Eater 6

The last time I was at my seminary, I ran into my friend Fr. Les Ferguson, who graduated a couple years behind me. He was wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering across the front, which I eventually identified as ancient Greek script. I asked what it said, since I barely passed Greek at seminary, and I immediately regretted asking. The words on Fr. Ferguson’s shirt said “It’s all Greek to me.”

St. Paul immediately regretted going to Greece, and arriving in Athens just amplified his regret. The “area was inhabited well before the 6th century BCE. The name Athens stems from the goddess Athena and is pluralized because it took in the territory of a number of smaller villages. The focal point of the city is the naturally raised platform Acropolis. In the early stages of development, while other parts of the ancient Greek world rose to spectacular levels of civilization, Athens was just one of many city-states. Around 620 BCE, Draco, an Athenian aristocrat, initiated the first steps towards order. His reputation for severity comes down to us in the use of the term draconian.”1

Athens became a cultural and educational hub, and also a target. The Athenians famously clashed with the Spartans and with many others, but even when they lost, they bounced back to greater heights. “In 146 BCE, Athens fell under the rule of the rising western power of the Romans who remained its master for over 500 years.”2

It was into this Roman controlled Athens that Paul arrived, and he did not like what he saw. Luke described Paul as being paroxyno. Remember that Luke was a doctor, and he used a medical term in his assessment of Paul: paroxyno describes the symptoms of an epileptic seizure. Paul was physically bothered by his surroundings. He was pitching a fit.

His surroundings? “An ancient historian once said of Athens: “It is easier to find a god there, than a man.” Everywhere Paul looked, there were altars, shrines, and temples. There was one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Ares, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Neptune, Diana. Athens was a veritable forest of idols.”3 Faithful Jews are not big on idols, nor graven images.

Like James Bond’s martinis, Paul was shaken, but he was also stirred. Stirred by the Holy Spirit, Paul could not abandon the people of Athens to their false gods. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Paul knew that what he had to say would not be particularly well received, so complimenting his listeners was a good start. Paul goes on to attach the Living God to a god the Athenians somehow sensed, enough to build an altar to Him, the unknown god, sensed but never knew. He made his argument, witnessed to the risen Christ, and made more than a couple converts that day.

We live in a time and space that’s not so different from first century Athens. Idols are all around, idols I’m too familiar with. In my case, they’re not named Ares, Jupiter, or Athena, but rather Iphone, artisanal meats, and Netflix. Christian values are not the assumed civic norm, and we have all heard of the rise of the “nones”, those who list their religious affiliation as “none”.

It is no longer enough to open the doors and assume people will just come in, though here that actually seems to be rather effective. To fully engage in the mission of Christ in Bordentown, it’s what we do when we go out those doors that will distinguish us. Proclaiming Christ to Bordentown in 2017 might take new approaches, and so we’re on that track. Social media might well be the new Areopagus, and so we post daily on Facebook and Twitter, and our Instagram game is getting stronger. Like Paul, we have to meet the people of Bordentown where they are, wherever that might be, however comfortable or uncomfortable that place might be for us.

The state of the world might give us paroxyno, it might send us into fits, but like Paul, we won’t abandon our city to the forces bent on dominating us. Rather, stirred by the Holy Spirit, we will use every means our Lord provides to witness to the risen Christ.

2Ibid.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Easter 5

If you’ve heard the words in our Gospel lesson today, you’ve probably heard them at a funeral. John 14 is by far the most requested passage for Requiem Masses, for obvious reasons. Jesus speaks these words in a grave situation, surrounded by the specter of death, the death that awaits Him, and yet it is His disciples who He seeks to comfort.

“He is helping them get ready for his suffering and death. They are stunned. Once he asked if they were going to leave him, as many others had. Peter said, “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Now the situation is reversed.

“So Jesus says a simple thing. “Do not let your hearts be troubled by this. You have faith in God, have faith also in me.” The straightforward meaning of this directive is, you know how to trust; you do it with God. So use some of that kind of trust with me.

“Good enough, and yet there is a much deeper meaning. He is saying in effect, “I, Jesus, am in complete union with the Father. I am a member of the Trinity. I am a revelation of everything that the Father is. When you trust the Father you are trusting me in the very same act. It goes right over their heads, as too often it does ours. So Jesus, the compassionate, tries an illustration.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I ever have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself. A nifty image. A physical place, where we can all be together again. He will come back and get us. Who could misunderstand this? The apostles could, and did. Fear and grief blocked it. Jesus tries a different approach. “Where I am going you know the way.”

