Lectionary notes

These notes are posted by a prodigal priest blessed to be serving the church as a lay pastor.

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Some years ago, I searched high and low for Web sites that dealt with the issues of deposed clergy. Found none. I wasn't sure what I wanted to know from the Internet. I did know I had something in common with others who had been deposed, and that we might have something to say to each other. Maybe what I wanted to hear was just a word to persuade me that I wasn't going crazy, that this nagging, centripedal tug toward ministry was not an aberration. Actually, I'm still not sure it's not. In 10 years of wrestling with these issues, I haven't had a conversation with another deposed Episcopal priest. My guess is that -- as I did for many years -- they're either hiding out or have fled to such far reaches that my circle of interests and friends will never find them. Then again, maybe not. My hope is that a few deposed clergy will come in from the cold for a conversation about life after deposition.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Trinity Sunday, 2006

The Prayer of the Church
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

First Lesson: Exodus 3:1-6
Psalm 93
Second Lesson: Romans 8:12-17
Gospel Lesson: John 3:1-16

Lectionary notes

What would our lives mean without our families, friends and neighbors? God gives us the gift of life, of being in time and space to know and to love God’s creation. Each human life is precious in God’s sight – not a hair on our heads is unknown – and scripture teaches that we are created in God’s image, not only to experience life itself but also to know the author of life.

As we ponder the mysterious gift of life itself, though, we’re drawn further into the revelation that the meaning of each human life is, finally, the meaning of each human being’s bundle of relationships – family, friends, neighbors, neighborhood, clan, tribe, state, nation, world. I know who I am – what it means to be me – by virtue of my relationships with others. Being in the world, then, is complex indeed, for relationships are not like strings in the air linking us with each another, but complicated, always-changing processes of being-in-relation.

Jesus teaches that we discover the Kingdom of God in our complex relationships with others when we’re guided by love of neighbor, whether that be of parents, children, friends or enemies. Loving in relationship is how we become children of God and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus’ life and ministry reveal the ultimate meaning of our relationship with humanity and God, that there is no greater love than self-sacrifice, even death on a cross, and that death has no dominion over such a love as this.

It is in the very fabric of our being, then, that God is revealed to Christian faith as a bundle of relationships, a trinity -– or “tri-unity” -– of persons traditionally called Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is the nature of being itself. Without “relationality,” so to speak, there is no being. If there were no Trinity, there would be no God; in fact, there would be nothing at all. Now, isn’t that unimaginable? Yes! Christian faith compels belief that God must be a tri-unity of persons bound as one in the glory of love. Otherwise, the incarnation of Jesus makes no sense. The very idea of the Holy Spirit makes no sense. And strict monotheism, with which we’re left without the Son and the Spirit, pushes “God” so far beyond our comprehension that loving such a being is unlikely or even impossible.

And so Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to “daddy,” and the early church, as in today’s lesson from the letter to the Romans, teaches that we should understand ourselves as God’s children and heirs – sisters and brothers of Christ. In John’s gospel, Jesus puts our relationship with God in terms so startling that poor Nicodemus didn’t get it: We are to be reborn, of water as from the womb of our mothers, and of the Spirit as from the very depths of the being of our heavenly Father. Indeed, Jesus teaches that such rebirth is essential if one is to “see the kingdom of God.” He used the strongest possible imagery to make the central point of Christian mission: Love transforms us and all our relationships, and it is through such transformation that the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.

The Christian understanding of God as Trinity, then, is as down-to-earth – literally – as any religious doctrine from any religious tradition can be. Judeo-Christian tradition asserts that God is not a distant deity but near at hand, whose being is known best in relationships maintained by unconditional love, the willingness to give of one’s self for the sake of another, which Jesus says is identical with giving one’s self to God (see Matthew 25). The love that is characteristic of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father – and so forth all through the community of divine persons we call the Trinity – is love accessible to us and within which we participate whenever unconditional self-giving love prevails. Love becomes in incarnate in such loving acts, just as God became incarnate in the unconditional loving life of Jesus.

“Where charity and love prevail, God is ever found,” declares an ancient Latin hymn, an English version of which is in our hymnal (No. 581). That is an exposition of the Christian vision of God as Trinity, which is not so much an abstract doctrine – and easily dismissible as such in these impatient times – as a spiritual experience that’s not easily put into words. We Christians ought to have our faces slapped for making the Trinity hard to understand, instead of simply inviting the world to enter the mystery of love through worship, prayer and service to discover that the community of faith participates in the very life of God, which is a community of divine persons bound by the glory of love.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Pentecost, 2006

The Prayer of the Church

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

First Lesson: Acts 2:1-11
Psalm 104
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 12:4-13
Gospel Lesson: John 20:19-23

Notes

The miracle is not the meaning of the story.

We often get hung up trying to explain the inexplicable – the parting of the Red Sea and the River Jordan, the victory of Joshua at Jericho and of Elijah over the prophets of Baal, the birth of Jesus, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the resurrection of Jesus himself, the tongues of Pentecost. We forget that miracles are not to be explained but to be seen for what they are – awesome and strange – and that they call us into the mystery of God to discover who we are.

For example, our tradition tells us that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. What does that mean? What does it mean to me? To you? To all of us together? To all humanity? Does it matter? If it does, how does that change my life, your life, our lives, the history of humanity? Who am I, who are we called to be by the meaning, the truth for us, of the creation story?

Whatever the meaning, we miss the point when we begin disputing whether it actually took six days or four billion years. The meaning of the creation story doesn’t turn on the time element, and we miss the meaning of the story when we try to explain its mechanics. So, let it be, and let us rejoice that God created the heavens and the earth, that there is something and not nothing and that we who are created in the image of God may know it and know that we know it. Faith isn’t about explanations, but about responding to God’s grace. Our faith calls us to spend our lives exploring the meaning of miracles, not explaining the stories in which they occur.

The meaning of the story of Pentecost, in a nutshell, is not the miraculous gift of tongues, but that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” not just this group or that group but every single one who at any time calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved from whatever form of sin and death stalks him. That’s literally the bottom line of today’s lesson, even though it’s just the beginning of Peter’s great Pentecost sermon, and it’s certainly the sense of Paul’s teaching in today’s reading from First Corinthians: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

Joel’s prophecy is only the beginning of our exploration of what it means to be saved and what salvation implies for the days of our lives on earth as it they will be in heaven (and that’s another inexplicable miracle). Saved? By whom? From what? Short answers, such as “By God” and “from sin,” get us only so far, because the answers themselves are fraught with deep meaning that varies from person to person and from generation to generation. Trying to “keep it simple” is blasphemous, because God has made us enormously complex in body, mind and spirit, which in makes us capable by God’s grace to know and to love ourselves, each other and even God, creator of heaven and earth. We deny God when we deny the complexity even of such apparently simple statements as, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

The psalmist revels in the complexity of God’s creation, creatures great and small, the greatest of which God’s wisdom called into being “for the sport of it.” But more, God not only creates but maintains and restores: “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” To some extent, then, the power of God’s Spirit to renew is part of the meaning of the story of Pentecost, for Christian tradition teaches that, in Christ, God established a new covenant with humanity: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (See Jeremiah 31.)

Today’s gospel lesson teaches that the Spirit of God is the Spirit of peace, and that the Spirit is born in us with the joy of seeing the Lord. Again, a miracle. The risen Lord appears, we know not how, but then, that’s not the meaning of the story. Christ Jesus comes to each of us we know not how, but the meaning of Christ’s appearing is what matters. Let each of us, today, rejoice at his appearing and ponder what it will mean for the rest of our lives to be saved from the shape of death that stalks us and to be empowered by the Spirit to renew the face of the earth.



