Archives for June 2009

Death has always been a question, 4 Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – 2009

June 28, 2009

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Psalm 130; or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24 and Lamentations 3:21-33 or Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”

What do you think about that verse from the Wisdom of Solomon?

If God didn’t make death and doesn’t delight in the death of the living, then why do people we love die, and who thought up heaven and hell? Why do our loved ones or good people or poor people or children die?

If there were no death, God would be a lot easier to figure out, don’t you think? Then God might be only the completely loving God who takes care of us, heals our sickness. A nice God, one who watches benignly from above as we live to be – what? – a million, a billion? Oh wait, now this gets to be confusing. If there were no death, we’d have to rethink the whole living thing.

So, what do we do?

First, we need to go back and consider where this passage from Lamentations comes from. Fortunately, we don’t read the scriptures as coming literally from the mouth of God into the ear of Moses, or any other writer of Biblical texts. These passages came from the hands of human beings just like you and me. The writers didn’t have magic powers to be able to probe God’s mind. They wrote from their own life experiences and an understanding of the culture and situations they found themselves and their people in at the time. We say inspired, we don’t say dictated.

And this is the beauty of scripture. The books of the Old and New Testaments were included in the canon of scripture because they, out of all the writings of those particular times, best commented on the connection of God to God’s people. These books were the ones used by the communities of those eras as helpful commentaries on how God worked in people’s lives. The writers were most likely very holy, thoughtful, devout people. They were probably very faithful to their prayers and so were able to listen to the inspiration of God. But they were human and had human questions and concerns.

Death has always been a question – especially the death of the young. If God loves us so much, why do we die? The writers of Lamentations and Jairus from our gospel probably wondered this. Maybe it’s because we don’t really know what’s on the other side. We have only God’s word of eternal life in union with God as promised especially by Jesus to hold on to.

The Book of Wisdom tells us that heaven is a place where tears are no more, neither crying nor sighing. The dead are in the hand of God. But what does that mean to us? Have you ever really thought about it?

In our mortal lives we don’t have a good image of what that means. Of course, we have those nice little carvings of a child leaning into the palm of a huge hand. The tenderness of that image gives us some idea, but there must be more. What we might do then is when we’re led into considering death as we do especially when we hear gospel stories like the daughter of Jairus or the raising of Lazarus, is to let our minds and hearts be just open to taking in our own images of what we see in the stories. We might consider the beauty of the church building around us – the music that stirs us – the image of a loving and faithful God that carries us into each day. Somehow all of this may be part of that place we call heaven. God does love us so much that our eternal life will be peace and love and joy. No one’s who’s ever had a near death experience has ever come back and said it was awful, have they? So, we must trust.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why the death of others so often hurts us so much. In an alternative Old Testament reading for today, David mourns the death of both Saul and Jonathan. And that’s a bit odd, don’t you think, when Saul gave David such a horrid time of it? Surely David loved Jonathan like a brother, but in their deaths, David mourned both. He cried:

“Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.”

There is part of our answer. We are the ones who mourn. Those we love are no longer visible to us. We can’t touch them or see their love for us. If we believe what we know and if we really trust God as we claim to in our prayers, hymns, and worship, then we know that they are in a good place – a place where they are not suffering but are whole and joyful and intimately united with the God we pray to. Our hearts are broken. They break not only for our own loved ones, but our hearts break when we hear about genocide, when we remember times in our history such as the Holocaust or times in our current day when people still die for their faith and the faith of others. We think of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyr of El Salvador – we think of our most beloved friends and our hearts break.

But – but – we must believe as many writers and holy people have told us, that God weeps with us, too. When the writer of Lamentations says, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living,” we must remember that this writer is speaking from a human understanding. In one way, that writer is right – God didn’t make death. Death is a natural part of being a human being with a finite life on a finite planet. Suffering, sickness, pain, and evil is a part of being a human living in the natural world.

Death happens, and as we consider death on a Sunday like this when we’re not involved right now in a requiem service, we can look at it perhaps more objectively. We can ask our questions and think quietly about them.

Maybe we can come to a deeper trust that the second part of that verse is true: “God weeps with us, too.” God weeps because we weep. God is there to comfort us as we weep. There’s nothing wrong with pouring out our deep sadness as the loss of someone we love or at an evil that’s been committed in our world, but we are not alone.