“Thomas explains the practical difficulty with such a statement (this is Doubting Thomas, whose heart couldn’t take the risk of trusting without facts): “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Thomas, typically, has missed the deeper meaning. Jesus had often referred to himself as “the way,” as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “You can know the way to the Father because I am The Way.” It is a beautiful depth of truth. But it does not work.”1

There’s an old saying among priests that the congregation listens to you at funerals but not at weddings, that you could say blah blah blah blah for 10 minutes in a wedding sermon and get away with it. That’s mostly true, but the whole truth is that many people at funerals listen to the preacher but don’t hear what’s said, or can’t hear what’s said. After the death of a loved one we are, as the prayer in the funeral rite says, “in the midst of things we cannot understand,” and so we are to trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting.

But as we all know full well, most of us can’t make that leap right there, when our hearts are troubled. Perhaps that can give us some sympathy for the disciples, who’s minds and hearts were scattered, smothered, and covered.

Many if not most of us travel through life at least a little spiritually confused. We wonder where the Lord is, where He is directing us; we have trouble knowing hearing Him and so therefore trouble knowing Him.

The good news is that it was always thus. At the end of the teaching session we just heard a snippet of, Jesus might have been sitting with His head in His hands, wondering how He managed to surround Himself with such a bunch of dolts. Instead, Jesus loved them all the more; He gathered them again and again after His resurrection and entrusted them, the guys who couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag, into the world to change the world.

We are here at this time and in this place because Jesus sent that group, people just like you and me, to spread the Gospel. So the next time you’re in the midst of things you cannot understand, feeling scattered, smothered, and covered, remember that the Lord loves you all the more, and might be readying you to change the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Easter 4

Good Lord, another sheep reference.  “I preach another sheep sermon over my dead body,” a preacher might say, and then turn looking to do a solid four minutes on the Collect of the Day.  The preacher would then find that even the Collect of the Day is sheep reference.

Growing up at Trinity Red Bank, the one large stained-glass window we had was above the altar; it was, you guessed it, Christ the Good Shepherd in Tiffany glass, beautiful if not especially Trinitarian.  Our image of the Good Shepherd make a bit more sense, this being Christ Church and not Trinity Church.  I love how that image contrasts with the image of the Christ Child that dominates the window, the vulnerable and the strong, the stillness and the action, the Child worth everything and the Man who gave everything to prove our worth.

I guess sheep references aren’t going anywhere, given the hold the image of the Good Shepherd has on the Christian mind.   Our language reflects it: words like pastor, pastoral care, they aren’t going anywhere.

Jesus was fond of the image and He was able to stretch the metaphor in His teaching.  Today we hear about how the “sheep approach the protection of the sheepfold through the gate.  Those who climb in by other ways—over the rocks and brambles—are either robbers or predators.  The true shepherd enters and leaves first, calling their names; at the sound of his voice they follow.  This passage is called a “figure” by (John the Evangelist).  And when (Jesus’ disciples) seem not to grasp the figure fully, Jesus goes further, offering them what many have thought a somewhat disconnected second metaphor.  All of a sudden, he is no longer the shepherd. He is the gate itself.  But this shift is not a mixing of metaphors.  Like many devoted shepherds, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.

“I once heard a description of Middle Eastern sheep-herding practices that ties these two images together.  The sheepfold, especially one unattached to a larger settlement or dwelling, is a circular wall of stones, topped by barriers of briar. There is a small opening for the sheep to pass through.  Once they are all in, instead of closing a hinged gate, the shepherd simply lies across the opening, so that nothing or no one can get through without going over his body first, without confronting or even killing him.

“This particular kind of shepherd literally makes himself into a barrier gate, a role that requires not only care but courage.  If any marauders or predators are to get to the sheep, they will only do so over the dead body of the shepherd.”1

“Over my dead body,” then, becomes less of a threat and more of an expectation.  Thieves and robbers are bound to come, to do their best to steal and to kill and to destroy, for the sheep are of infinite value.

We have a baptism today, another reminder of the infinite value of even one of Christ’s little sheep.  She is certainly vulnerable.  It may be to much to ask for stillness.  No one would ever question her worth.  At that font she will find water and the Holy Spirit.  She will be cleansed from sin, clothed in Christ, made one Body with Him and with us.

She will find there her Good Shepherd and her sheep-gate, metaphors not so much mixed as stacked.  Starting there, she will learn to hear the voice of our Shepherd, to follow Him into the green pastures and beside the still waters.  She will learn how Christ laid down His life that we may have life, and how He rose to life again, that we may have life everlasting.

We re-learn these things every time we do these things, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  So remember that you, beloved of God, are of infinite value, worth the life of God, and so is the person next to you, and the person who needs a little help at the Acme, and all the people God sees fit to put in our way every day.  The sheep, it seems, are worth protecting, over Christ’s dead body.  Who do you know who needs to hear that today?

1. John Kavanaugh, SJ  http://liturgy.slu.edu/4EasterA050717/theword_embodied.html

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Easter 3

Over Lent, several of you enjoyed the series we did on Common Misconceptions, the stuff we get wrong that might actually effect our lives and our relationship with God and each other. We talked a lot about the spiritual mechanics of death; about how we don’t turn into angels and that Wendy Bradley poem that goes “God looked around His garden and saw an empty space” and how God doesn’t kill off our loved ones for His own benefit. A lot of what we get wrong, now and throughout the ages, comes from misreading the Bible, or reading it alone without our community, or just plain not knowing our Scripture well enough. I’m as guilty as anybody else, by the way, which is why I keep working on it.

Our Gospel story today, commonly called “The Road to Emmaus” has caused a bunch of problems, all because of the beforementioned issues. Our heroes “were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus when the risen Jesus joined them, seemingly out of nowhere, opened their eyes to the Scriptures, and then revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread.”1

Where exactly is Emmaus? I love Biblical archeology, as it so often illuminates history in fulfilling ways. Also, “this question helps move our reflection still further as we explore the “correct” understanding of Scripture. Pilgrims to modern-day Israel are shocked to learn that as many as six sites are identified as “Emmaus.” Here are the four more popular ones.

(1) Latrun. The tradition of identifying this place as Luke’s Emmaus reaches back to the historian Eusebius (330). The Byzantine tradition never doubted this identification, but it seems to have been forgotten when a plague wiped the village out in 639.

(2) Abu Ghosh. This is the village on the Jaffa road where the ark of the covenant rested for twenty years (at the time of Samuel…The crusaders, our embarrassingly ignorant, Christian, warrior-ancestors in the faith, did not know about Latrun. So in typical crusader style, they measured 60 stadia from Jerusalem and identified the nearest village as Emmaus.

(3) Qubeiba. Between 1114 and 1164, the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre founded a village here to intensify the agriculture of the region from which they drew sustenance. As frequently happens in the Holy Land, later pilgrims assumed this place was related to the life of Christ, and since it was sixty stadia from Jerusalem, they identified it as Emmaus.

(4) “Most probable” Emmaus. After the Jewish War against Rome in 66-70 C.E., Vespasian assigned eight hundred discharged veterans to live in a place called “Emmaus,” located about thirty stadia, or four miles, from Jerusalem. Their encampment completely overshadowed the little town, and the site was given the name (until recently) Qoloniya. Abandoned in 1948, it was located near contemporary Motza. The round trip between Jerusalem and this place is sixty stadia, or about seven miles, half of this being a very plausible distance allowing the disciples to get up from table right after supping with Jesus and to return immediately to Jerusalem (Lk 24:33).”2

This brief archaeology and geography lesson suggests that we need to read the Bible carefully and with open hearts and minds; to, as the Collect says, “read, learn, and inwardly digest” our Scripture, lest we, on the road to our Emmauses, arrive at the wrong destination. That’s why, in the Prayers of the People, we pray that all Bishops and other ministers may “by their life and doctrine,” set forth God’s true and holy Word, lest I lead you to that wrong Emmaus.

“Jesus was able to “correct” the misunderstanding of his followers only because they were already familiar with the Scripture…”3 Jesus didn’t implant Scriptural knowledge, He opened to them Scriptural understanding.

It works the same way for us; knowing our Bible, reading, learning, and inwardly digesting that story, our story, is an integral part of how we know who we are and who God is, and if we ask Jesus to walk alongside us as we learn, He will open our hearts and minds to understand the great mysteries of God, the mysteries of life. Let’s walk that road to Emmaus together, shall we?

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Easter

Happy Easter, everybody! It’s a beautiful day, thank God, and you all look phenomenal in your Easter best. It seems we have something to be joyful about; something, or perhaps better, someone, to celebrate. The Sunday of the Resurrection reminds us once again that Jesus has indeed conquered death, that His resurrection is the hope of our immortal life with Him. Easter reminds us that Jesus didn’t do the wondrous things He did for His own sake, but for us.

Immortal life has been in the new, by the way. Despite all the other things going on the world, humans are still preoccupied with death. I read a Newsweek article that said that “Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.” It’s hard to believe, though, since the human quest for immortality is both ancient and littered with catastrophic failures. Around 200 B.C., the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, accidentally killed himself trying to live forever; he poisoned himself by eating supposedly mortality-preventing mercury pills.  Centuries later, the search for eternal life wasn’t much safer: In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died after blood transfusions from three healthy boys whose youth he believed he could absorb.”1

Obviously these guys don’t get it; and note that they’re all dudes, right? Ponce de Leon’s wife Leonora most likely just shook her head when he took off for the fountain of youth. Death is, whether we like it or not, part of human life. And we are here today because death is, somehow, part of the life of God as well.

That’s because Jesus Himself did not avoid death. He died and then – and this is why we’re all here today – rose from the dead. As the rector of St. Thomas’ 5th Avenue put it, “But the Resurrection of Jesus is not the resuscitation of a corpse – if it had been, Jesus would have had to die again. The Resurrection is the breaking into time and space of God’s immense power and love. Suddenly, in a world of broken promises, of violence and sin, there is hope – hope for something greater and far more fulfilling than…the cheap lure of immortality in this world. Immortality for the Christian is to be caught up into the love of God;” it is to know that to the faithful life changes, but never ends.2
Not that it always feels that way, and it certainly didn’t feel that way for Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” on that first Easter morn. St. Matthew tells us that the two Mary’s went to Jesus’ tomb before the Sun even rose that day; St. Mark says they went to anoint the Body of Jesus, but Matthew says they just went to see the tomb, to be close to the Lord. Mary Magdalene we all know; the “other Mary” wasn’t the Mother of Jesus but rather her sister-n-law, Mary wife of Clopas, and so Jesus’ aunt by marriage. The Marys went supposing they were visiting the dead; instead they meet first a mighty angel, and then the Almighty Himself. It’s like God was thinking: this whole Resurrection thing is too much, it’s more than a little bit frightening; let’s have an angel tell them what’s happening before they run into the guy who was dead a few minutes ago.

How did the Mary’s react? Fear, of course, and trembling. They did better than the supposedly tough soldiers who were guarding the tomb – they just passed out and fell on their faces. The Mary’ were fearful, but what else were they? Filled with great joy. They fell on their faces too, but to what? To worship the risen Lord.

The Marys probably didn’t know exactly what was going on, but they believed in God and they believed in Jesus. If they had any doubts about who Jesus was and is after His death, those doubts were answered by His resurrected life.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. How have we reacted to the risen Lord? We have all somehow met Him – again, that’s why we’re all here – and we believe He is the Son of the Living God. But as John Wesley put it, It is one thing to believe that God is God, but that the moment of conversion comes when you sense that God is God pro nobis, God for us, God always reaching out for us.

And so the the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything, for us, if we follow Him. The Resurrection makes it possible for us to love in the midst of hate, to have hope in the midst of darkness, to be courageous in times of fear and uncertainty. In His death, Jesus has indeed destroyed death, and His rising to life again has won for us true immortality, everlasting life in Him.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Laetare

I don’t watch a whole ton of television, but when I do, I’m most likely watching what are called procedurals, those crime or detective type shows, NCIS, Law & Order, Blue Bloods. Anyone who watches these shows knows that eyewitness testimony is of dubious use to detectives; worse still is the testimony of several eyewitnesses, given the fact that each person will see an event differently, different in relationship to where they were standing, their age, even their personalities. That’s because, in the words of that great Gorillaz song Clint Eastwood, “you don’t see with your eye;You perceive with your mind.”

You need to learn to see; your brain needs time – not a lot of time, mind you, but time – to learn how to unscramble the information it gets from your eyes and turn it into useful information. But if we need to learn to see on the physical level, we know very well that there are still other levels of seeing that require learning. You see what you’re trained to see. A doctor sees a patient and his or her condition differently than an engineer would. A fire inspector looks over a fire scene and can pick out details a lay person cannot.

We teach ourselves how to “see” truth as well, though that tends to be a longer process. Some of us, it seems, are born with spiritual sight, the ability to discern the presence of God where others cannot.

“St. Paul, in describing our condition on earth, tells us that here, in this life, we see only as “through a mirror, reflecting dimly” but that, after death, we will see (God) “face to face.” Clearly in describing our present condition here on earth he is highlighting a certain blindness, an embryonic darkness, an inability to actually see things as they really are. It is significant to note too that he says this in a context within which he is pointing out that, already now in this life, faith, hope, and charity help lift that blindness.”1

It’s clear from today’s Gospel story that the disciples were not looking through a lens of faith, hope, or charity, though they were really just responding to our blind beggar in the manner in which they were raised. The disciples of Jesus see the man, kind-of, but they don’t engage him as much as they use him as a set-up for a theological debate. “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the strangeness of asking if a man born blind had caused his own blindness by way of sinning in the womb; Jesus dismisses the common notion that a physical ailment must be caused by sin – not that physical ailments couldn’t be caused by sin, just must – and then He reveals what God has intended for this man, that the work of God, of God making all things new, would find its way to this particular blind man.