Thursday, March 30, 2006

Lent V, 2006


The prayer of the church

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

First lesson: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51

Second lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10
Gospel lesson: John 12: 20-33

Lectionary notes

Christianity doesn’t really have a “priesthood.” We have one high priest, Jesus the Anointed One, who through perfect obedience to God’s call fulfilled his humanity to become God in the flesh. He didn’t have to be obedient even to death on the cross. He chose to fulfill his destiny; otherwise, Jesus’ earthly life was little more than pantomime, God pretending to be human.

No, as today’s lesson from Hebrews says of what it means to be a high priest: “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.”

Elsewhere in Hebrews (Heb. 4:15), the author asserts the Christian doctrine that Jesus was without sin, but in every other way, Jesus’ high priesthood is rooted in his humanity, in which he was tested in every way, but always chose the will of the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t become our high priest by ascending into heaven, but by the pain he suffered willingly for the sake of all who would follow him, accept the gospel and preach it to the ends of the earth.

The prophet Jeremiah said truly that the law of God would one day be written upon the heart of Israel, that Hebrew religious thought and experience would evolve to a point where teachers would not be necessary and, as the author of Hebrews understood, a priesthood would not be needed to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. This is what we mean when we say of Jesus that he fulfills the law and the prophets: In his humanity, made holy by perfect obedience, Jesus himself becomes the law and the prophetic Word; and he is the only priest of the reconstituted Israel – the Church, the Body of Christ, through which comes the Spirit that animates the Church in ministry.

Christian clergy are not priests who offer sacrifice on behalf of the community of faith; rather, they are elders who lead the community of faith in participating in the high priesthood of Jesus, who alone is worthy to lift a fallen world to the Father that it may be redeemed by his obedience. As Paul says of the Holy Eucharist, we remember Jesus’ death until he comes. We are assured by Christ’s presence in the Eucharist that he is present with the Church and will be present with the Church until the end of time.

The core of our participation in the priesthood of Jesus lies in a prayer from today’s psalm: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. I shall teach your ways to the wicked, and sinners shall return to you. Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation. Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

There’s a lifetime of growth in this prayer. If it were the only passage we ever took to heart, it would be sufficient for a generation of spiritual formation.

The prayer begins by acknowledging our utter dependence upon God’s grace and mercy to be well and to do good. Not only is it true that all good things come from God, but also that we can do no good thing without God. So we pray for the purity of heart that only God can give, and as most of us know, that purity is constantly assaulted by the world, the flesh and the devil within. No wonder we pray, too, for the renewal of a right spirit.

The image of God’s casting us away is powerful, but it’s actually the reverse of what happens. God wills to hold us close, but like small children, we often struggle and whine not to be held so close. (Imagine a two-year-old.) And so in our vanity, we often cast ourselves away from God, whose Spirit then groans “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) until we return home (see Luke 15:11-32).

Our obedience is linked to a kind of joy that the world can not give, the peace that the world can not give, the peace that passes all understanding, which we perceive only through hearts made pure and continuously renewed by God’s spirit. It is joy rooted in deliverance from despair, the sickness unto death that is the inevitable of human life without God.

Such a life shines like a beacon into a world darkened by sin. This is how sinners are taught the ways of God, not by finger-wagging self-righteousness. (See Matthew 23:13-31 for Jesus’ teaching about this.) “Let your light shine,” says the Lord, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

The light of Christian witness always begins with praise that becomes instinctive – and again, utterly dependent upon God’s initiative. When you open my lips, O Lord, my mouth proclaims your praise.

That’s Christian life in a nutshell, rooted in the Judaism of Jesus, evolved by the Incarnation of God in Christ in the fullness of time, flourishing wherever faith abides and practice follows. It is a snapshot of citizenship in the Kingdom ofGod, on earth as it is in heaven. It is what we hope and pray the repentant will see when they come to the church and say, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Friday, February 24, 2006

Sunday before Ash Wednesday, 2006

The Prayer of the Church
O God, who before the passion of your only‑begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

First Lesson: 1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 27
Second Lesson: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Gospel Lesson: Mark 9:2-9

Lectionary notes

Before the word became flesh, it had become law and prophecy in Jewish religious tradition.

It wasn’t enough that the word became law, but it was sufficient to bind the people of God into a holy nation called through obedience into the mystery of the Presence of God, which was the purpose of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews found themselves before a living God not made with hands in a world awash with idols.

The more the Jews pondered the law, the more complex it became, and their perception of the mystery of God deepened into a glimpse of eternity. The Jews discovered through the law that the mystery of God was not incomprehensible, that it was possible to be in meaningful relationship with God whose word was law. The Jews also learned some hard lessons of history, but too, that God was faithful and just—and often stern with his stiff-necked people.

It wasn’t enough that the word became prophetic truth, borne by God’s spirit through truth-tellers in the tradition of Elijah. The Jews discovered, painfully, that when they were disobedient to the law and disloyal to God who had brought them out of Egypt, the spirit of God drove some such as Elijah to see clearly the consequences of perfidy and to speak truth to the powerful—at best, a dangerous occupation.

The history of the Jews became a continuous, complex conversation amid the claims of the law, prophets true and false, and kings, whose politics, examined theologically by Jewish holy scripture, brought calamity as well as glory.

Through it all, the Jews learned to live in hope of a godly messiah and eternal life. Typically, these hopes were ambiguous in Jewish tradition, shrouded in the mystery of God.

Christians believe that it is enough that the word became flesh and dwelt among us, even though it’s difficult to imagine what that means. Again, it’s a mystery, comprehensible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but inexhaustible in its meaning not only for humanity but for all creation.

Christians believe that Jesus, as the word made flesh, fulfills the law and the prophets by manifesting in a human life the meaning of love and the consequences of total obedience to the law of God, which is submission to the power of self-giving love, very much the opposite of the self-serving love that is far more common in this and all other idolatrous cultures.

Jesus was and is a prophet who speaks the truth to power and stands over against the assumptions of idolatrous culture, and who calls his followers to do the same. Jesus, the prophetic word made flesh, reveals God as the transformer of our fallen world, not just the savior of our sin-sick souls.

As such, Jesus is transfigured before us as the Holy One of Israel whose flesh can scarcely contain the voice of God who spoke the originating, creative word, “Let there be light.” It’s a dazzling light, a “happy light,” in the words of an ancient hymn, light in which there is no darkness at all, illuminating a path of righteousness leading straightway from the Mount of Transfiguration to Calvary.

The moment of Jesus’ transfiguration is the moment of eternal truth wherein we learn that, lest we misunderstand as Peter did, the cross of Christ is the incarnation of the summary of the law and the prophets, and that Jesus is God loving us in the flesh, the measure of which is the “greater love” of willing to live and die for the sake of another. The transfiguration of Jesus is the supreme invitation to all humanity to take up the cross of Jesus and follow him.

The transfiguration of Jesus bespeaks the hope of Israel, for Christians believe that Jesus is the messiah who fulfills the law and the prophets, and that he shows us “the way, the truth and the life.” That way points through the cross to the resurrection, wherein lies all human hope, for it is the power of God to transform death and grave.

How fitting, then, that we should ponder the transfiguration this last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, a season of hope grounded in true repentance and amendment of life, wherein we are reminded of our mortality but also of our being created in the image of God and of God’s redemptive purpose in history.

We are called in Lent to remember that we are dust and that to dust we shall return; but too, that we are Christ’s own forever, bound to him by the power of steadfast love and caught up with him by the power of resurrection, transfigured by God who creates, redeems and sanctifies.

So, let not Lent be dreary but disciplined and expectant, as we take on the spiritual tasks of fasting and prayer, living in hope that the light of Christ will so shine in our hearts that the love of God in Christ will heal this broken world.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Epiphany VI, 2006

The Prayer of the Church: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord,who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

First Lesson: 2 Kings 5:1-15b
Psalm 42
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Gospel Lesson: Mark 1: 40-45

Lectionary notes

Naaman was a desperate man at the top of his game. He was accomplished, intelligent, powerful and had reaped the rewards of his wit and courage. He was a winner.

Naaman was stained from within, however. He had a filthy, humiliating disease. Nothing he did in life could do away with the shame of it. He who stood with the king at the pinnacle of power—indeed, to whom the king owed much of his prestige—could scarcely bear to remove his clothes. Naked, Naaman was just another leper, not a great Syrian general.

As such, Naaman was just another vulnerable human being in need of healing. He yearned for wholeness. Perhaps he gladly would have given up all of his power and wealth to be healed of his loathsome affliction.

The Lord heard of Naaman’s affliction through one so powerless and insignificant that had she not spoken first to Naaman’s wife, the word of the Lord might not have come to the general at all. We don’t even know her name, but she was from Israel, a captive and a slave in Naaman’s splendid house. She knew there was a prophet in Israel, a man of God whose truth-telling brought wholeness to the broken and afflicted.

Now the only thing that stood between Naaman and wholeness was his pride.

He must have cut quite a figure in procession from Damascus to Samaria. He went straight to the king of Israel with a caravan of wealth to pay for his cure. Naaman didn’t get it. He assumed that all power, including power to heal, came from the throne of Israel. He hadn’t listened carefully to what the slave girl said, that the prophet in Samaria—not the king—would cure her master.

Once that misunderstanding was overcome, Naaman went to the prophet. Imagine his indignation at meeting not with the prophet but with his messenger. The message was simple: Baptize yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be free of disease.

Naaman was no doubt in no mood for jokes after being snubbed by the man of God. This prophetic advice set him off. He left in a huff to return to Damascus. Again, we don’t know the names of Naaman’s servants whose wisdom far outshone their master’s. They cajoled him into taking Elisha’s advice.

Imagine the great man at the Jordan, naked and ashamed, his retinue encamped with all the comforts of home, the riches he brought still packed in caravan. Stripped of everything, Naaman was baptized seven times, and he emerged from the Jordan his flesh “restored like the flesh of a young boy.” Naaman had been born again.

Imagine Naaman rising from the water and returning to the bank of the Jordan. Imagine his luminous face. Imagine the tears streaming from his eyes. He had been a man without hope; now, he was a man full of hope. He could stand to look at himself in the mirror. He knew not only that the power of God had healed him, but that it was because God loved him. Perhaps, too, although scripture doesn’t say so, Naaman understood that his faith had made him whole, his willingness to let God love him by being obedient to the word of God through the prophet had brought him out of the waters of baptism as a changed man, a better man, a man with a new destiny, a new life.

I wonder what Naaman did with all that. We never hear of him again in scripture, but knowing folks the way we do, we can wonder whether it took.

Did the general return to Damascus to have his head turned by the wonder of others at his healing? Did he succumb to the temptation to forget what happened at the Jordan, that wholesome feeling of humble vulnerability, and take back his old sin of pride? Or did he wear God’s gracious favor graciously, letting the healing speak for itself, giving glory to God and telling all Damascus that there was a prophet in Israel? We don’t know, but we do know that it could have gone either way. Let’s hope that it went the right way, that Naaman walked humbly with God all the days of his life.

Let our prayer be that we, too, might put aside our pride to let God heal us not only of the outward and visible brokenness of our lives but also the inward and spiritual brokenness of our souls. Let us pray, too, that our healing and wholeness not become an occasion for pride, and that we not fall into the ditch of self-righteousness.

Jesus told the leper to show himself to the priest and give thanks to God and not to brag about the miracle. Unfortunately, the leper chose to brag about the miracle, and Jesus’ ministry was constrained by mobs seeking miracles but not the word of God, Jesus’ word of repentance and the coming of the kingdom.

As God in Christ Jesus heals us and makes us whole, we’re called to let it show, to let it speak, not by words but by deeds, to let the word of God become flesh in our lives, to let God be in the holy temple of our bodies and to keep a holy silence, as Jesus commands.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Epiphany V, 2006

The Prayer of the Church: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer.)

First Lesson: 2 Kings 4: 8-37
Psalm 142
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Gospel Lesson: Mark 1: 29-39

Notes

Talk to someone who is very ill, and they will tell you that they feel betrayed by their bodies. It’s as though their physical selves have been taken over by an invasive, alien force. They feel estranged from their bodies, and that’s just the beginning of the deeper alienation that illness brings—despair, the sickness unto death, and its traveling companion, fear. Sickness of the body is always accompanied by sickness of the soul, spiritual disease that compounds the physical destruction wreaked by physical illness.

We have become adept at attacking the demons of physical illness with medical wisdom. Far less is left to chance as we diagnose and treat disease at the molecular level, battling microorganisms with a battery of chemical and physical weapons. Physicians inevitably say, however, that healing is more likely when patients are hopeful; in other words, when their spiritual selves are not beset by fear and despair.

We seem not to be as adept at conquering fear and despair. Scientific medicine doesn’t address these issues, even while its practitioners encourage patients not to lose heart. Physicians seldom provide means by which to live in hope. It’s not something they learn in medical school, and it’s probably just as well, because then spiritual healing would appear to be an adjunct of medical science. Spiritual formation through prayer would seem like just another treatment, and not a way of life that leads in hope through all manner of adversity, including illness and, finally, death.

Jesus came preaching and casting out demons, which is another way of saying he announced the kingdom of God and, apparently, also was a gifted healer of disease, of brokenness and of despair. These two aspects of Jesus’ public ministry were inextricably linked, for in being reconciled with God, all humanity would become members of a kingdom in which disease, brokenness and despair would be put away by faith, the willingness to let God love us to wholeness.

The early church proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah who heals, because that put Jesus in the company of Israel’s greatest prophets, powerful truth-tellers of an earlier age, conduits of God’s spirit that not only filled hearts and minds with truth but also filled aching souls and bodies with hope and healing.

The story of Elisha’s extraordinary healing the son of the Shunammite woman reveals God’s compassion, but also that God’s servant, the prophet, was willing to put himself upon the child for the sake of the child, to pour himself out, in a way, so that the child might live. The healing was extraordinary, or it wouldn’t have been remembered, and we know from experience that not all sick children are healed, even by prophets. The point of the story, though, is not to provide a template for healing physical illness, but to disclose powerful images of the sovereignty of God and of prophetic ministry in God’s name.

Jesus’ ministry, too, revealed God’s compassion and the destiny of those who would submit themselves to God’s service in the kingdom. Jesus was a true prophet who spoke with authority of God’s love, and God’s spirit operated in Jesus’ ministry to cast out demons, to heal the world’s brokenness so that human life might be live without despair and fear.

It is said that Jesus healed every disease and infirmity, but does that mean everyone “got well”? That’s a medical question, and we know it’s unlikely that everyone did, but we do know from experience that healing human brokenness is seldom just a matter of “getting well” but is always a matter of “being well,” even though this body may be broken; and we believe from Christian tradition that Jesus has passed on to us the ministry of reconciliation and wholeness from which all “wellness” takes its meaning. The kingdom of God, in other words, is less likely to be a kingdom of athletes on the run than of those who are wounded and lame on the mend from within.

There is strength in such healing of the soul, stronger perhaps than miraculous healings of the body. We may hope and pray for both, but we are always assured of the former, even when the nature of things won’t permit the latter. In any case, the demons always are cast out, to be replaced by faith, hope and love, without which physical healing would be meaningless. Christ Jesus reveals God who not only regards our suffering but who is in it, and whose presence will sustain us when we regard that presence in faith.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Epiphany III, 2006

The prayer of the church: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons for Sunday, January 22, 2006
Jeremiah 3:21-4:2
Psalm 130
1 Corinthians 7:17-23
Mark 1:14-20

Scripture notes: 'The Family of God'

Poor Zebedee. Hard-working fisherman with gnarly hands and dark, weathered skin. Maybe a little cranky, too, the way most fishermen are, because their lives and livelihoods are utterly at the mercy of things they can’t control, things of the natural order—weather, winds and fish. They spend a lot of time controlling what they can, from the condition of their equipment to the behavior of those who work for them. So much the better if one’s employees are one’s children.

Sons in a family business know from an early age what’s expected of them. They grow up first imitating their fathers, then they are subject to them. These are strong love-hate relationships with an equilibrium all their own. Fathers learn that each son differs from the other, that regimentation is less successful than managing each according to his character and the whole as a balancing act of strengths and weaknesses, interests and blind spots.

So it may have been with Zebedee. Who knows how many sons he had working for him, but he certainly had at least two, James and John. Today’s gospel lesson suggests there were no other sons; otherwise, why would Zebedee have had hired hands? Zebedee no doubt relied on his sons and expected them to take his place on the lake as their father grew into old age. They were his social security system. He had provided them with the means of making a living and supporting their own, and he had every right to expect them to care for him when he could no longer do the hard, dangerous work of fishing on the tempestuous Sea of Galilee.

So when James and John traipsed off with Jesus, imagine how Zebedee felt! Angry? Betrayed? Oh, you bet! Imagine the stream of epithets that streamed from that father’s mouth as he stood amid the dropped nets with his slack-jawed hired hands. “You ungrateful, disloyal pipsqueaks!” Or something like that, and a lot more. We don’t know enough about Zebedee to know whether his sons’ leaving might have been due, at least in part, to their father’s shortcomings as a parent; but even so, we ought to sympathize somewhat with the father’s loss, which was personal as well as financial. His sons had turned their backs on kith and kin, family, friends and neighbors, to follow this, this damned rabbi!

We like to believe that Zebedee just didn’t get it, that if he had been a better man, he too might have followed Jesus. That’s too easy, though. Zebedee had every right to his feelings of betrayal and mistrust of this preacher who had destroyed his business and his family with a strong metaphor. Life would go on. He’d take on more hire hands to replace his sons, but it’s likely that Zebedee may never have gotten over Jesus’ intrusive gospel, something about a kingdom coming near and fishing for people. It’s not hard to imagine Zebedee saying, “All I know is we had work to do and they took off after a wandering preacher from Nazareth, and what good has ever come out of that place?” He probably spat on the ground in disgust.

We may well wonder why the early church retained this story as part of its sacred tradition. First-century folk, especially Jews, would have recognized right away the deep offense in it, that Jesus had sundered some sacred space in the lives of this working-class family. Again and again, we hear in the gospel tradition that Jesus and those closest to him had given up everything—their homes, their families, their professions, and with all that, their reputations. I have no doubt that Jesus, the Twelve and those who migrated with them were regarded in their own day as scum, vagabonds, outsiders and freaks.

It’s likely that the early church retained this story not only because it was true but because it represented something fundamental about the self-understanding of those who had become members of the Body of Christ: They had given up their old lives, including people and things for which they had formed deep attachments—famlies, friends, neighbors and livelihoods. They had become “Christians,” or “little Christs,” “little anointed ones”—or better still, little ones anointed by the Holy Spirit, empowered to Christ’s own ministry of reconciling the world to God and proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

In truth, they had given up family, friends and neighbors to become part of another, larger family, the family of humankind created in the image of God, to become instruments of peace wherever that image had become broken by sin. They had been called by God to give up humanity’s conventional view that nothing matters more in life than making a living, putting food on the table and rearing one’s children to be obedient and productive. They chose, instead, to follow Jesus, who declared: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)