Another thing Jesus was offering us in his raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead was the promise of the resurrection. As humans we need visual images to help us understand. The idea of finally all being together in eternal life, rising from our own death, is hard. This helps us a little. This and the other stories of Jesus raising people from the dead give us an insight into resurrection.

It might also give us an understanding that the dead are indeed still with us. They are spirits, both Wisdom and Revelation tell us, but they are in our hearts as God is in our hearts. We may not be able to see or touch, but they are with God, they are with us.

God is love. God is with us in every emotion, in every part of our lives. We pray for the dead not because they need it, but because it helps us – it keeps them close to us, it touches our memories.

As it says in 2 Samuel: “Beloved and lovely! In life and in death we are not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – June 21, 2009

(RCL) 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 and Psalm 9:9-20; or 1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16 and Psalm 133; or Job 38:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asked the Adversary in the first chapter of Job. And that was the fateful question, the catalyst, the push that set in motion a chain of events that would leave Job near despair.

Job had seven sons and three daughters, and his livestock numbered in the hundreds. He was not only prosperous, he was good, or to use the more appropriate and specific Biblical word, he was “righteous.” In defending himself before God, Job declared, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. … I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me.” And we have no reason to believe that Job was not telling the truth.

But disaster overcame this man of righteousness and prosperity. The livestock were killed by marauders and natural disaster, and his children were all killed when a tornado struck the house in which they were having a party. Finally, Job himself was afflicted with a chronic, painful, debilitating illness.

However, Job still had his wife and his friends, although he may have wished more than once that they, too, had been in the house with his children. “Curse God and die,” his wife urged. And his friends were no better. “Who that was innocent ever perished?” they asked. And “Happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” In short, these friends insisted that Job was in the wrong and God was in the right.

When Job could take it no longer, he burst out, “God has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me. … God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces … though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” What kind of God is this, Job asked, who allows the wicked to “live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? … How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out?”

The story of Job, of course, is the human story. His misfortunes were more dramatic than the misfortunes most of us will encounter, but they were different from ours only in degree, not in kind. Life is tragic, and to fail to appreciate the tragedy of human life is to fail to be fully human.

But what makes Job most like us are his questions. Job’s questions went on and on and on until he was worn out, and his friends were worn out, and God was just about worn out.

To be human and to be thoughtful at all is to question much. Job’s questions are our questions: “Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer?”

Other questions, less momentous but no less persistent, linger at the corner of our awareness: Does the one I love also love me? What can I do with my life that will give me happiness and fulfillment? Will I have enough resources to live on in old age?

And above all we wonder: Why must I suffer and die? Why must those I love suffer and die?

At times these questions spin about us like a whirlwind. Job’s questions were like that, too, until finally, one day, Someone spoke to Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

Job’s questions got answered with more questions. In asking Job these questions, God seemed to be saying that there is no answer to Job’s questions, or at least, there is no answer that Job can understand. The point of the Book of Job appears to be that there are some questions to which there are no answers, or no answers that the human mind can wrap itself around. That’s can be frustrating, especially to those of us who like to believe that any question can be answered, any problem solved, if we apply reason to it and study it and do research.

So, is Job merely a rebuke to human reason, to the quest to make sense of life and answer unanswerable questions? Or does Job offer us some comfort in those sleepless nights when our mind just won’t stop asking questions?

The answer of Job is more, much more, than the mere assertion that life’s big questions are unanswerable.

Job got more than just a rebuke; he got God. And so do we. In the midst of the questions, in the midst of the whirlwind and turmoil, there is God. Just as surely as God came to Job, God comes to us.

Furthermore, this God who came to Job and comes to us is a God who hears our questions and speaks to us. God doesn’t always answer our questions, for perhaps we do not even know enough to ask the right questions, much less to understand the answer. But this God who speaks in the midst of the whirlwind is a God who chooses to be in relationship to us.

Consider another Biblical tale that we heard this morning. Jesus and the disciples boarded a fifteen-foot fishing boat to cross from west to east across the Sea of Galilee. It should have been a short, uneventful journey, but instead they encountered a fierce storm. The comparison to human life is irresistible.

Job, too, had every reason to think that his journey across life’s sea would be uneventful, that he would grow old and die in prosperity, with the comfort of his wife and family around him. What more can any of us wish for?

But storms arise. Like Job, the disciples asked, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” It is a question that we are bound to ask time and time again on life’s journey.

Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, and if that were the only sign over human life, we might well despair.

However, the Christian faith asserts that there is another sign over human life: the Cross. For we have not only to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind and replied to Job’s unanswerable questions with more unanswerable questions. We have also to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind on the Sea of Galilee: “Peace! Be still!”

In the tempest of questions that fly about us, God comes to speak peace. And when we ask the question that the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” there is an answer: He is the Crucifed and Risen Lord who is with us in the storm and the calm, on sea and on land, when we have all the answers and when we have nothing but questions.

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama and is rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

In the kingdom of God, 2 Pentecost, Proper 6 (B) – 2009

June 14, 2009

(RCL) 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus speaks in parables. Again. He does that a lot. Jesus frequently uses this particular literary device to get his point across. And in this passage from Mark’s gospel, we hear that Jesus preached only in parables, “as they were able to hear.”

Parables are brief stories that illustrate a particular religious or moral construct, short tales that communicate universal truths. They are not like fables or legends, in that they are true. But they are also not like nonfiction narratives, in that they are not always strictly factual. Parables are a kind of extended metaphor, which is one way – and maybe the best way – of grasping the amazing wonder that is God within the limits of human language.

And today’s parable is about exactly that: the amazing wonder that is God. Jesus refers to it as the “kingdom of God,” whereas some in our day prefer less monarchal or male imagery. Some suggest that we should call this the “realm” or the “commonwealth” of God – and the Greek of the original text supports this interpretation.

From an etymological viewpoint, the term derives from the word for “base” or “foundation.” It refers not to territory, as in the Kingdom of Siam, but to dominion, as in a semi-autonomous state that is under the sovereignty of another entity. In a way, our own Anglican Communion is an example of such a kingdom, as each of nearly forty churches – including our own Episcopal Church – is semi-autonomous. Yet each is also part of the Anglican family, and all of us under the sovereignty of God in Christ.

The kind of kingdom Jesus describes is just like that: it is a kingdom in which the members have choice, the free will to make decisions about their lives, their involvement, their direction, and their future.

And the first choice we get to make is about which kingdom to call our own. You see, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, he is talking about a kingdom inhabited by the righteous, and this kingdom is not the only kingdom.

Jesus thinks the most obvious other kingdom – Satan’s kingdom – is not worth a fig, but he does acknowledge that it exists. In Luke’s gospel, for instance, he asks, “If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?” The kingdom of evil is real; it’s all around us all the time, and we are lured by it and sometimes swayed by it.

The hope, of course, is that God will draw all persons to himself, and that everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven. That is Jesus’ prayer, and that must be our fervent and unwavering prayer as Christian people: that everyone will choose the path of righteousness.

But the persistent reality of this incarnate world is that some people make other choices. The examples are legion. In our age, we can think of Timothy McVeigh, who chose to bomb a building in Okalahoma City rather than serve the poor in the name of Jesus. Or Adolph Hitler, who sought to exterminate a people and dominate the world rather than serve as the least of these who are members of Christ’s family.

There are many, many others, of course. And these are the extreme cases. Most of the world will not plot terrorist attacks, commit murder, or seek global domination. But we nevertheless have choices to make. We can choose the path of righteousness, or that other path. And we make that choice in big ways and in little ones, over and over and over again throughout our lives. Mostly, thanks be to God, we choose the path of righteousness, we choose to enter into the kingdom of God.

But sometimes, we make a different choice. We all do this, each and every one of us. From time to time, we all make the wrong choice. It is called sin.

We make a choice that puts our own selfish wishes over the real needs of the community that surrounds us. We make a choice that wreaks violence on someone else – be it physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. We make a choice that belittles other people according to category – be it race, or gender, or disability, or you name it.

In the kingdom of God, we would put aside our own egotistical need to have power over anyone else, and instead cultivate compassion, understanding, and cooperation.

In the kingdom of God, we would cease all violence, repenting of the evil that enslaves us, and instead promote true dialogue, empathy, and acceptance.

In the kingdom of God, we will bring an end to our own oppression of others, and instead foster open-mindedness, willingness to encounter what is new, and appreciation for difference.

This is a hopeful vision of paradise, and Jesus offers this to us every day – in his parables, in the sacraments, and in the spirit embodied in everyone we meet.

It seems so very clear. Kingdom of God: good. Kingdom of Satan: bad. Choose the good and reject the bad. So why is it that so often we do not make the right choice?

One reason – perhaps the biggest reason – is fear.

When we are afraid of something, we sometimes choose what is safe over what may seem challenging.

When we are afraid of what we know about some people, we sometimes choose to disparage them rather than take the opportunity to make new acquaintances.

When we are afraid of what we do not know, we sometimes choose to avoid the growth that comes only through learning something new, retreating instead into a cocoon of ignorance.

But according to Mark’s gospel, in the kingdom of God it is “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

We do not know how the miracle that is God’s love works, how it grows, or what makes it sprout. And so we might respond in fear of the unknown, avoiding confrontation with our shadow side, acquiescing to our darker thoughts, choosing what is safe over what is right.

Or we can respond in hopeful confidence, trusting that God is doing more than we can ask or imagine – even when we cannot see, or refuse to see, or do not comprehend.

A few years ago, an article in the New York Times quoted Harvard professor Kimberly M. Thompson as saying that the problem is that “we’re not taught how to cope with uncertainty. We tend to want answers to be in black and white without a whole lot of gray.”

Her research tells us that most of us respond to risk and fear through some sort of gut instinct, rather than any sort of analytical calculations.

But so often what we take as “gut instinct” is not the leading of God. We are called to study, to pray, and to consider how best to make the choice to live in the kingdom of God.

We’ve all heard the excuses: Sure, it’s wrong to lie, but I was under such pressure! It was a sin to treat her the way I did, but I was so very angry! I know I’m married, but this other person made me feel so good!

That list goes on and on, as well. Those examples – and every example – show us what temptation and sin are all about: refusing to stop and consider how best to make the choice for the kingdom of God.

And that is what we Christians are called to do: to consider the consequences of our actions, to turn away from evil, to choose to live in the kingdom of God.

As it says in Mark 4: “For the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.”

What seems like a trivial matter, then, can become the pattern of a lifetime.

The smallest of seeds becomes the greatest of all shrubs.

The tiniest of babes can become the greatest of all saints.

And even the nastiest of all Christians can become the greatest of all examples of what it is to choose to live in the kingdom of God.

Because that choice comes not once in a lifetime, not ever so rarely, not only now and again. The choice to live in the kingdom of God comes to each of us every hour of every day.

So let us walk by faith, not by sight, with confidence. For the love of Christ urges us on. Everything old has passed away, and in Christ there is a new creation.

That new creation is us. And it is up to us to make the choice for the kingdom of God.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.

The Lord’s voice is the music at the center of all, Trinity Sunday (B) – 2009

June 7, 2009

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29 or Canticle 2 or 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

[NOTE: If a piano is available, consider playing the musical notes described.]

Imagine that you are sitting at a piano, and with your left hand you press down on the key in the middle of the keyboard – middle C. What do you hear?

One full note that fills your ears and your senses. It is pure.

Then imagine that with your right hand, you press down very, very gently on the key exactly seven keys above middle C, the note of C one octave above middle C. Imagine you’ve pressed the key so gently that the hammer doesn’t strike the strings in the piano. Those strings remain undampered, or as the musicians say, “open.”

Now, without moving your right hand or releasing the key an octave above middle C, imagine that once again your left hand presses down on the piano key for middle C, and once again hear that beautiful tone. Now, imagine letting go of middle C.

You might expect that all sound would stop.

But you can still hear a musical tone.

The vibration of the strings of middle C has caused the strings to vibrate on the C note one octave above – so much so that you can hear it softly. The undampered, open note has been made to resonate by the lower note. The vibrations of middle C have given life to the strings one octave away.

So, this might be another way to imagine God – not another way to see God, but a way to hear God. God is that powerful musical tone at the center of the universe, vibrating so steadily that all that is open and undampered will begin to vibrate also.

Imagine that you are those open strings one octave above middle C. You begin to resonate, not because something, or someone, has struck you or plucked you as a harpist does, but because you are open and in tune with God.

We are able to resonate with God because we are made to be in tune with God, a gift imparted by being created in the image of God.

The Anglican theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie encourages us to use music to help us imagine God – not in images, but in musical sounds. Just as one note in the piano sounding will cause another to resonate, In the book Beholding the Glory, Begbie writes that God interacts “with the world intimately, without violating it or merging with it, liberating it to be more fully itself.”

Our God truly is a liberating God, not a controlling God. In our resonance with God, we move from dissonance to tunefulness, which is freedom to live fully into God’s image of us, not the world’s version of us. Begbie writes:

“God’s involvement with our lives neither pushes us out, nor swallows us up, nor leads to some kind of fusion. God does something much more creative: through intimate interaction with us, God frees us to ‘sound’ as we were created to sound, enabling us to be more fully ourselves. We are not de-humanized, but re-humanized.”
With this in mind, listen to Jesus’ words to our old friend Nicodemus. Jesus tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Jesus strives to put Nicodemus in tune with the music that God makes in the creation. He does not de-humanize him, but seeks to re-humanize him by liberating his spirit from the brokenness and folly of the fallen world – so that his spirit may be resonate with the Spirit of God that has given life to all of the creation.

Is it allowable to think of being “born from above” as God’s profound music at the center of the universe causing us to come alive because we resonate with God’s very music in the creation itself? Can it be that Nicodemus, in asking his questions of Jesus, is seeking to undamper himself from all that keeps him from resonating with God, a desire he feels because he sees others in Jesus’ midst resonating with God?

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

We hear the music of God, and do not know from whence it comes from. This music gives us birth, for we resonate with the music within the Spirit of God.

Maybe St. Paul is sharing the same truth when he writes to the church in Rome, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” We are suggesting, “All who resonate with the music of God are children of God.”

Paul then says, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We might say, “When we resonate with God’s music, it is the very vibrations of the Spirit of God vibrating our spirit, showing us how we are birthed by God, making us children of God.”

God begets us by making us sing the same song of God’s creation.

In our musical musings, one note vibrating causes another to do the same. That reality is a model of the incarnation. When we resonate with God, similarly, God is incarnate within us. The challenge is to make our resonance possible by being in tune. Tunefulness is certainly a gift of grace, but we tune ourselves by sharing in the life and death of Christ.

Paul said if we suffer with Christ – meaning, if we imitate his life – “we may also be glorified with him.” We might say, “As we incarnate Christ into our very being, we will resonate with God in the same way that the Son resonates with the Father.”

If we say that the Father resonates with the Son, we are saying that the Father is incarnate within the Son. When we resonate with God, God is incarnate within us. The music of God animates us. The Spirit – if in this moment we can hear the Spirit as the wind of God’s glorious music – gives us life by making us resonate with God.

As this is Trinity Sunday, maybe we should say that there is not one note, but three notes – a full chord – playing at the center of the keyboard that makes resonant the other open note. In Beholding the Glory, Jeremy Begbie asks:

“What could be more apt than to speak of the Trinity as a three-note-resonance of life, mutually indwelling, without mutual exclusion and yet without merger, each occupying the same ‘space,’ yet recognizably and irreducibly distinct, mutually enhancing and establishing each other? To speak of three strings mutually resonating instantly introduces a dynamism … far truer to the trinitarian, living God of the New Testament.”

The Lord’s voice is the music at the center of all life in which we strive to be in tune. Through our being formed in Christ, by imitating the life he showed us, we turn from the sin of the broken world that dampers us, and open ourselves to being made resonant with the eternal life of God.

Jesus explains it this way to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

On this Trinity Sunday, we give thanks that we do not perish, but are made eternally resonant with God the Father who resonates with God the Son who resonates with God the Holy Spirit, the very “three-note-resonance of life, mutually indwelling, without mutual exclusion and yet without merger.”

Better yet, just listen for the music.

 

— The Rev. Timothy B. Safford is rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia.