Archives for May 2012

Who is ‘Deuteronomy’ audience?

Keller fosters community sensibility but may estrange community

Immersion Bible Studies: Deuteronomy. Jack A. Keller, Jr. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012. 96 pp.

Upon browsing the table of contents, the provocative and hope-filled chapter titles would intrigue virtually any reader. The first chapter, “God Is on Your Side!” is probably the most scandalous title, and provokes a certain curiosity to see if that exclamation point would turn into a question mark.

As the subject of the book is Deuteronomy, there is much emphasis on the law, and orthodox practice does seem to lead to God’s provision. In line with this narrative, Keller draws many connections between obeying with prosperity and disobeying with punishment. Occasionally, he qualifies his arguments by providing examples whereby “bad” things do happen to “good” people. He also constantly reminds the reader that while humanity participates in God’s scheme, humanity ultimately relies on unmerited grace. Keller concludes his first chapter by asking the reader, “What would it take to persuade you that God is on your side – not only yours, but truly yours?”

Although these questions may be Keller’s pastoral way of encouraging people to trust in God’s faithfulness, his phrasing can lead down some precarious paths. If God is for us, then one might say that God is against someone else. Such logic can taint how we interact with the “other.”

Keller also states that “the Lord whom Israel worships is the creator of all human beings, whether they know it or not.” Such a sentence left unexamined can lead Christians to treat non-Christians as mere actors in a Christian drama. In other words, it is not so much Keller’s statements that are worrisome, but that they are not expounded upon enough. Keller certainly offers a meaty Bible study, but with every metaphor and claim about God, there is the potential for miscommunication. It would be ridiculous to qualify everything, but some sort of disclaimer would be welcome.

In Chapter Four, “Open Heart and Open Hand”, Keller astutely captures Deuteronomy’s command that no other god should co-rule with Adonai, nor should any physical representation of God be made. Keller continues to reveal Deuteronomy’s desire to condemn other religious practices and other perverted forms of worship. Such is the crude, harsh character of this book in the Bible. Yet, as Keller contends that “idolatry is seen as the chief culprit,” he disagrees that “it must be eradicated at any cost.” This provides a healthy balance to Deuteronomy’s exposition of blessings and curses.

The gem of the book is the leader’s guide. Throughout each chapter, Keller engages the reader in three ways: by claiming one’s own story, by entering the Bible story, and by challenging the reader to “live the story.” The leader’s guide creates wonderful spaces for people to gather and encounter God. The questions he suggests for study time also facilitate substantial spiritual reflection.

But although the study sessions may be useful to a wide audience, the book itself seems intended for a middle- to upper-middle-class Western audience. The life examples offered as well as the historical references mentioned all seem to come from an American context. While enculturation is inevitable, and should be, it is crucial that readers also understand for whom the book of Deuteronomy was, and is, intended. Keller makes it very clear that a promise for Israel is a promise for us. This statement resonates with Christian faith, yet there are real differences in addressing the poor, the devout, the sinners and the saints, the sacred and profane. Especially when these categories are blurred, especially when people relate to several categories, especially when people move in and out of said categories, it becomes even more important to consider a writer’s intended audience. What do we lose if the poor internalize the message that is intended for the oppressors? How does our devotion warp when we interpret every Biblical sentence as directly applicable to our lives?

Instead, every verse in Deuteronomy that may or may not immediately affect one’s life, does so, insofar as we should be concerned about whom it is really addressing. As Keller reminds us, “disciples will embrace even enemies.” In a sense, this message is for everyone, and God willing, how liberating it would be to love our oppressors. But such a conclusion cannot come from the oppressor as an order to the oppressed. The oppressed should not associate their feelings of hurt, betrayal and anger as indicators of a puny faith. Thus, one should exercise caution in appropriating the weighty exhortations found in Deuteronomy.

Overall, Keller should be commended for tackling such a vast piece of our canon. His writing is very accessible and his mission to deepen people’s religious experiences is admirable. We all need more writers to make the connections between the head and the heart.

Another wonderful aspect of Keller’s work is his hope for communities – not simply individual interior lives. Keller’s questions probe the emotions of the individual, but he also asks, “What are you (the reader) doing to help your children and their generation join the story?”

Keller reminds us that sin is not just individual, but corporate; thus, all of Keller’s “guidelines for the group” hope to maintain that group focus. After all, one person alone cannot be church; the body must have many members.

(Rhian Roberts is seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. She grew up in Philadelphia and is supported by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. She has lived in Israel and studied Judaism at Smith College.)

 

Colin Mathewson

Colin Mathewson and his wife, Laurel, are seminarians at Sewanee: University of the South, and postulants in the Diocese of San Diego. Check out their blog at colinandlaurel.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter.

Read Colin’s comments on the RCL readings for 2 Pentecost, Proper 5 (B).

Read Colin’s comments on the RCL readings for 8 Pentecost, Proper 11 (B).

Read Colin’s comments on the RCL readings for 22 Pentecost, Proper 25 (B).

Read Colin’s comments on the RCL readings for Trinity Sunday (C).

Read Colin’s comments on the RCL readings for Propio 15 (C).

Bible Study: Proper 5 (B) – June 10, 2012

Discussion Leader: Colin Mathewson, Sewanee

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”  (Mark 3:35).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) and Psalm 138 (Track 2: Genesis 3:8-15 and Psalm 130); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35.

Genesis 3:8-15

Imagine that Adam and Eve have kindly invited you to Eden and you arrive (clad in a loincloth, as they had asked) around suppertime. After the meal, you three hear the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden by the evening breeze. Could you find God in the garden by this sound alone? What does God sound like in your life today?

Imagine the voice of God calling out from among the trees, “Where are you?” Was the maker of heaven and earth angry? Disappointed? Somewhat amused? Wondering mightily how this whole human project was to pan out? Understanding?

Redirected blame and curses follow, of course. How can we approach the story of the “fall” afresh apart from the centuries-old Augustinian tradition of original sin?

Psalm 130

The psalmist offers a Jewish understanding of humanity’s relationship with God in light of God’s Edenic curses of serpent, woman and man. Pain, labor and conflict are our lot in life, but from such depths we can call to the Lord and trust that God hears us. What’s more, there is “plenteous redemption” to be shared, and thus we wait for the Lord and feed on God’s hopeful word.

If you haven’t waited on a sunrise lately, it’s time. As the rose-orange glow builds under the horizon, there is a similar pressure that builds within our souls. Each dawn arrives in warm consummation of this place we call home; with each day’s gift, we are called to bathe this world in God’s love.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Paul, a tent maker, easily employs tents as a metaphor in his letter to the Corinthian church. As he stitched covering and braided rope, he contemplated the seemingly sturdy, but ultimately fleeting nature of human existence. He crafted a straightforwardly functional ware, meant to be used and moved and used again. In his letters, Paul approaches his ministry in a similarly unsentimental, hardworking manner.

While it may sound romantic to camp in the woods, many who spend the night in a tent find the experience unsettling as well. Thin taut fabric serves as flimsy protection against the unknown dark. Indeed, daily living, even within walls, is an exercise in vulnerability, as much as we attempt to guard ourselves from life’s several perils. Thanks be to God who has constructed for us an everlasting abode!

Mark 3:20-35

Jesus speaks in parables, a story form that challenges his listeners’ assumptions in order to teach them something new in the mental spaces shaken free. He thus pushes uncomfortably on a pillar of first-century Jewish life: the central role of the family in society. However, Jesus’ aim here is not to reject his family of origin, but rather to redefine the notion of family to include all of humanity. This is about God’s loving and radical hospitality over against any and all socially constructed constraints; it is a vision of the kingdom that includes, not excludes.

In our Christian ministry, are those whom we help the “other,” or are they family, our sisters and brothers?

Catherine Amon

Catherine Amon is a Masters of Divinity student at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. As a psychotherapist in practice in New York City and New Haven, Conn., and a spiritual retreat leader trained at Mercy Center in Madison, Conn., she is particularly interested in the integration of spirituality, psychotherapy and theological anthropology. She is currently the coordinator of the Committee on Spirituality in the International Society for Schema Therapy. She lives in Guilford, Conn., with her teenage son and English springer spaniel, and she is hoping to be accepted as a postulant in the Diocese of Connecticut.

Read Catherine’s comments on the RCL readings for Trinity Sunday (B).

Bible Study: Trinity Sunday (B) – June 3, 2012

Discussion Leader: Catherine Amon, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“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” (John 3:8).

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29 or Canticle 2 or 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Isaiah 6:1-8

We begin our readings this Trinity Sunday with Isaiah’s inaugural vision and prophetic commission. This passage opens with the unimaginable: Isaiah sees God. And his response – the all too familiar human cry “Woe is me! I am lost.”

In Exodus 33, Moses prays to the Lord to show him his glory. The Lord warns, “You cannot see my face; no one shall see me and live.” No wonder Isaiah recoils and seeks to protect himself in the awesome presence of the glory of God. As a man made unclean by sin, living in a world made unclean by sin, Isaiah is lost both in and to the presence of God. Yet he is not in peril, for this same God said to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” We see God’s grace and mercy sending an angel to relieve Isaiah of his guilt and sin, although not without the pain of a live coal from the altar searing his lips. As the burden of sin is lifted from him, Isaiah is freed to hear the voice of God calling to him, and is able to embrace his prophetic mission. In the claim of “Here I am; send me!” we hear Isaiah’s transition from his previously unclean life to a life embracing and being embraced by God.

What are the ways you find yourself wrapped in the cloak of “Woe is me,” bemoaning yourself and your life?

What is the impact this has on your relationship with God, and your ability to hear God’s call to you?

How might you move forward with an eye to understanding God’s mission for you?

Psalm 29

This psalm is a hymn of praise to the glory and sovereignty of God in the midst of a thunderstorm. In the power and chaos of storm and flood, we hear the voice of God upon the waters, a voice louder than thunder, a power stronger than the most turbulent of waves. This is the power that brought forth all creation when the earth was a formless void, covered in darkness, called into being as a wind from God swept over the waters.

Our world today can feel like a thunderstorm, full of chaos and powerful forces that seek to destroy us. Chaos and destruction can seem to surround us, just as we feel the destructive powers of a thunderstorm. This psalm, calling us to be mindful of the power and strength of God, invites us to reflect on the sovereignty of God. Just as God was powerful enough to give form and structure to the formless void and bring the world into creation, God has the power to triumph over all the destructive forces in our world. The psalm shows God as almighty king, enthroned above the chaos of the flood, King forever more. While God has power to do anything, God’s choice is to relate to us in love, giving us strength, granting us the blessing of security and peace.

What forces in your life today feel like the chaos of a whirling thunderstorm?  How might you let go and turn to the strength of God in the midst of your chaos? How might this offer you peace?

Romans 8:12-17

Paul writes powerfully in this passage about our inheritance as the children of God. No matter what our experience of parenting has been on this earth, whether our experience of family has been good or bad, we are God’s children and heirs to the kingdom. Much stands between us and this inheritance, and we are easily seduced and distracted by the powers of this world. We live in finite bodies in a finite world and are constantly coerced by sin into believing that we have ultimate power over our lives, and that these lives and the worldly things of the flesh that surround us are what is important. Paul reminds us that to live by the flesh is to die. To live by the flesh is to live in fear in a place of spiritual enslavement. This is a strong call to live counterculturally, to live into our lives as God’s children. In our inheritance lies the power to embrace God as the ruler of our lives, to surrender and cry out “Abba! Father!” just as Jesus did, knowing that in this cry for help we surrender the will of our flesh in order that we might know God’s will for our lives and live in and through the power of the Holy Spirit as God’s word within us. An inheritance as rich and full as this can never come cheap – to live by the Spirit is to live into eschatological truth, transcending the desires of the flesh and making our own contribution towards the healing of God’s creation.

What “deeds of the body,” those all-too-human places to which we are attached, do you need to let go of in your life?

Where do you live in tension between your will and desire to be in control and God’s will for you?

John 3:1-17

This passage about Nicodemus is unique to John’s gospel. The gospel of John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus (8:23 “You are of this world; I am not of this world”) as God taking on flesh, entering into our history to save us from sin.

This reading brings together our first lesson, psalm, and epistle for Trinity Sunday. First Isaiah was overwhelmed by his vision of God, unworthy to see God by virtue of his sin. He is burned to cleanse him of his sin in order that hear God call and answer. Our psalm guides us to trust in God’s power over evil and chaos and be rewarded with strength and peace. Paul commands us to let go of the life we know and allow God to lead us to new life in Spirit. Our sin separates us from God and keeps us from seeing him. God is all powerful over the chaos of sin, and comes to us in Christ, inviting us to be glorified with Christ by dying to our old life and receiving new life in the Spirit of God.

Most central to our lives with God is the paschal mystery – the cycle of suffering, death and transformation by the Spirit into new life. This is what Nicodemus struggles to understand, but cannot understand, as he is trapped in the earthly perspective of the life of the flesh. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul writes “So no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God (11); for who has known the mind of the Lord … we have the mind of Christ (16).” Just as Jesus let go of his earthly body, we too have to die to our earthly attachments to be transformed and receive our inheritance as children of God.

One of my favorite quotes is from St John of the Cross “The language of God is the experience that God writes into our lives.” As you look at your life today in the context of transformation, consider our final questions.

What would it mean for you to be born to new life in Spirit? What would need to change in your life? How can you look to “the mind of Christ” to help?

Transforming Churches: Thad’s Santa Monica

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Meet this start-up congregation pitching the gospel to “studio heads, script writers and actors.”

Size can be deceiving, 3 Pentecost, Proper 6 (B) – 2012

June 17, 2012

[1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Psalm 20 (Track 2: Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14);2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34]

Jared Fogel became a familiar figure on television by revealing his dramatic weight loss through selectively eating Subway sandwiches. The national fast-food chain, however, has a current advertizing campaign, boasting that “Bigger is better. Biggest is Best.” This reference to their fountain drinks might make one wonder whether Subway actually originated in Texas rather than New York City. “Bigger is better. Biggest is Best” does sound like something Texans would say.

Texans love to brag about the fact that their state has a county bigger than Rhode Island, that it takes 900 miles of driving to get from the Rio Grande to the Oklahoma line. Its state song originally contained the phrase “largest and grandest,” but the admission of Alaska to the Union caused a painful identity crisis and forced the legislature to change it to “boldest and grandest.” Still, the phrase “Everything is bigger in Texas” continues as a matter of pride in the state. Of course, it’s not just Texans who are subject to such views. Claims that the United States has the biggest economy and functions as the most powerful nation in the world is a reality for almost all Americans. We are big, and we are proud of it.

Respect for bigness in Texas or at Subway or by anyone certainly has its place. It obviously has its value. Bigness can be good. Bigness can often accomplish what smallness cannot. Bigness can bring a richness of resources, useful diversity, power for the good and economy of scale.

But bigness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for sure. There is also a bad side of bigness – one that rural folk like to tout. They worry about computerization of everything in life – about Big Brother watching. They worry about regimentation and loss of individuality, depersonalization in a mass society in which one can become lost in the crowd, and the pitfalls of cities – traffic jams, crime, pollution and the like.

And there might be another negative about bigness that can harm us all. It can result in the sin of pride – of thinking that bigness, in and of itself, is so wonderful that it can accomplish anything; and that smallness is necessarily inferior. In this light, smallness seems ineffective, insignificant, powerless, second rate. All of us, including Texans and Subway, need to recognize this truth.

Maybe a way for us to think about the value of size is to imagine if this were the generation that God came in human form back to earth. Where would the modern day Christ be born? In America? In New York or Washington or New Orleans? That seems very unlikely. What about China or Russia or Japan? Surely not. Maybe a medium-sized country such as Mexico or Sweden? No. Not if the presence of God could reveal itself in the same way as in the first century. Probably Christ would come to some place like Bolivia or Rwanda or Thailand.

Look back to where Jesus was born and lived 2,000 years ago. Not in the powerful city of Rome or among the grandeur of Greece or in the Han Dynasty or any other major civilization of the time. Rather, as we know, he came to Galilee – in the province of Judea, a tiny, insignificant fourth-rate country. And yet – from that small place – came the greatness of God. That reality underscores the gospel view that the bigness of the world can easily become an illusion, and that God stands everyone on the side of the “little people” – the downtrodden, the sick, the poor, the lonely, the homeless, prisoners and captives, the victims of oppression.

Smallness is a focus of today’s gospel reading – the Parable of the Mustard Seed. From God’s perspective, things are often not what they appear to be at first. The tiny mustard seed may seem small and insignificant, but within it looms something very valuable, a usual part of creation. Doesn’t this parable help us realize that size can be deceiving? Doesn’t it help us understand that out of a small thing can come something grand and wonderful and powerful? In this parable, Jesus spoke to the truth that smallness has its strengths and advantages and possibilities.

Smallness is a norm to which Jesus returned again and again in his ministry. And we know, too, that smallness is the basis on which the church began. The church operates best when it carries into larger ministries the insights and techniques of smallness. We are at our best when we engage in individual ministries because we have but one ministry as an example – that of Jesus himself. He gathered around him a small band of followers, totaling at best two dozen people. He worked closest with a select band of 12 who gathered with him at the Last Supper and heard his message of servanthood. When the church was forming itself, it first felt empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry the good news of Christ out into the world. It found expression in a small group of 11 who became empowered by the risen Lord in an upper room of fear.

The people Jesus chose to carry on his work were, by the world’s standards, small men – fishermen, unlearned, probably illiterate. One was a despised tax collector. They were simple people, ordinary people. Some of his band of followers were the very rejects of society. By all outward appearances, they were small people. This, of course, is based on the judgment and standards of quantity and wealth and education and worldly power.

But by the standards of quality and stature in God’s eyes, they can be seen as the greatest of people. And we can learn that, in the midst of a worldly culture that idolizes bigness, for the Christian there is a norm that honors smallness – the kind of smallness with which Jesus worked. We can see that no matter how large a congregation may grow in numbers, its success as a part of the Body of Christ depends on its ability to maintain standards illustrated by Jesus. This means maintaining concern for individuals, providing opportunity for ministry for everyone, promoting the feeling of worth in everyone, making sure that all are interconnected, so that, for example, there is somebody to miss you when you are absent. Small-town people and those who live in tight neighborhoods in urban areas understand the value of natural and easy connectedness, of fellowship in the Christian sense. Others in different settings do well to work hard to make this kind of small community connectedness a reality in the midst of a mass culture. Congregations, small or large, can learn to live into the power of such a dynamic.

If, spiritually, we become “too big for our britches” – if bigness and its illusion of power becomes a problem for Christians, individually or as a faith community – the mustard seed image remains instructive. The small size of community does not devalue its potential. From the right kind of “small thinking” can flow the values and mission that Jesus gave to his first followers who have passed it on to us. This parable reminds us that it is not the size that is important but what comes from it. It is not the size of the seed that is important, but what counts – in God’s eyes – is the quality of God’s love that we can spread among each other and into the wider community.

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

God calls us to expand our family, 2 Pentecost, Proper 5 (B) – 2012

June 10, 2012

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) and Psalm 138 (Track 2: Genesis 3:8-15 and Psalm 130); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Family. We all come from one. Some are loving, some are quirky, some are dysfunctional, some are abusive, and some are a combination of those things. No matter what type of family we have, we have a role to play within it: the Peacemaker, the Pretty One, the Black Sheep, the Smart One, the Religious One, the Baby, and so on. But what happens when the Black Sheep starts acting like the Smart One? Or the Peacemaker becomes the Artistic One? The delicate system of roles is shaken and the other players must try to put the person back in their role or adjust to the new role that is being played. Guess which one folks usually choose?

Fear of the new role usually wins out, and people often try to sabotage the fledgling before anything permanent can happen. We think we know what is best for the other person because really, it is best for us. Take any self-improvement – losing weight, quitting smoking, going back to school, going to a counselor – and there will be people who will not be encouraging because it makes them look at the improvements they need to make and aren’t. They fear change in their lives, so why should they support the changes in yours? It takes a strong person to become who God created us to be and to continue to make positive changes when it puts personal relationships in jeopardy.

Look at Jesus coming back to his hometown where his family lived. People were crowding him to see if he would heal them, but some were talking about him, “He’s gone out of his mind,” and “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” People feared what they did not understand. Jesus’ family tried to restrain him, but Jesus faced the crowd. He was called by God to preach and teach and heal, and that was his focus. He knew his role, but it was not necessarily the role that his family or hometown thought he should be in. God was doing a new thing in Jesus. God was expanding what it meant to be bonded to another person the way we are in a family, and Jesus called attention to this. God knows what is best for Jesus and for us, not the other way around.

When Jesus declared, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” it challenged the Jewish culture around him. No longer are you close to God because you were born into a Jewish household; no longer do you just take care of your own kind; instead, your family is being extended to anyone who does the will of God.

That certainly broadens the margins and challenges those who took that relationship with God for granted. Today, it challenges us to look beyond our walls, our denominational lines, our socio-economic status, and our faith to see our brothers and sisters and mothers. God calls us to expand our family in ways that are just as shocking as it was to the Gospel of Mark’s first-century audience.

We should come to expect this from God. How successful are we when left to our own devices? In today’s Old Testament lesson from First Samuel, when the people request an earthly king to rule them rather than God, Samuel is in a difficult position. The very request is a rebellion against God. But the Israelites want to be “like other nations.” How often do we want the same thing? We want to be “normal,” we want to have what other people have and we measure our worth by earthly standards. We lose our focus and stop doing the will of God. Brothers turn against brothers, sisters against sisters, mothers against mothers. We get caught up in wanting approval from others and are jealous of what they have, which can leave us empty and seemingly worthless. We forget that we have value because God loves us. Jesus understood this. He kept his focus on following God’s will and was clear about it, despite what his family or the crowds wanted from him.

It’s easier said than done, of course. Anthony de Mello tells a story that reminds us of this:

A man traversed land and sea to check out for himself the Master’s extraordinary fame. “What miracles has your Master worked?” he asked a disciple.

“Well, there are miracles and miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God.”

We may smile at the story, but it speaks truth. Doing the will of God often means leaving our comfort zones. As Episcopalians, our Baptismal Covenant demands a life that follows God by continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, in the prayers, resisting evil, repenting and returning to the Lord, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. This is not an easy road to journey! Yet we readily answer, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot do this alone. Jesus’ single-minded focus on God’s will is an example to us. We must have God’s help to follow the call of Jesus in order to be the people we were created to be. May we go forth, as the blessing from St. Clare says, to “live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God’s blessing be with you always.”

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota.

One plus one plus one equals one, Trinity Sunday (B) – 2012

June 3, 2012

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

We live in an age of conflict. It was probably always so, but we hear about things instantly nowadays and even find ourselves watching the most dreadful scenes while we blissfully consume a frozen dinner.

Our nation seems locked in battle between contending parties and groups, and division and tension have wracked even our church. Perhaps we came here today seeking a place of peace. Let’s hope no one gets into a quarrel over the flowers or perhaps the homily.

It would be so good if we were absolutely sure that a group practiced unity. Indeed there was a time, in the beginning, when people said of Christians, “See how they love one another.” One of the reasons we divide is that we feel we can’t be truly human, truly ourselves if someone or something is challenging us or threatening us.

Perhaps you remember the beginning of being in love with someone. In those enchanting days you couldn’t do enough for your lover, and nothing they said or did got to you, and you didn’t have to watch what you said and did in response. Math was confounded. One and one equaled not two, but one. The blessed ones are those who, whether that remained true most of the time or even some of the time, grew through problems – not further apart but closer together. Perhaps you know an old couple who have grown so close, they even begin to look alike. They anticipate what their partner is going to say or do, and smile knowingly.

Today is Trinity Sunday, popularized by St. Thomas a Becket centuries ago. The feast of the Trinity became so important that until recently Anglicans numbered the long summer Sundays as “Sundays After Trinity”.

In Christianity’s “new math” one plus one plus one equals one: one God. So in the Creed we will recite, we affirm that we believe in One God and then go on to talk about “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” For centuries on this day the church recited the long and complicated Creed of St. Athanasius. It is to be found in the Historical Document section in the Prayer Book. No, don’t look it up now.

In one section it states, “Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” George Bernard Shaw used to mutter, “the whole thing is incomprehensible.”

That’s not a bad place to start. The lesson today from Isaiah tells the tale of the prophet having a vision, in which he sees God and shouts, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” In the face of the majesty of God, Isaiah recoils in fear, conscious of his unworthiness.

Perhaps we have lost that feeling of total inadequacy in the face of God? We tend rather to recoil from mystery itself. Yet God showed himself not to frighten Isaiah, but to love him and to send him out to tell others about God. God’s purpose was to adopt Isaiah and to fill Isaiah with strength and purpose.

In the gospel today, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Isaiah experienced God in a dream by night, and Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Both sought something they lacked. Nicodemus, a leader in Israel, is curious. He has come to think that Jesus is particularly close to God in a unique way. He’s never met anyone quite like Jesus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to know what God is doing, he has to start from scratch, “be born anew.” Nicodemus finds that statement incredible. Here is a mystery and a seeming impossibility: how can someone possibly be born when they are old?

Basically, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to have a transplant, not unlike a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant. But by water, through the Spirit. Nicodemus has to be re-born. “How may this be so?” asks Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he alone has “gone up into heaven and he has come down from heaven, for he is ‘the son of man.’” We don’t have time today to unpack that statement, except to say that “Son of Man” is a phrase a first-century Jew associated with the Messiah, the Chosen One.

Jesus then says some words that are familiar. The Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright translates Jesus’ familiar words in this way:

“So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This you see, is how much God loved the world; enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world could be saved by him.”

So what has that to do with our vision of God the Three in One? The three “Persons” who are God are not drawn apart by their perfect individuality, but united into one through love. Jesus, in being lifted up, in dying, demonstrates what self-sacrificial love looks like. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and the story goes, all who touched the serpent were made whole. So we are invited to touch Jesus and to be made whole, and as whole people to be drawn into God’s incredible selfless love.

Why?

Isaiah, through his vision of God’s majesty was touched, made whole, and hears God’s call to serve the God who loves the world. Each of us, in baptism, have been “born from above” in order that we may witness to God’s love and share it in the world. We too have been called to give our lives, imperfect as we are, and in that act of sheer love and obedience, been made worthy to be God’s friends, his presence, as the church in a divided world.

We have been commissioned to show what real love is all about, as we are filled with the presence of God’s forgiving, restoring, compelling love. All we can reply is: “Here am I. Send me.”

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

‘This Is the Day’ vocally expressive

Rutter's collection offers royal music from reign of Elizabeth II

This Is the Day: Music on Royal Occasions. The Cambridge Singers, Elin Manahan Thomas and Aurora Orchestra. John Rutter, composer. Collegium Records, 2012.

The new release from John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers utilizes a very clever tool to provide cohesiveness to the selected music: all of the music was heard at various royal occasions during the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II. Certainly music from her own coronation is well known, but this compilation integrates that with music from Prince Charles’ wedding, Prince William’s wedding, Princess Diana’s funeral, and other royal occasions.

The title of the disc comes from the opening selection, Rutter’s commissioned anthem for Prince William’s wedding, “This Is the Day.” And while there are two other selections with Rutter’s own arrangements (an orchestration of Schubert’s “Psalm 23” and an a cappella arrangement of “Londonderry Air” incorporating the words of the hymn “I would be true”), this is the only composition of Rutter on the disc. The result is a tour de force, showcasing how adaptable the Cambridge Singers are, pulling off divergent styles of singing – from Tavener to Britten, from Mozart to Elgar – with aplomb and beauty. A particular treat is the mystical quality conjured up in the singing of Elgar’s “The Spirit of the Lord”; the listener can hear the expression of awe in that music.

The Cambridge Singers have been recording for several decades now, and one can’t help but marvel at the consistency of care Rutter employs in choosing the voices, always creating the most exquisite degree of blend without sacrificing the power of expressiveness. This disc is no exception. The quality of the vocal/choral sound is only surpassed by Rutter’s keen interpretation of the selections. This is a very enjoyable disc and well worth adding to any CD library.

 

(Jonathan Dimmock is an internationally known concert and recording artist.  He is the founder of Art to the Nations, using music in international conflict resolution.)