Jesus heals the man born blind – if He didn’t, we wouldn’t have this story – not only opening the man’s eyes but training his mind to see clearly the world around him. The eyes of the man’s spirit were also opened, opened and made ready to see the Truth standing before him, the Light of the World in the flesh.

Most of us, including me, walk around most of the time in a state of spiritual blindness. That’s not our fault, exactly, it’s more like a pre-existing condition. That doesn’t mean it’s any way to live. Spiritual blindness gets in the way of our capacity to see the world as God sees it. It’s leads us, like the disciples in today’s passage, to assume that if a neighbor is in the midst of trouble, it must somehow be their fault. Spiritual blindness causes us to divert our eyes and hearts from those in need, and it also keeps us from participating in the joy of others.

We’re rounding a corner in our Lenten season and heading toward the Cross of Christ. If Lent is our spiritual spring training, Jesus reminds us today to work on opening our eyes and hearts, because real life, the life found in the light of Christ, is right there in front of us, if only we have eyes to see it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lent 3

So, you may have noticed that it snowed this past Tuesday. My plans, like all of yours, were altered greatly, but I did get the opportunity to talk with some people I don’t always get to. I spoke with Fr. Kenn Katona, who was married in this parish a little over a year ago. He lives in Phoenix, where it’s about 90 degrees right now, and so a friend of his from the east visited him lately. His friend rented a 2017 Dodge Challenger for his visit…V8, rear wheel drive, quite the sports car. They took a drive around Casa Grande farm country, out in the dry wilderness, and they decided to take a road neither had traveled before. First it was a gravel road, and a little later it turned into a dirt road. About half an hour in, they were in their Challenger, totally lost, off-roading through creek beds. Eventually they decided that perhaps this was a bad idea, and that maybe they should turn around. And being two city boys, neither of them guessed that turning around a rear wheel drive sports car in a creek bed was a bad idea, and they got stuck.

So there we are in the middle of the desert, calling towing companies to see who would come to their rescue. Someone finally agreed to go get them after saying “It’ll cost you”. Three and a half hours and almost 500 dollars later, they were rescued. To paraphrase Springsteen, like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, they took a wrong turn and they just kept going.*

For obvious reasons, Fr. Kenn’s story reminded me of today’s Gospel lesson. We have the story of a woman who, in the dry Samaritan wilderness, took a wrong turn somewhere in life and just kept going.

So “Jesus has sent his disciples off for food, and he is sitting at a well when she comes to draw water. There is every reason why he shouldn’t talk to her at all.

“First, she is a woman. It is only the disciples’ awe of Jesus that keeps them from asking him what he thought he was doing when they return and find him talking to her, without even a chaperone by her.

“Secondly, she is a Samaritan. As she herself points out to him, Jews don’t talk to Samaritans. Samaritans are self-made outcasts, from the Jewish point of view; and self-respecting Jews stay away from them.

“And, thirdly, this Samaritan has the sort of history that makes women pariahs even in their home communities. Jesus knows her status, and he lets her see that he does. She has had five husbands (after the first three, maybe it’s her?) and she is currently living with a man to whom she is not married. Even by the lax standards of our own day, this sort of history would make people look askance at her. In her village, she is undoubtedly a shamed person.”1

Shamed enough that she ventured out to the well, the only source of water in town, without friends or familial help, in the heat of the day, so very alone. Outside of that sure prize of a boyfriend, she likely lives most of her life in an effort not to engage, lest she be shamed all the more. I do not envy her lot in life.

When she gets to the well, who’s there but Jesus, who she might have assumed had taken a wrong turn Himself. Their conversation is long and full of meaning, but you just heard it and you’ve heard it before; the main thrust of it is that yes, this woman is a mess, but Jesus engages her anyway. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care that she’s a mess; it’s that Jesus cares about her despite her mess.

How does Jesus engage this Samaritan woman? He could have preached to her that her sins are forgiven, or he could offer her some other kind of pastoral help. But he doesn’t, does he? No, he asks her to help him. He opens conversation with her by asking her to give him a drink. And then look at how the story ends: she brings belief in Jesus to her village, and the villagers come to Jesus because of her.

So how much of a mess are you right now? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that each of us is a mess in our own way, but just like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus engages each of us. Jesus offers us living water, He offers us Himself, and sends us, despite our messiness, to bring his love into the world.

*From a sermon given by the Rev. Kenneth Katona, Lent 2, 2017

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment