Archives for June 2012

The power of being gathered up into God, 7 Pentecost, Proper 10 (B) – 2012

July 15, 2012

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 (or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13); Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

“John, whom I’ve beheaded, has been raised!”

Herod must have been terrified. A man like Herod, who relied on treachery, questionable political moves, the power gained through wealth, is confronted with his worst nightmare. He knew John was dead. He saw his head – yes, through a haze of drunkenness – but he saw the head. But this Jesus, obviously a man of power himself, is becoming known throughout Herod’s kingdom. Who is he? Could it really be John, raised from the dead? John, the man Herod killed because of a grudge, a grudge he held against him for telling the truth?

How very sad. How very tragic. And yet, because of what we’ve seen in our own lifetimes of the consequence of misused power, political greed and society’s belief that “it’s all about me,” we have to realize Herod has something to teach us.

Herod is an interesting character. What Benedict Arnold is to the word “traitor,” the name Herod has become to the word “evil,” but a sad kind of evil. In Herod we see a man desperate to be king. He killed his own relatives to gain the throne and then surrounded himself with sycophants, men who would use Herod’s favor to garner their own power.

The parties given by the king were as sick and sad as the participants were – days of feasting and uncontrolled drinking, entertainment that was sometimes less than respectable. Into this sad state of the political life of Israel, John the Baptizer dropped the embarrassing and dangerous truth. For this John lost his life because Herod was a fool and Herod’s character was terribly weak.

So today’s gospel tells us that this same Herod, who thought he had gotten rid of his adversary John, is now faced with a new adversary, Jesus. Herod had to be frightened. Who is this man he was hearing so much about? Could John have come back from the dead to haunt him, or was this someone new who would challenge his authority?

We know the answer and Herod would soon find out. Jesus was soon known by most as a man who taught with authority, who spoke the truth without fear, and who preached a return to faith by all Jews if they were to be truly children of God. And he broke the roles made up by weak men who were afraid of losing power.

While today’s gospel passage is mostly a bit of history, the letter from Paul to the Ephesians fills out what the people were saying about Jesus in Herod’s time. Paul helps us understand how we are connected to God. Paul reminds us of the amazing gifts we are given because God loves us. Instead of being afraid that Jesus is John raised from the dead, Paul says, “Blessed be God … who has blessed us in Christ with ever spiritual blessing in the heavens!” No fear here, just deep and joyful gratitude that we are empowered by God’s blessings. Paul goes on to tell us what some of those blessings are: adoption as God’s children, redemption through the blood of Jesus, forgiveness for our sins and grace lavished on us. Isn’t that a wonderful image? God’s grace being lavished on us! None of these things is a worldly gift. They are all of a heavenly nature, that we can, however, use here in our earthly lives. These gifts give us a spiritual authority and power that we must use to do good and to spread the Good News among our brothers and sisters.

There’s no comparison between this kind of power and authority and that of people such as Herod and Pilate or those before them: Ahasuerus in Esther’s time, Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel’s. Those people built their power on fear and treachery. Our power comes from the deep and abiding love of God. Paul tells us that with all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will.

That sounds, well, mysterious. Can we understand that? Yes, indeed, we can, because that will is simply that God wants to gather up all things in heaven and on earth into Himself. It is our inheritance. The question is, do we want this? Is being gathered up into God’s love enough for us?

We have to ask that question seriously and truthfully. What does it mean to be gathered up into God here on earth? It’s all fine and good to think about that being what happens in heaven, where all is supposed to be perfect love and union with God. But don’t we often find that people still think that in heaven it will be “me and Jesus”? We seem to be fixated, here on earth, with deciding who gets there and who doesn’t. Let’s be honest about that. We want to be able to judge who gets there and who doesn’t. We too often forget that Jesus constantly talked about the kingdom of God being right here, right now, too. Wait a minute – that means we ought to be living in this abiding love right now, with everyone.

But we are surrounded still with people like Herod and Pilate. People are fighting for power, literally – killing innocent people just to keep control over land and the gifts of the land. We can’t get away from it. The TV and newspapers inundate us with images and blaring headlines that would kill any thought of living in love and peace we might have. And then, if we’re honest, we, too, want some control. We want to have some kind of power; it’s what society tells us is important.

Maybe this gospel about Herod is getting a little too close to home. It’s no longer just a history lesson, it’s a moral lesson, and we may find ourselves coming up short. We’re not yet thrilled with Paul’s words of the blessings of God’s grace. But it’s something we must learn to want more and more. We must want to be delighted in the thought that God lavishes his grace on us – pours it out joyfully – if only we’d be aware that it’s happening and learn to bathe ourselves in that abundance. We might ask what the consequence would be if we could do this. It would change our lives. We might see the beauty in all God’s people and be willing to take their hands when solidarity for good is needed. We might see our churches begin to fill again because others would see our witness and want to share what we have. We’d learn to speak about our faith in convincing and inviting ways.

Unlike Herod and others like him, we wouldn’t have to fight and connive and fawn over others so that power would be ours to abuse; we have the power of a loving God supporting us. We have the inheritance of the saints in light. We have the example and teachings of Jesus to show us the way. It’s a much better power. It’s a much more loving and peace-giving authority. We too can lavish our care on God’s world and on God’s people if we set our minds and hearts to it. Remember, Paul tells us we are marked with seal of the Holy Spirit. We are destined to be God’s people here on earth. We can make no other choice.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Goliath moments, 6 Pentecost, Proper 9 (B) – July 8, 2012

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

“David was 30 years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. … David occupied the stronghold, and named it the City of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.”

There is something strong and imperial and complete about these words from today’s Old Testament reading from Second Samuel. They constitute a summary about the reign of King David. They claim a divine sanction for David’s success. But they leave out much more than they contain. The story of David, which stretches through many chapters of scripture, is far more human and horrible and glorious than this scrap of royal chronicle.

At the Palmer Art Museum in University Park, Pennsylvania, there is an oil painting from 17th century Italy that depicts David with the head of Goliath.

The artist, Forabosco, shows us David, not as a king, but as a shepherd, a teenager, the youngest of all the sons of Jesse. He has killed the giant warrior Goliath with a slingshot, cut off his head, and now carries that monstrously huge head on one shoulder, holding it in place with both hands as though it were a watermelon.

Here David embodies the unconscious grace of youth. In contrast, the head of Goliath, eyes closed, shows the tinctures of death, with a great red bruise on the forehead marking the spot hit by David’s fatal stone.

What is most notable about this painting, however, is the expression on young David’s face. He does not display the exuberant triumph of, for example, a football player who has just won a championship game. No, young David appears lost in thought; apparently he is aware that this remarkable success has brought to an end his simple existence. The life that awaits him – many more heroics, 40 years as king – will be heavy with complexities.

This young David did what Saul’s entire army did not. He killed the monstrous enemy champion, Goliath of Gath. He did not rely on the finest armor and weapons, but killed the giant with a stone from a slingshot. The Philistine looked powerful, but proved to be weak. David the shepherd boy looked weak, but proved to be powerful. And scripture all but shouts at us that God is at work in the powerful weakness of young David.

David gained power of a more conventional kind. His record as king turns out to be decidedly mixed. Sometimes he discerned and did what is right; at other times he abused his power and committed heinous crimes. Perhaps the worst episode involves committing adultery with Bathsheba and then setting up the murder of Uriah, one of his loyal soldiers. If God was with David, as today’s reading claims, then at times God must have been present with him in judgment.

The saga of David is one of the great stories in biblical literature. He is a character who haunts western culture. But let’s go a step further. David, shepherd boy and king, also haunts western politics. As we celebrate our national independence, we would do well to remember that over the last two centuries and more, our country has had its Goliath moments and its Uriah moments.

Sometimes our weakness has been revealed as strength. And sometimes our strength has been revealed as weakness. If we ask God to bless our nation, then we must remember that this blessing comes as both mercy and judgment. The living God is nobody’s national mascot, but demands that we do justice, and love mercy, and walk before him in humility.

Our country has had its Uriah moments when out of the arrogance and blindness of power, we have betrayed trust and squandered opportunity and offended God who has sent his prophets to speak truth against lies.

Our country has had its Goliath moments when, out of weakness that refuses to be afraid, we have toppled giants and beheaded them so that, however momentarily, God’s reign has been tangible.

And because our country is no monolith, but a combination of persons and factions, often the Goliath moment and the Uriah moment have been the same moment. We the people have shown simultaneously both the worst that is in us, and the best. Together we behave as David did.

And so there is reason if our national countenance, like Forabosco’s portrait of David, looks perplexed even at a moment of victory, for our national life is full of perplexities. We killed one Goliath at the time of the Revolution, when thousands of young Davids encamped at places like Valley Forge, and it has been, perhaps inevitably, a mottled saga ever since.

Let’s not focus on the Uriah moments except as background for when one more Goliath or another has been slain. But for a sad and scholarly accounting of many Uriah moments in our national life, turn to Howard Zinn’s extraordinary work, “A People’s History of the United States.” Its accounting of sorrows is relentless.

Let’s consider, instead, three moments out of countless others that have been Goliath moments in our national story, occasions when, out of weakness, Americans have found strength to slay some threatening giant.

Sometimes Goliath is despair and David hurls a stone of hope to kill him. The year was 1850, the place, Faniel Hall in Boston. The great Frederick Douglass was speaking. In the course of his address, he grew more and more agitated, more and more despairing, finally saying that he saw no possibility of justice for people of African descent outside of violence and bloodshed.

Douglass sat down, and the audience fell into a tense hush. Sitting in the very first row was Sojourner Truth, a woman who knew the evils of slavery from personal experience, having been sold four times. She rose, and her deep and commanding voice spoke a sentence heard throughout the auditorium. “Frederick, is God dead?”

Sometimes Goliath is weariness in well doing and David hurls a stone of solidarity to kill him. An unfinished chapter in American history concerns the labor movement and its struggles against oppressive conditions. A most unlikely David arose in the person of a poor Irish widow named Mother Jones. Some spoke her name with contempt, but she was a mother to the great masses who labored in the dark coal mines or worked 65 hours every week in the mills.

In the 1890s, she served as an agitator for the United Mine Workers where her fiery speeches would move men and women to tears and compel them to action. In Colorado, she approached a machine gun poised to open fire on a line of demonstrators; she placed her hand on the barrel, turned it to the ground, and then walked on by.

She once told a congressional committee, “My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression.”

Sometimes Goliath is a fear of strangers and David hurls a stone of acceptance, a stone of welcome, to kill him. It was a great day when these words of invitation composed by Emma Lazarus were first displayed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for all the world to see:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Word of welcome to the weak and rejected. An invitation for them to grow strong in a commonwealth whose only nobility is to be a nobility of character.

Whether our families came here on slave ships or jumbo jets, this invitation is meant for us and our children, and we are to offer it as well to others. Each new arrival is not a threat, but comes bearing gifts meant to build up our common life.

Our nation has had Uriah moments, reasons for honest repentance. We have had Goliath moments as well, causes for celebration. Our country is designed not to be an empire, and not to be a church, but to be a commonwealth, an experiment in democracy.

God is with us, as God is with all nations and peoples of the earth. The choice remains ours, however, whether we will offer God Uriah moments to judge, or Goliath moments to bless. Goliath moments: when strength arises out of weakness, despair gives way to hope, weariness is replaced by solidarity, and fear dissolves in the face of acceptance and welcome. There are Goliath moments still to come in our nation’s future.

“Frederick, is God dead?”

“My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression.”

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

Independence Day (B) – July 4, 2012

Practice makes perfect

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or Psalm 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s tough to imagine a more unsettling teaching for Americans to hear on Independence Day than this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Resisting evil doers, turning the other cheek and praying for those who persecute us are not things we seem to do very well. And then there’s the little matter of being perfect.

How many times have you heard these maxims? “Never settle for second best.” “Don’t accept no for an answer.” “Never give up.” “Get it right the first time.”

Americans tend to obey these rules as though they were self-evident commandments. But while it is true that following them can lead to personal success, slavish observance of them can also promote perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the desire to be without defect in everything we do, and it can cause heartbreak for us and those we love. It can cause a person to focus on his job to the detriment of his family life. It can cause a person to procrastinate for fear of not doing a project flawlessly from the start. It can influence a young woman’s view of her body so that she starves herself to have the “perfect” figure.

But the problem with perfectionism is clear: it is unattainable. No person can be perfect at all times and in every area of her life.

The Bible itself records this in one of the overarching themes of scripture: human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes in judgment. We are prone to self-preservation and selfishness. We are capable of committing evil. In short, however much we strive to live God-centered lives, we are sinners and will always battle the temptations that keep us away from perfection.

Given these realities, Jesus’ imperative to be perfect as God is perfect sounds a bit preposterous.

This verse closes the first section of the Sermon on the Mount and follows a set of teachings that should, if we really pay attention to them, cause us deep discomfort. We know that we shouldn’t commit murder, but Jesus says that we shouldn’t even be angry with our sisters and brothers or insult them. We know that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but Jesus says that we must control lascivious thoughts because the thoughts are as sinful as the actions. He tells us that we must give to everyone and anyone who asks for money or material goods, even if we don’t think they will use them wisely. And he claims that loving only those who love us isn’t enough. We must also love our enemies. Not simply avoid harming them or just tolerate them, but love them. Then Jesus closes with that strange, daunting command, be perfect just as God is perfect.

Jesus knew about human sinfulness and the darkness of the human heart. So how could he expect us to do the impossible? Was he making a rhetorical flourish to highlight the seriousness of his ethical teachings? Or was it hyperbole, a verbal exclamation point closing his interpretation of Torah?

When we look at different biblical translations of the term “be perfect,” we see that Jesus was not being dramatic or asking for the impossible. His understanding of perfection was not exactly the same as ours. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” The New English Bible says, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” And Eugene Peterson’s popular translation, “The Message,” says, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Peterson translates teleioi – the Greek word often rendered as “perfect” – as “grow up.” In doing so, he highlights a definition of perfection that means to reach maturity, to become complete. In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying that perfection is a state of eternal flawlessness that can be magically wished into being. It is a process, one in which we make a practice of acting in ways that reflect God’s nature as we grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling.

Being generous as God is generous, being gracious as God is gracious, loving others as God loves us are surely some of the most difficult skills to learn. But as a child learns by imitating others, we too can help ourselves reach maturity by looking at the spiritual grown-ups around us.

In 2005 a Palestinian family demonstrated God’s generosity, graciousness and love with a beauty that surely bordered on perfection. The family’s 12-year old son, Ahmad Khateep, died after being shot in the head and chest by Israeli soldiers. Ahmed’s father made the decision to donate his son’s organs to children in an Israeli hospital and declared, “We want to send a message of peace to Israeli society, to the Defense Ministry and the Parliament.” Mustafa Makhamid, Ahmad’s uncle, told reporters that “Ahmed was a wonderful and smart little kid who just wanted to play. We want to donate his organs to all the children of Israel whom we consider our children. Enough blood spilling. We hope that we will start a new process that will exceed all others and end the spilling of blood.” With that decision three Israeli girls were given the gift of new life because they received the organs of a Palestinian child. With that decision the Khateep family loved their “enemies” and showed the entire world what it means to have God-like generosity and graciousness. In their practice of God’s qualities, they acted like true grown-ups.

It’s not difficult to imagine that some of their ancestors may have sat on a mountainside in Galilee more than 2,000 years ago and decided to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to enter the process of becoming perfect as God is perfect. If so, they had to have made many mistakes while living out his teachings because they were flawed people, just like us. But they kept handing them down, maintaining their practice so that the seeds of God’s loving kindness were planted in their spiritual DNA. And those seeds bore fruit generations later in the lives of people who are supposed to be at terrible odds with one another.

What hope is found in this story! As Americans, we can see that it is possible to act in ways that go against the norm of what our culture tells us. It is possible to be faithful to God’s teachings rather than fall prey to the fear and hatred that seem to dominate our political conversations.

As followers of Jesus, we can see that we are all invited into the process of growing up and into God’s kingdom of loving kindness. Even in the face of our sinful natures, we can choose to act with love, not only toward those who love us, but also toward those we might be inclined to despise. With God’s help and the example of mature sisters and brothers, we are able to act out Jesus’ teachings in our lives for the benefit of all God’s creation.

There is another maxim you may have heard: “Practice makes perfect.” Maybe we should rephrase that to say, practice may not make us flawless, but it can make us loving grown-ups in the Kingdom of God.

 

— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Living without fear, 5 Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – July 1, 2012

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Today’s readings reinforce for us the undeniable reality that suffering is not unique to us or to our times, and that we know very little about the ultimate meaning of death. Wars, hunger, economic disasters abound and bring us to despair; personal illness, pain, and loss in our families cause us to lose hope. Sometimes we feel as if we are alone in our pain; we ask, Why me?

And then we read of David’s immense sorrow at the death of his friend Jonathan; we read of Paul’s urgent call for help for the starving in Jerusalem, and hear Jairus’ cry, “O Jesus come touch my daughter so she may healed,” and we recognize that we live in a world that has always contained profound tragedy and that our experiences are not unique. We also are reminded that despite much suffering and destruction, plagues, and starvation, human beings continue to survive and to multiply.

This kind of endurance gives us hope in a world where the predictors of doom arrive in every generation to howl in apocalyptic fear. Some do so out of a tragic misunderstanding of Scripture; others because it suits their purposes, or because of idolatry. It is with astonishment that people of faith hear that 2012 was predicted as the year for the destruction of the world, and that there are youngsters and even adults among us who are terribly afraid because of such predictions; they listen to those who have no faith in a loving God, and not having been taught the truth, allow fear to rob them of hope.

Listen to the contrast in the words of the psalmist:

I wait for the Lord, my soul
waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for
the morning,
more than those who watch for
the morning.

This is the balanced perspective and focus of a person of faith: wait on the Lord. Living and faith both require patience – wait on the Lord. Fear is the result of having no one greater than ourselves to look to. Waiting on the Lord takes away fear.

St. Paul adds another dimension to this waiting – acting in faith. Despite his apparent conviction that the Lord Jesus would return soon, Paul does not hesitate to look after the living. In his great effort to feed the starving in Jerusalem, he is not hesitant to ask for help from all those he had brought to Christ. He is not one to say, “Ignore the poor, ignore the hungry, because soon we all will be taken up.” He knows that life is a gift of God, that it is good, and that the bodies of children and adults must be fed. St. Paul knows what matters because he compares everything to the ultimate gift instead of to apocalyptic fears: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Listening to Paul helps things fall into place, helps us achieve a mental and spiritual balance when we focus on the redemptive work of God through Jesus Christ.

And finally, let us look at Jesus. His two encounters in today’s story, one with a sick woman and the other with a dying girl in Capernaum came at a time when Jesus was at his most popular. Hundreds of people followed him wherever he went. The scene is riveting.

He has just arrived by boat and is immediately surrounded by people who are in need of hearing words of hope, by those who are sick and need to be healed, and by the curious. A man, obviously important in his city and synagogue, runs to him, falls on his knees and begs for the life of his child. Jesus does not hesitate. He leaves the crowds to go with this father in need. But as they walk quickly together through the curious and the adoring, a stooped woman approaches and touches his cloak. Not a big deal. He is surrounded by so many people that she is sure no one will notice; she is convinced that the touch will heal her, and it does. Simple enough.

What is unusual about this story is that Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” When the disciples express amusement and surprise at his question, another reporter of this story tells us that Jesus responded that he felt power going out of him. What a remarkable reaction.

There was something in the woman’s immense faith, a total conviction that after years of suffering, she had found the cure in the person of Jesus, and the energy of that faith was more powerful than all the shoving and pulling of the crowd. One touch of utter faith calls forth the creative power of the divine, and healing occurs.

And all this happens very quickly, while Jesus is rushing to meet another person’s need. The connection of Jesus to the source of life and love, to the one he called Father, is so intense and unbroken that it is like electricity: Jairus plugs into it and receives hope, and the woman plugs into it and receives healing. Nothing else matters and nothing interferes with Jesus’ purpose. Fame does not distract him, physical exhaustion does not hinder him, and the clamoring of the crowd with its multitude of desires is shut out. Two people with specific needs have reached out to him and he knows that he can help them. He does.

In the following scene in the little girl’s room, death has already arrived and the professional mourners have gathered. There is probably a great deal of discussion and questioning going on. Why is Jairus still bringing Jesus to the house when he has been informed that his child is dead? What good can the healer do now? Why doesn’t he leave the man alone? Jairus needs to concentrate on his family now; the time for proper mourning has come.

But Jesus turns it all upside down, as he is known to do. He turns to the sad father and says the words that we all need to hear over and over again, “Do not fear. Only believe.” So Jairus continues to lead him to his house, which is overflowing with crying neighbors. Jesus’ words shock them. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he tells them. Instead of asking, “What does he know that we don’t know about death?” they laugh at him. He seems to be the only one who is free from the terrible bondage of fear; over and over again he commands all who follow him not to be afraid.

There is so much fear in this country and in the world today: fear of “the other,” fear of losing a job and not being able to pay the mortgage, fear of crazy people with guns, fear of not succeeding, oh, so many fears. How do we confront them?

The psalmist’s answer is to wait on the Lord; St. Paul’s answer is to remember what Jesus did for us; and Jesus’ answer is to be whole. This wholeness, “holiness” in theological terms, is possible only when we are focused on the one who brought us to new life with a trust so complete that it takes away fear, even fear of death.

“Who touched my clothes?” And we fall on our knees and confess, “We touched you, Lord, for we are afraid.” And then he says to us, “Your faith has made you well, healed of the evil that swirls around you, free of the fear that is being proclaimed in the public square, released from the need to squander your energies in things that do not matter.”

So, healed like the woman who had been sick for many years, brought to new life like the daughter of Jairus, we get up from our knees, listen when he has says, “Give her something to eat,” and approach his table in gratitude, free from fear.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Seeing for Ourselves (Morehouse, 2002), and lives and writes in Valle Crucis, near Boone, N.C.

St. John the Baptist (B) – June 25, 2012

John as spiritual massage therapist

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things. He was a first-century apocalyptic Jew. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the forerunner of Christ. But today, on his feast day, let’s think of John as a spiritual massage therapist.

An Episcopal priest tells a story about the first time he got a message. It was a gift from his wife, who thought it would be a nice thing to help him relax and get ready for the holiday season, which was just about to begin. He was a bit nervous. It was a new experience, and as he says, he grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where guys don’t get massages.

But he went and was met by a well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman who said she was going to be his “massage therapist.” He turned that phrase over in his mind: massage therapist, massage therapy. It had an interesting, almost clinical ring. It couldn’t be too bad, he told himself.

Then his massage therapist told him to go into the room, to take off all of his clothes, and to lie face down on the table. And he got really nervous. Taking off all your clothes and lying on a table, even when you are modestly covered by a sheet, causes a little anxiety. But he said to himself, I’m a priest, and this is nothing that a little faith can’t handle. We are made in the image and likeness of God! We praise God because we are fearfully and wonderfully made! Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost! Theology to the rescue! Right?

Wrong! It didn’t work. The fact of the matter was that he was lying face down on a table covered by a sheet. He felt uncomfortable and awkward and vulnerable.

The massage therapist came in and got to work. At first, she seemed to be doing some exploratory work. She seemed to know how to find those places where muscles were knotted and tense, places that he didn’t even know were knotted and tense. Not too bad. Kind of nice. Sort of relaxing. But then, after this initial exploratory phase, this nice, well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman somehow changed, and she began to hurt the priest. She dug her strong fingers into knotted and stressed-out muscles, and pain shot through his body. In a soothing voice she said things like, “It feels like you’re a little tight here,” and then she dug deeper into the knot. The pain was both excruciating and exquisite, and for the better part of an hour she subjected the priest’s stressed-out and tensed body to massage therapy.

He describes the experience this way. First of all, it really did hurt. When she dug her fingers into a knotted muscle, pain seared through his body. But mixed in with this experience of pain, there was the deeper experience of muscles loosening and becoming unknotted. As he was lying there, with his massage therapist boring into his muscles, he found his body relaxing and being released from the grip of tensed and stressed-out muscles. At the same time he was saying ouch from the pain, he was also experiencing sweet relief from tortured and twisted muscle fibers. By the end of the massage, he felt wonderful. It was a painful process to endure, but in the end, seized-up and knotted muscles were relaxed and unknotted, and the priest felt like a new person.

On her way out, the massage therapist told the priest to drink a lot of water during the next twenty-four hours in order to flush the toxins out of his system. “Yuck,” thought the priest. Decades of toxins being released into his system. Not the most pleasant of thoughts. He drank gallons of water that day!

John the Baptist is like that massage therapist.

Consider John’s message to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” To prepare the way of the Lord is a serious spiritual undertaking. How can we prepare the way of the Lord in our world and in our hearts today? If God is love, then what are those things that are keeping God’s love at bay? If God’s spirit is the spirit of truth and goodness and beauty, what are those things that get in the way of God’s spirit in the world? If God desires human beings to live in harmony and peace, then what are those things that keep frustrating these desires?

And when we ask these questions, there is John the Baptist waiting to greet us, saying, “Hello, I’m John, and I’ll be your spiritual massage therapist. Take off your clothes, wade into the water, and feel yourself naked before the very eye of God. I’ll be right in, and we’ll get to work. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

And there are his rough, prophet’s hands, ready to dig into the twisted and knotted fibers in our spiritual lives. Under the Baptist’s hands, we feel the pain of having the spiritual knots in our communal and individual lives identified and worked on.

Has anger over some past injury got your soul in knots? Has malicious gossip torn the spiritual tissue that connects us one to another? Are you still nursing an old grudge against someone that is causing you to cramp up? Has consumerism got you feeling spiritually stressed out? Have fear and prejudice caused knots of hatred and intolerance to form in the body politic?

The strong hands of the Baptist are ready to perform a deep-tissue massage on all the things that are blocking the coming of the Lord. It is a painful, but necessary process.

Yet, even in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the searing in our souls, there is the sense in which we are being relieved, released from the tensed and twisted fibers of our anger and our fear and our prejudice. As we undergo spiritual massage therapy, the toxins that were polluting our system are being flushed out in the waters of baptism.

There are many things that are still blocking the ways of peace and compassion in our hearts and in our world today. Things like anger and fear and injustice. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, we may all need to undergo a little spiritual massage therapy.

We are invited to lay down on John the Baptist’s spiritual message table, and to undergo his treatment. It is difficult to undergo, but in the midst of it, we may experience this process as sweet relief, and we may feel like we are being transformed into new men and women.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

 

Questions propel our faith journey, 4 Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – 2012

June 24, 2012

Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Patrick Overton reflects in his poem “Faith”:

“When you come to the edge of all the light you have
And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown,
You must believe one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or you will be taught how to fly.”

Many times in our lives we face the unknown, the uncertainty of a future, an outcome, we cannot see.

And what we have to hold onto in those moments is our faith that God is with us: that God will be our solid rock to stand on, or that we will be taught to fly.

Today’s Old Testament lesson shows us what this looks like, with the steadfast faithfulness and absolute conviction of Job in the face of excruciating darkness. We see this, too, in the gospel lesson, with the new understanding of the disciples as Jesus calms the wind and sea.

Both stories illustrate faith. Neither story is that simple. Each story incudes a crucial question.

“Who do you think you are?” God asks Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me! Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!” God demands of Job: “Who do you think you are?!”

“Who is this?” the disciples ask each other as the waves roll, the winds roar, and their boat pitches in the sea. “Who is this,” they ask about Jesus when he calms the storm, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

We have two stories of faith, two questions. God asks Job: Who are you? The disciples ask of Jesus: Who is he?

If we can answer these two questions, we can describe our faith and equip ourselves for those times that will come: when we will be required to step off into the darkness of the unknown.

Who are you? Who is God for you?

Lots of people would be happy to answer your questions for you, but what they will give you are their answers. As much as we might not like others telling us what we must believe and who we are as Christians, it is the churches that are doing this that are experiencing booming success. The mega-churches, which are thriving, offer answers as bait. “We will tell you what to believe, how to live. There is no need to bother with seeking and searching, with the messiness of doubt. We have the truth and we will give it to you.”

Does this sound familiar? In an ever-changing world fraught with uncertainty and stress, this can be very seductive. It’s a rare security, a comforting assurance. Tidy.

But is it faith? Can answers given to you by someone else stand on that brink of darkness, looking into the unknown?

The author Frederick Beuchner once observed that doubt is – and perhaps it is also fair to say questions are – “the ants in the pants of faith.”

Get a visual on that: ants in the pants. There is no way you can sit still, relax, remain calm. The adventure of faith requires energy and courage. It requires movement. If you have all the answers, you may as well go to sleep, because your work is done. But if you have questions – “ants in your pants” – then the journey continues. You must seek, you must search, you must move.

People often look to the Bible for answers, and many claim to find them there. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Have you seen that bumper sticker? But the Bible is not a proof-text document, a finished, static idea. God is not dead, or asleep.

We can look to the Bible, instead, for questions.

God asks, in the Garden of Eden: Adam, Eve, where are you?

Cain asks: What? Am I my brother’s keeper?

The psalms lament: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

John the Baptist asks: Are you the one who is to come?

Jesus asks Peter: Who do you say I am?

Pilate asks Jesus: What is truth?

The apostle Paul asks: What can separate us from the love of God?

It is the questions that are alive, the questions that describe what we believe, the questions that continue the conversation with God.

Consider one of our more popular television game shows, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” It is the answers that win the prize. The right answer, chosen from four possibilities. You can even get help in narrowing it down to two possible answers, or involving a friend, to get just the right one.

There is something in us that likes the adventure of questions, yet clings to the security of answers when we are facing a frightening unknown. But we are often faced with questions that demand our response without really having clear answers. Medical technology, for example, forces us into questions no one should have to address. And while we’re grateful for the advances in healthcare, it’s tough being caught in the dilemma of a difficult decision with little guidance but our faith in God. Do you have the treatment in a limited hope of prolonging life? Or do you live the life you’re given, let nature take its course? When do you pull the plug on someone? What about organ donation? Questions like these are now commonplace, as so many of us have learned.

Such questions challenge us to think big, to think beyond, to examine our innermost selves, to involve God. Such questions require us to ask, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?”

Such questions are life- and faith-changing. Look at Job. Look at the disciples. They were each and all forever changed, forever clarified, by the questions.

Think of a time in your life when you faced a question, the answer to which changed the direction of your life forever. “Will you marry me?” “What shall we tell her?” “How shall we break the news?” “Do we continue treatment?” “Where do you want to live?” “What do you want to study?”

The way we answer these questions forever influences our knowledge of ourselves and our understanding of God.

We are not a particularly noble people. Our faith is no more spectacular than anyone else’s. But in an instance of grappling with an unanswerable question in an imperfect world, perhaps some of us might choose a continuing question over a definitive answer – to live in the unknown, trusting God, instead of settling the issue then and there.

Living with the questions is often difficult. There can be much ambiguity, lots of loose ends. But as difficult as it can be to live in the ambiguity of questions, trusting that God will be with us at that edge between light and darkness, we may find that standing in the unknown with God brings more blessing than the imagination can dream of.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that, in Jesus, every one of God’s promises is a yes. Gospel musicians, taking inspiration from this scripture passage, sing: “Find your YES in him.” Whatever questions confront us, may we trust God to be our answer.

Remember Overton’s poem:

“When you come to the edge of all the light you have
And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown,
You must believe one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or you will be taught how to fly.”

Every journey brings blessings. Journeys don’t begin with answers, only with questions, whether it’s a journey to the next state or a journey of faith.

Who do you think you are? Who is this who calms the wind and sea?

Blessings to you on your journey.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses, and making anything chocolate.