” Every year. This, then, was the twelfth time since Jesus was born and in that regularity we discover a faithful Jewish family that must have formed Jesus’ heart and soul. One wonders when he entered Jerusalem for the last time on this earth if Jesus recalled those times as a boy. I think of my own sons, one born on this very day of the year, and yes my daughter too, and regularly pray that they may know the gift of God’s embrace deep within. I treasure every moment of past and present when my cheek touched theirs and does again even through the electrons of a text message.
Sometimes I am the child in the icon. I give thanks for my formation in Christian faith by my own father and these days find that I, when praying for the repose of the soul of both of my parents, give thanks for all with which they gifted me. I will never forget a moment as a boy, and I do believe I was twelve years old, when I was watching a television program concerning nuclear annihilation. As I remember it the statement was made in the show that all that might survive would be colonies of ants with their complex social structures, or perhaps just cockroaches which were especially impervious to radiation. I went outside to find my father planting a tree and told him of my fear and concern. He looked at me a moment and said, “I understand why that would bother you, but what I want you to remember is that God came to us as a human being, not an insect.” I found strength there. I walked away comforted and I know now my cheek and his were pressed close.
The punch line of the account in Luke of the boy Jesus in the temple and his parent’s frantic searching for him is when he says his first recorded words, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus’ growing maturity is shown here as he claims his own identity. He even recognizes that his relationship with God supersedes all relationships, including that of family. This is a hard teaching. I dare to pray, “God, may my children, the ones for whom I would search to the end of the earth, love you more than they love me.” Yet I also pray, “God, may they in my love, find your love.”
Church of the Epiphany, Summerville
Jesus is in attendance at a first century synagogue where he and others would be singing the Psalms, reciting the Shema, rehearsing the Eighteen Benedictions, reading from the Torah and the Prophets, followed by a teaching and a final blessing.
But this is not just any Sabbath service, because what we find is that Luke has constructed a composite of Isaiah 61 and 58. In actuality it would not have been read directly from the scroll. We do discover in these words Luke’s theological point, however, for we find Jesus announcing that the Messianic era had come.
The Gospel writers, and I love this, so often have Jesus breaking out of the orthodoxy of his day to reinterpret and reapply God’s word in his context for a new age. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “God’s truth is an ocean and orthodoxy is a boat.” So all that unfolds here in this Lucan account is subordinate to the person of Jesus, for Luke is clear that he is the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises for the poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Once again we find that we cannot spiritualize this call, our ministry, the Church’s ministry, in which we are engaged. We serve among real people, in real life situations. Our flesh meets flesh. Christ’s ministry is for the benefit of the economically, physically and socially unfortunate. Our ministry, in the name of Christ, is about setting people free, released in the power of the Spirit so that the structures of our social and economic life reflect the reign of God among us.
The oils of Chrism and Unction are sacramental signs of this call: The Chrismatum signifies that all the baptized have a responsibility to minster to the marginalized; Oleum Infirmorum sacramentally participates as a sign of God’s desire that all be set free, made whole, and released for God’s service. Yet I hope we see that this is also about our being set free, you and me, released from the prison of “churchiness” or anything else that holds you captive, in order to be more fully who God calls you to be. I’m speaking here not just of who you are as a clergy person, but first of who you are as a human being on planet earth.
I want to tell you of a revelation I had last year in El Salvador. One of the great privileges I have had over the years is to hear the stories of the Salvadoran people as they try and negotiate the very difficult geographies of their life, literally and figuratively. Many times I have listened to painful stories of great loss: a way of life; the death of a spouse, sons and daughters; many of whom now being named among “the disappeared.” The term “los desaparecidos” became a noun during the El Salvador civil war,
This time I was asked to offer spiritual direction to Salvadorans who were open to speaking with me as referred by the medical personnel of the Central New York mission team who saw a pastoral need. One of the things to which any team like this needs to pay attention is that for most of the patients, their life as a person of God is central to their self-understanding. Over and over again, when I asked a person in great distress how they even begin to go on, they told me of their trust of God who sustains them.
My revelation was this. Much of Western spirituality, particularly among the “haves,” is about finding meaning in life. Indeed, much of Western psychology is about the same. I discovered, however, that the people with whom I was engaged were not looking for meaning. They know why they exist. They know they are a person of Christ. What are they looking for? Liberation!! They want to be set free from their captivity: fear and threat; violence; economic slavery; you name it.
I wonder if that is a place to which we need to return? What is it from which you need to be set free? From what do our people need to be set free? It’s not that this conversation is divorced from that of meaning, but I wonder if meaning can even come until we are able to identify our prisons? Being a Christian is supposed to be a radical statement.
Perhaps it starts with getting clear once again about what constitutes your relationship to God, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that one of the easiest places to hide from God is in the Church. It is especially true for we clergy. We go about doing good things, godly things, handling holy objects all the time, but sometimes not allowing ourselves to be encountered by the living God. In 1930, Anglican divine Evelyn Underhill wrote to the Lambeth Conference: “The Church wants…a disciplined priesthood (and I would add diaconate) of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the clergy.”
So today, yes even in the first full week of Lent, we are being called back to the center, to start again. Jesus’ vision of the Messianic hope, the year of God’s favor for the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed, is rooted in communion with God who is that ocean. Swim in it, frolic in it, be immersed in it--the baptismal imagery here is intentional--and find again your deepest longing in communion with our liberating God. This is your first duty as a Christian, a deacon, a priest, a bishop, for the sake of God’s people. You and I also need to be set free!
First Sunday of Lent
March 5, 2017
Jesus was tempted. Just as every human being who ever lived is tempted by something, so was he. This may be obvious, but it is important to name it since it informs us that Jesus experienced life much as we do – its joys, its sorrows, it ups and downs, and yes, its temptations. He understood what it is to be human.
He had been fasting for forty days and nights and told he must be hungry. Get some bread to satisfy yourself. What could be wrong with that? Rule over the kingdoms of the world – heck, you’re a good guy. You’d probably do a good job of it. Jump off the temple – didn’t God promise to protect you? What would any of that hurt? In the exchange, the literary device of the character of the devil then lays out the big lie by saying: “If you are the Son of God,” do this! Do you see what is going on here? The idea is to plant the thought in Jesus’ mind that he needs to prove his identity through these parlor tricks after he had just been told at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son.”
Make no mistake. Jesus is being tempted here to the depth of his being. He is being tempted to forget who he is, to whom he belongs, and to live out his mission in a manner better suited to himself than to God. These are OUR bottom line temptations as well – to believe the lie the world tries to tell us that we are not infinitely loved and of infinite worth to God. Let me try and tell you what I mean.
In our day the whole idea of temptation has been trivialized. It can become nothing much more than giving up chocolate for Lent, then seeing it somewhere and trying to resist it. If we then eat it, that’s when we have crossed the line into sin. Is that really what Jesus died for? When we give in to Milky Ways, or better, Godiva dark chocolate? Of course not.
The root of this trivialization comes from an approach to Christian life that reduces it to helping people obey ethical principles, have a good set of values, and live by them. Now surely, living an ethical and principled life is a good thing. But do you see what this approach can do? Such a perspective is not inherently Christian. That’s why so many see no need to be a part of a faith community or have a spiritual life. If it is only about making ethical decisions and being a moral person, I can do that on my own and taking a nice walk in the woods. One does not have to be a person of faith in order to be good, right? So any concept of sin, that is, our brokenness before God, gets trivialized too. It makes the definition of sin merely a wrong act, a fault or error in judgment. Temptation then becomes nothing more than an enticement to make an error in judgment that violates an ethical principle.
Matthew, and our Christian faith, goes much deeper than this. Temptation in the Bible, including the Genesis story today, confronts us with the distortion of the purpose of our entire humanity. The battle is waged in the wilderness of our own heart and soul. According to Genesis and Matthew, the bottom line temptation is to forget who you are. “If you are the Son of God,” is spoken to Jesus. “You will not die,” says the serpent to the woman. For us, it is to forget that we are a person of Jesus the Christ, claimed by God in our baptism and proclaimed a child of God, of infinite love and worth! Sin then, is not merely a bad act or a mistake in judgment. Much more seriously, it comes from a distortion of our humanity as God intends it to be and out of which our mistreatment of one another and the creation arises.
And what does Jesus do in response? Grounded in his relationship with God, knowing he is beloved, he responds to the temptations with, “One does not live by bread alone…worship the Lord your God and serve only him…do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He was tempted to forget his relationship to God that would have a negative, even crippling effect on all his relationships with God’s people and the creation itself. Jesus’ response is to do what – Worship! Do you get this? His response tells us that the opposite of sin, its antidote if you will, is to worship God!
This account of Jesus in the wilderness tells us that Christianity is not first about living ethically and making good moral decisions. The Christian faith is first and foremost about a living relationship with Jesus. Out of that relationship, we love radically in the same manner that we have been loved by him. The key to resisting temptation is to draw closer to Jesus.
The discipline of Lent then is to get clear one more time about our center, our identity in Christ. When temptation comes, and it will, we have an opportunity through a life of prayer, worship and service to remain clear about who we are in Christ and to live out of that truth. Then, when we do fail, and we will, we know we are forgiven and still loved as we find our center once again. Jesus is always welcoming us home, for his vision of the Kingdom is not when everyone gets it all right. His vision is when everyone loves God and one another just as we are loved.
So you and I go through Lent and indeed all of life knowing the end of the story – Jesus is Risen! Davidetta, as you receive the laying on of hands today – you stand with the apostles in the symbol of the bishop, as a resurrection person called to worship God above and before anything else. Then, with all of us, you are called to a life lived from a profoundly grateful heart for Christ’s giving of his life showing forth the love that embraces you and us always. Only there will we find that we are truly set free to be who God calls us to be and remember who we truly are – Christ’s own people.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.