14 July 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10)
I’ve been thinking about the difference between ideals and expectations, and wondering how they are related. Ideals are those convictions we each have that draw us out of and beyond ourselves. They represent something not yet achieved, but to be desired. They challenge us to reach out, to go beyond, to exceed the ordinary. Ideals are beliefs like the inherent dignity of all people; our right to equal treatment before the law; and while we are at it (since today is July the 14th, Bastille Day) we might as well cite lofty watchwords of the French Revolution: the ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
Expectations, on the other hand, are beliefs that we have about what we think we are owed. They are the sense of entitlement we feel because of some personal status or achievement: perhaps because we are well-educated, or are a native-born citizen, or because we’ve worked hard for what we have, or even because we have a well-developed spiritual rule of life. Expectations are about what we think we deserve. And unlike ideals, they cause us to turn inward, to become preoccupied with what we expect to receive, rather than with what we are obligated to give.
The trouble, of course, is that ideals and expectations so easily start to blend into one another. When we have done well by living up to our own ideals, for instance, then in our sense of accomplishment we all too often instinctively start to slip into expecting some reward or recognition for having done so. I can’t tell you how many honorary doctorates the seminaries of our church hand out to people every year, just for having been faithful Christians!
And so we come to the lawyer who stood up in today’s gospel to test Jesus. He knows already what the ideal is: to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength—and to love neighbor as self. But now he wants to know just how faithful to that ideal he has to be, in order to get his reward. So he chooses the question of neighbor as the case study: just who is my neighbor, anyway?
And so, of course, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan: a priest and a Levite come upon a man left for dead by robbers beside the road, but both pass him by. Then a Samaritan comes by—a foreigner—and only he stops to care for the beaten man lying in the ditch.
The usual emphasis placed on the story is that only the Samaritan recognized this poor soul as his neighbor, and so only he fulfilled the ideal of loving neighbor as self. But if we read carefully, Jesus actually points toward a slightly different interpretation: his question to the lawyer at the end of the parable is not, “Who recognized the injured man as his neighbor,” but “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” In Jesus’ question, it’s not the man in the ditch who is the unrecognized neighbor, finally ministered to by the Samaritan. Rather, the point is that it is the Samaritan who becomes his neighbor.
The difference is subtle, but it shifts the story from being about a uni-directional offer of help from the Samaritan to the injured man, to the establishment of a mutual relationship between them both. It’s a story, in other words, as much about receiving as giving help.
So the ideal that Jesus holds up is that “loving your neighbor as yourself” is not just about being willing to offer something to someone else, but also a willingness to receive something from them—to become bound in a relationship of mutual respect, sharing, and kindness. My father always admired Harry Truman as a president of uncommonly good sense. I remember him quoting Truman to me, saying, “All will concede that in order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor.” Neighborliness is a two-way street: it is Mutual. Communal. Reciprocal.
The Aspen Institute has an initiative underway under the leadership of David Brooks to identify “Weavers,” that is, people who in the midst of a society that is “frayed by distrust, division, and exclusion,” are weaving together the social fabric in their local communities by putting relationship at the center of life. The Institute’s website tells this representative story: Asiaha Butler lives with her family in the Englewood section of Baltimore, a depressed, dangerous neighborhood that she and her husband had decided to leave. But one day just before their departure, Asiaha was looking out her front window at the vacant lot across the street. Some little girls were playing, throwing rocks and broken bottles and playing with abandoned tires in the mud. Aisaha turned to her husband and said, “We can’t leave that.” In that moment, she recognized not only that the girls playing in the vacant lot were her neighbors, but that she was their neighbor as well. A sense of relationship sprang up inside her, and she and her family decided they had to stay, going on to found a community renewal organization known as RAGE: the Residential Association of Greater Englewood.
In moments like Aisha’s realization the she and her family had to stay, it seems to me that what happens is that our ideals and our expectations suddenly converge. What we need and want for ourselves, is put in alignment with what we believe is the best for others as well. Perhaps that is the larger meaning of the Good Samaritan: the story is about a meeting point between ideal and expectation that allowed a relationship to take root.
And if you think about it, perhaps a big part of what we do here at church is to try to effect something similar. We use some very lofty idealistic language—talking about the New Creation, the kingdom of God, or the beloved community. But we put that language side by side with the very human set of expectations we all bring with us about what we need and want—and then try to mold them into a vision of life together. We’re all about learning to become weavers.
Because you see, we human beings don’t just naturally gravitate toward ideals. We have to be coaxed out of our futile self-preoccupation, toward a commitment to something bigger. Ideals and expectations have to be brought into sync, harmonized into an ambition to which we can give ourselves whole-heartedly and unreservedly.
We, in our country, are in a time of high expectations, and low ideals right now. We are collectively more concerned with what we expect to get, than with that toward which we aspire. And that’s why it’s important that you are here today: this is a place to be called to rediscover the ideals that weave us together in the communities where we life—like the Good Samaritan, like Aisha Butler. We come here to learn to make our families, our schools, our church, our city, our politics, arenas where relationships are woven together. That is a high calling, but as Moses reminded Israel, that word is not actually far off: it is very near you, even in your own heart. Amen.
23 June 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus sent the man away saying,
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8)
When our son was about four years old, it so happened that we were in Rome for an ordination at the local Episcopal church. Because it was a very ecumenical occasion, arrangements had been made for us all to attend an audience with Pope John Paul II the day before, with the proviso that we were to bring children.
So off we went to the audience, and at the appointed time, the children were called forward for a blessing. Our four-year old son marched right up to the pope and gave him a big hug, and then looked him square in the eye and asked, “Now what?”
Well, today might be called, “Now What?” Sunday. Last week you may remember was Trinity Sunday, which I called the exclamation point that comes at the end of the long cycle stretching from Advent through Pentecost that tells the story of Jesus: his birth, his baptism, his ministry, his arrest and trial, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his gift of the Holy Spirit. A lot has happened, liturgically speaking, with plenty of high drama and unexpected outcomes—and it has all pointed to a God who is revealed to be all about love, relationship, and community! And now we enter into that long stretch of time when we are left to live out in our own life, what we have been taught by Jesus.
We heard in the gospel the story of a possessed man, the co-called Gerasene demoniac. Apparently a whole legion of demons possessed him, who made him do crazy things like wear no clothes and to live by himself among the tombs. But when the demons realize that Jesus has taken an interest in the man, and is about to heal him—that is, to throw them out—they beg to be allowed to escape instead into a nearby herd of pigs … which they do, only to cause the pigs to rush into the lake and be drowned. Strange and dramatic events, to say the least!
You might think, after such a powerful healing, that Jesus would encourage the man to take on some great new role: to become an evangelist, or join the disciples, or write a gospel. But instead, Jesus simply suggests that the man go home. It’s time for him to live his life ordinarily, to get on with it.
We’re in a place rather like that this Sunday. After all the drama that has gone into telling the story of Jesus, week after week, we come to a moment in the year when the message is simply about the ordinary. Live your life. Fulfill your commitments. Do the work that has to be done. It’s what my mother used to encourage as “having some normal home life,” whenever she thought I was gadding about too much as a teenager or burning the candle at both ends. Settle down. Don’t rush. Catch your breath.
Except that … life can’t just be ordinary any more, not after what we have learned about life through following Jesus these past weeks and months. He has taught us that God looks on us, even with all our faults and imperfections, and sees something of infinite beauty and dignity. Something even worth dying for. Something definitely beyond ordinary.
Jesus has taught us that we human beings are nothing less than an icon of God’s own compassion and love—a living, breathing image of what is at the very heart of creation. And so Jesus loves us, because we are lovable. And Jesus coaxes us into loving one another, because God has made us capable of doing so. And Jesus challenges us to see in the ordinariness of our life, nothing less that an embodiment of the great mystery of creation. As Paul says in the reading from Galatians, we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free—we are heirs of Christ! Heirs of all creation!
And knowing that, life can’t be just ordinary any longer. Or rather, the ordinary, is extraordinary. Isn’t that what actors help us to see: holding before us an image of ourselves, they encourage us to look within and see something of immense interest and fascination that we normally overlook? Or music takes the simple fact of sound vibration and turns it into something of exquisite power and depth. Poetry takes simple words and phrases, and weaves them into layers of multiple meaning. Painting takes a flower, a landscape, a shape, a color and asks us to see the breathtaking beauty within it. Even something as ordinary as bread and wine can become Christ’s own presence; and nothing more than water is enough to make us God’s own children.
Some of you may remember a film called “Room with a View,” a Merchant-Ivory film based on an E. M. Forster novel about some English folk on holiday in Florence. Miss Lucy Honeychurch, a very prim and slightly prudish young woman, meets a certain Mr. Emerson, a rather eccentric romantic young man. On a walk through the central Piazza Signoria of the city, they witness a violent fight between a couple of young Italian men, which results in one of the young men being carried away bleeding from the mouth, eyes rolled back in his head, and quite dead.
Seeing such an eruption of human passion reveals to Miss Honeychurch just how narrow the line is between being alive and being dead, and that realization makes her feel as if something has changed inside of her. Suddenly, the quiet sheltered life she has lived is no longer sufficient. She has discovered the extraordinary within, even in so ordinary an event as a stroll through the city. And so Mr. Emerson says to her, as they later look out over the Arno River trying to make sense of it all, “Don’t you see? We can never go back to the way it was. Something dramatic has happened. Something has changed.”
That’s where we are today. We are asked to see, after all that we have been through with Jesus, that we can never go back to living the way we were before. Something dramatic has happened. Something has changed.
Jesus has given us all that we need to live life differently—to live it creatively, passionately, confidently. He has given us trust in the power of love. He has inspired in us commitment to mercy and truth. He has given us assurance of our ultimate worth and dignity. He has demonstrated in himself the triumph of life over death.
And so now, like the Gerasene demoniac of today’s gospel, it’s time to get on with it. We have been relieved of whatever holds us back. So now is a good time to … well to go on a mission trip to Navajoland (like our guests from Indianapolis). Or it is a good time to mend a broken relationship. To marry the person you love. To plant a garden. To mentor your children. To care for aging parents. To start a family. To become politically engaged. To go to school. There’s nothing more we need. We have been given all that is necessary—which is not to say that what we do with our ordinary time won’t be a struggle. But it is to say, that we will not be overcome in the doing of it. Amen.
Proper 8, Year C
Luke 9: 47-62, Galatians 5: 13-25
June 30, 2019
With Faces Set Towards Jerusalem
Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
“But Jesus …took a little child and put her by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest’”(Luke 9: 47-48).
Perhaps you saw the picture of the young Salvador girl swaddled in her father’s t-shirt, lying with her father face down in the reeds of the Rio Grande. Perhaps you heard their story—a two-week trip from El Salvador; ending up at the International Bridge across from Brownsville, Texas; turned away because the asylum office was closed; making the choice to swim for freedom; being washed away before the very eyes of her mother/his wife.
Maybe you heard the reports late last week about children held in detention camps—government officials that look the other way when children ask for food, when mothers beg for diapers for their children, when young girls are told to watch and care for small children; the small-minded chintzinesss that claims that toothbrushes and soap are not essential to the health of the children and their families held in detention.
You might have seen pictures of children lying on green mats, covered with silver mylar blankets. Maybe you heard tales of bright lights shining all night and frigid air blowing down on the children.
Maybe you saw the account in Huffiington Post. The story of a young mother and her baby sleeping on rocks because there were no mats in the detention area where they were being held.
Have we forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten that we are people created by Love and in love and for love.
Sometimes I think we have.
And then I hear another kind of story—the story of boys kicking around a soccer ball on the grass behind the Bosque Center; the story of a group of kids clustered together on a sofa in the basement of First Pres—all giggling and pointing and drawing pictures as they play Pictionary (or maybe a loose version of it) in a language they do not speak with an English speaking volunteer; the story of a St. Michael’s volunteer on the floor with a toddler weighed down with sadness and fear and then lifted up from all of that by a singing game most all of us have played—the itsy bitsy spider.
Think of it—people made for love connecting through sport, through laughter, through songs little children sing.
There are other stories too—stories of young girls—children themselves really—taking care of children in need; stories of people from distant parts of our country traveling to the borderlands to bring water to the thirsty; stories of border patrol fighting the very system that employs them.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, “Everything we know about God’s word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself” (Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, 469).
You and I, we’re part of that work. You and I, we, too, do the work of love.
You and I, we, too, are people doing the work of tending the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.
Important work. And surely part of the way of love. But is that always enough?
Remember what Jesus said when he launched his public ministry.
He launched it with words from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And then he said: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Sure enough, Jesus of Nazareth walked the walk. He healed the sick; he gave sight to the blind; he even raised the dead.
But his work was not yet done; his walk was hardly over. Why do you suppose that was? Surely folks needed to be healed; surely the poor needed to hear good news; surely the blind needed to see, the deaf needed to hear, and the lame needed to walk.
But Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Why not just continue all that healing, all that helping, all that freeing work?
He was doing a good job. People were being healed. People were being helped. People were being loved.
Sometimes that isn’t enough.
Sometimes you have to wrestle with the underlying issues.
Sometimes you have to confront the power brokers, the power wielders.
So Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Sometimes we must do that too.
It’s not easy.
Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero or the person sitting next to you in the pew.
And yet—we were made by love.
We were made in love.
We were made for love.
And we don’t do this on our own.
The one we follow walks with us to the Jerusalems of our day; joins at the table; promises to be with us until the end of the age.
That’s really all we need.
9 June 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Give us this day our daily bread.” (Lord’s Prayer)
If you were here last week, you may remember that we were talking about how tricky language can be—especially religious language. We left off by observing that we are faced with the paradoxical task of trying to express in words what is ultimately beyond our knowing, and so beyond our words. Words fail us, and so we are drawn into a life-long spiritual quest for the words to express the idea of God.
What happens, is that when we try to speak of the deepest spiritual truths, words that may seem at first as though they have pretty clear meaning, quickly become unmanageably layered and complicated. Let me give you an example. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, we are all familiar with the words “Give us this day our daily bread.” I want to zero in on the word “daily,” which is one of those words with a pretty obvious meaning—daily, means every day.
But the English word daily translates what in the original Greek New Testament is a very complicated word, “epi-ousios.” The trouble begins with the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is the only place that this Greek word occurs, not only in the Bible, but in the whole of ancient Greek literature—which means, one can only guess at what its actually meaning is. And that’s only the beginning of our troubles.
“Epi-ousios” is a compound word, composed of a root with a prefix added to it. The prefix, “epi-” (e – p – i) ought to be familiar to us Episcopalians, because it’s the same prefix in our name. That word comes from “epi-scopus,” the Greek word for over-seer (which we render as bishop). So epi- means something like expansive, extensive, reaching out.
The root of epi-ousios, “ousios” is a really loaded Greek word, because it refers to what is the essence or substance of something. So, for example, in the Creed when we say Jesus is of the “same substance” as the Father, we are translating another related word, “homo-ousios.”
So put those two pieces together: epi- and ousios. The compound seems to mean something like super-essence—not very clear, and hardly a synonym for the little word “daily” that we use to translate it.
Moreover, behind the Greek word epi-ousios is whatever Jesus really said in Aramaic, which is the language he spoke. Unfortunately, there is no word in Aramaic that comes anywhere near epi-ousios, so what the gospel writers had in mind when they used that Greek word to translate an Aramaic one, we have no idea.
I warned you this was going to get complicated!
Let’s keep going: in the early church, the word epi-ousios was often understood to have Eucharistic overtones. That is, it was thought that the word was both referring to the ordinary bread we need to live, and to the “beyond-ordinary” bread with which Jesus himself feeds us. Only problem is, it seems unlikely that Jesus had that in mind, given that he taught the prayer long before he ever celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Nice try, but doesn’t fit the facts. And not only that, but at the time the gospels were written (in the mid to late first century), there was no strongly developed Eucharistic practice that would have given rise to such an interpretation.
So what are we left with? Perhaps the best we can do is to say that “Give us this day our daily bread” seems to mean something like, “Give us this day all that we need to survive, both physically and spiritually.” That’s a bit of a gloss on a simple word like “daily,” but it seems about as faithful to the original as we’re going to get.
So all of this is to illustrate the point, that even simple, ordinary words we use in religious contexts can be loaded with complexity—and with meaning.
In today’s service, we’re trying to explore that observation by being very mindful of how we deploy words that come weighted with overtones of which we may not be fully aware, overtones that can be both inviting and off-putting: especially words like father, lord, king and kingdom, that speak of a model and image of God that is rooted in systems of power and domination.
One of the deepest convictions of the Christian faith as we live it, is that mercy and compassion are the core message Jesus gave us. Pope Francis, for instance, not long after he became pope, published a little book remarkably entitled, The Name of God Is Mercy—not judgment, not division, not lord and king, but mercy. And so, we have become increasingly aware in our day that whenever language obscures the essential mercifulness of God, it does us a disfavor. It distorts our understanding of God, by substituting allusions to God’s power, for what is God’s authentic humility.
Today is Pentecost, and the Pentecost story is all about language. We heard it a few moments ago: the disciples, having felt Jesus withdrawing from them, discover that in the void that he leaves there is suddenly a powerful experience of blessing. The descent of the Holy Spirit, as they come to call it, was like fire from heaven, its glow being so intense in their hearts and minds.
And not only that, but one of the gifts of this spiritual passion was an ability to make the good news of Jesus known and understood to people of many cultures and tongues. Language has suddenly become not an obstacle, but a sacred gift!
One of the spiritual practices which we often use here at church, is Lectio Divina—holy reading. It is a practice of reading a short piece of scripture or other sacred writing, and then in the silence that follows, letting one word or phrase reach out to grab hold of our attention, so that it may become a vehicle for God’s voice.
What word or phrase does that, can either be because of its beauty and reverence, or it can be because of its unsettling and even disturbing overtones. In our worship, we want to be able to identity and wrestle with both types of words, and then to shape our religious speech around those that are most life-giving. That is what we have tried to do today, in planning this service. So let me encourage you to pay close attention to the way the words we use here have been chosen and put together: both the inclusions and omissions are deliberate, and they have a goal of opening our ears to hear God’s voice in new and unanticipated ways.
Such an intention puts me in mind of some my most favorite words in the Prayer Book, words we will pray over the baptismal candidate(s) in a few moments, when we ask God to give them “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” I would only add, may they (and we) also be given the gift of a language both subtle and passionate enough, truly to express the ineffable name of God. Amen.
2 June 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Sunday after Ascension
“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them
and was carried up to heaven.” (Luke 24)
Language is a tricky thing. If, for instance, I were to say to you, “Drive on the right side of the road,” you would most likely understand that to mean that you should always keep to the right.
If, however, I were to say to someone in England, “Drive on the right side of the road,” that person would understand me to mean something quite different: that one should always drive on the correct side of the road, which in fact is the left side.
Same words, same sentence, two very different meanings.
The trouble, of course, is that in order to function, we have to act as if words have pretty fixed meanings. Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate with one another at all. In a technologically based society, especially, we assume that concepts can be communicated pretty clearly and unambiguously: we all know the reference of words like app, device, mobile, and so on.
Which is precisely why, when it comes to religious language, we moderns struggle so much to grasp what is being communicated. We look for a literal correspondence between the words and their meaning, when most often the meaning is only obliquely indicated.
Take the gospel lesson today. The text says, that “Jesus withdrew from [the disciples] and was carried up to heaven.” When we hear that, we immediately start trying to picture what being “carried up to heaven” could mean, and so come up against the fact that such an event makes no sense to us whatsoever (knowing what we do about the skies above), and so we rather quickly dismiss the whole episode as preposterous.
That skepticism is enshrined right here in the church, for in the cycle of nine windows that tell the life of Christ, there is no ascension window—the story just stops up there with the risen Christ, which of course simply begs the question of “What then did happen to him in the end, and where did he go?”
Today and next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, we are going to wrestle a bit here in church with the question of language, as it relates to religious faith—and in particular, with the question of how we speak of God. If such a simple statement as “Drive on the right side of the road” can have so much intrinsic ambiguity, then how much more so the words we use to describe a God who is by nature ultimately unknowable, indefinable, and indescribable. In short, religious people live inside a constant paradox: How does one speak, of that which is inherently ineffable?
Which brings us back to the ascension. Let’s focus in on that story for a moment. What has been happening is, that since Jesus’ death, the disciples have continued to have over and over powerful and vivid experiences of Jesus’ continued presence among them. At first skeptical of one another’s accounts of these experiences, by now they have all felt the power of Jesus, and share a common awareness that his death was a beginning, rather than an end. Each of the four gospels has different ways of telling the story, but the thread running through them is the same: Jesus is still very much alive, and they feel the power of his presence.
Now, however, we come to a moment when that power seems to be transposed. The disciples notice that it is less his personal presence that they feel, and more the power of God working in them as an abiding force—the presence the Holy Spirit (which we will celebrate on Pentecost). It is as if Jesus has withdrawn, and left in his wake a new and even more vivid spiritual gift.
So the disciples face a dilemma: how to describe their awareness of that shift, that change in their consciousness that something has happened?
Well, the answer comes in the same way that all spiritual realities are described in the Bible: in terms of story. The Bible is not a book of doctrine. It is not a book of philosophical speculation about the nature of God. It is not an app into which we can type where we want to go, and then have a voice tell us how to get there. It is however a book of stories, poems and songs with which we must wrestle and struggle our whole life, if it is to reveal to us who God is in relation to the creation, and who we are in relation to God.
So what the story of the ascension wants to convey to us, is that we are related to God through a Jesus who has not only come among us to dwell with us, but also as one who has returned to God, been “carried up to heaven” (as the text puts it), to show us the way.
If you think about it, even we have a manner of talking about someone’s death as “passing away.” More than just a euphemism, that phrase tries to get at the fact that at the death of a loved one, we are often aware of something more going on than a mere cessation of breath and heartbeat. If you’ve ever sat with a dying person, perhaps you too have experienced the sense of the giftedness that is in that moment, the giving back to God of the life that God first gives to us. It truly feels like a passing on, a passing over, a passing away.
So how much more did the gospel writers struggle for language that would indicate something even more dramatic in the case of Jesus: not just his “passing away,” but his ascending into heaven! The ascension narrative thus becomes one bookend on Jesus’ life that is there to help us make sense of it: the other bookend is the account of the virgin birth. But just as the ascension story has nothing to do with a physical account of a person’s ascent into outer space, so too the virgin birth has nothing to do with a biological account of Jesus’ nativity. Just like the meaning of the phrase, “drive on the right side of the road,” is entirely dependent on where it is said, the meaning of “born of the Virgin Mary” and “ascended into heaven” are likewise dependent upon the larger role they play in conveying to us the nature of who Jesus was, and who he is.
In each case, the point is that there is something unique about Jesus that distinguishes him from ordinary human life, even while immersing him it. And to communicate that “both/and” idea, his entrance into and exit from human life are narratively described in ways that remain distinctly human, and yet are also quite ethereal and otherworldly.
The Chinese science-fiction writer Ken Liu put it this way: “Overly literal translations, far from being faithful, actually distort meaning by obscuring sense.” The challenge for us, as religious people, is to recognize that in one degree or another, every thing we say about God is an overly literal translation. The idea of God, the meaning of God, is always beyond our language. And yet, as the Bible writers knew only too well, language remains one of the few tools we have to convey that sense. We must simply remain cautious and mindful of the ways in which we use it.
And that is a good place too leave off for today, as we look ahead to next Sunday, when our worship will explore both some of the limits, and some of the opportunities, that language gives us as we seek to express the true depths of the mystery of God. So, to be continued …
19 May 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The circumcised believers criticized Peter …
so he began to explain it to them, step by step.” (Acts 11)
What is it that makes us able to change our mind about some deeply held conviction? Or conversely, what is it that prevents us from doing so?
I’ve been thinking about those questions ever since attending a meeting of the City Council a couple of weeks ago, where the issue of allocating city funds to assist asylum seekers was being debated. First, a number of speakers in support of the proposal spoke, many of them carefully explaining that this was not a case of assisting illegal immigrants—in fact, asylum seekers have been lawfully admitted into the United States.
Then a speaker opposed to the proposed allocation came forward, and began his speech by saying, “We just can’t have all those illegals in this country.” He had clearly not heard, or registered, what had already been said. And so the thought went through my mind: What is it that makes us to hold onto our opinions so tightly, even if they have been shown to be inaccurate?
The situation in the City Council chamber that night was not so unlike the one facing Peter in today’s reading from Acts. There, the situation is this: Peter has been away from the other apostles in Jerusalem, staying in Caesarea with a centurion named Cornelius. Now, even though Cornelius was a Gentile, he had been powerfully touched by the Spirit, and he came to Peter asking to be accepted through baptism into the fledgling Christian community.
Of course, except for Cornelius, all those who were with Peter were Jews, and so it was their absolute conviction that only those men circumcised like them according to the law were eligible for baptism. But Peter, recognizing God’s activity in Cornelius’ life despite his status as a Gentile, chooses to baptize him and his household anyway. It was an incredibly bold thing to do—completely out of the box.
So in the part of the story we read today, Peter has returned to Jerusalem, and there he is roundly criticized by the other apostles for having broken with the legal requirements of the Jewish religious tradition. And so Peter has to defend himself. And he sets out to change the apostles’ minds about what is permissible and what is not. His strategy is to explain in great detail all that he has seen and heard of God’s activity (including the visions by which both he and Cornelius were brought together) trying to convince them that something has radically changed—and that it is God who has done it.
So what is it that Peter has to do, in order to change their mind—which is another way of asking, what is that has to happen for any of us to change our mind? Peter’s challenge is to detach the apostles’ sense of personal identity away from their religious conviction—to separate their ego from their opinion. They can still be who they are—Jewish men in the Christian movement—and have a different opinion. Peter has to get his colleagues to see that the meaning of circumcision is being grafted into God’s life—and that in the case of Cornelius and his household, God has done the same thing but through baptism into Christ. “If God gave them the same gift he gave us,” Peter asks, “who was I that I could hinder God?” All have been gifted by the same Spirit, but in a different manner of God’s own choosing.
In short, Peter has to awaken in the apostles an attitude of humility regarding their own experience and conviction: circumcision as the sign of belonging was real for them, but it was also only partial. God is now widening the circle, and their self-identity has to widen with it. Relying on what had been their self-limiting convictions is no longer enough.
And being able to change one’s mind in a way that does not undermine personal identity, it seems to me, always involves some shift in our thinking toward a greater humility that is willing at least to consider the possibility of being wrong—or only partially right. We have to be able to see ourselves as part of a larger moral universe in which there are in fact legitimately competing accounts of right and wrong, good and evil, sacred and profane—and without negating the importance of our own experience and conviction, we have to be aware of our continual need for growth and adaptation if we are to mature spiritually and morally.
And if you think about it, all of our ideas about human growth and development are predicated upon the assumption of just this sort of continual reassessment of how we perceive and understand ourselves and the world around us. That’s why our Christian life is permeated with words like self-examination, repentance, renewal, reform, amendment of life … if we aren’t continually changing, we aren’t entering more deeply into who God calls us to be.
Perhaps you have come across David Brooks’ latest book, The Second Mountain. His organizing metaphor is that in the first part of our life, we scale a mountain that is defined by individual success and achievement, only to find at some point that being on such a mountain is ultimately unsatisfying. That realization knocks one down into a valley of uncertainty and even despair, from which one has to begin ascending a second mountain—the mountain that is made up of a life oriented to community, commitment, interdependence, relationship, and self-sacrifice. Only on that second mountain to we find a deep sense of joy—not material happiness, but a deep sense of worth and fulfillment.
In Brooks’ metaphor, you’ll notice that the whole process of finding such joy, is predicated upon changing one’s mind: changing one’s mind about what is valuable, what is meaningful, and what one gives one’s life to. It is not (contrary to the way so many people behave in today’s world) predicated upon staking out a position and then defending it aggressively and angrily against all challenge. The moral life, is a life of change.
So perhaps that’s the thought we can take away from our reading today: contrary to what most people may think (that to lead a moral life is all about having fixed and unchanging beliefs that one defends at all costs), what God really asks of us is to continually change our mind. Not in the sense of being vague and uncertain, but in the sense of deepening, widening, expanding, rethinking our convictions. But what else would you expect, from a God who is in the end beyond our knowing, and so must be ever known afresh? It’s yet another way, as I have been pointing out in these sermons, how counter-cultural authentic Christian life is in these contentious days. And the good news is that we are all more capable of changing than we ever thought possible—why, just look at what happened to the apostles. “When they had heard Peter,” the scripture says, “they were silenced. And then they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the way of life.’” Amen.
21 April 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church,
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciple,
“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20)
The truth of the matter is, the Resurrection is no big deal—not biblically speaking. In the Bible, people rise from the dead all the time. Jesus himself raised Lazarus (the brother of Mary and Martha), and he also raised the daughter of a man named Jairus. Even in the Old Testament, Elijah the prophet raised a widow’s son. No, rising from the dead was no big deal.
I had never realized that, until one day at Morning Prayer it hit me over the head, as we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death. There it says that when Jesus died, “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs … they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Mt. 27:52-3). There were dead people walking around everywhere!
Yet not much is made in scripture of all these other resurrections—maybe that’s why we overlook them. Once Lazarus comes out of the tomb, for instance, we hear nothing more about him. Jairus’ daughter is likewise forgotten, and even all those saints wandering around Jerusalem simply drop out of the story. So simply being raised from the dead wasn’t enough to attract much attention—not at least, in the biblical mindset. Perhaps it was a bit like those near-death experiences we hear of from time to time in our own day: they are modestly interesting to us, but not really life-changing.
So we are left with the question: what was it about Jesus’ resurrection that made such an intense impression on the disciples, so much so that—well, so that we are here today still celebrating it after all this time? There must have been something very different in his case from all those other resurrections!
We read today from the gospel of John, leaving off at the point where Mary Magdalene announces to the disciples that she has seen the Lord. If we had pushed on and read a bit further, we would have come to the account of the disciples’ own encounter with the risen Jesus. They are in a room together, behind locked doors, huddling in fear because of all that has happened. And suddenly, Jesus comes among them, and as his first words to them he says, “Peace. Peace be with you.”
The staging of this scene gives us unmistakable clues about what’s going on: the last time the disciples were together was in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. There, Jesus had given them a new commandment: that they should love one another, as he loved them. Yet from that moment, the disciples fall further and further away: they gradually scatter as Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. So now, gathered together again after his death, they have every reason to be bitter, angry at themselves, and afraid of seeing him. But suddenly, here is Jesus standing among them, and rather than rebuking them, he begins to reknit the fellowship that he had begun to create among them in that Upper Room. “Peace be with you.”
Over time, the disciples come to realize that what the risen Jesus offered to them was a new vision of what human life can be. In his peaceableness, his forgiveness, his love, they catch a glimpse of how they too might live. They realize that in following him, they can be better people than they ever imagined possible. No longer trapped in the violent, manipulative patterns of corrupt society, they discover that they are capable of living honestly, forthrightly, lovingly. They find that they can live not for themselves, but for others; that they can craft their life around a pattern of self-giving, rather than self-interest. So it was not just Jesus who was resurrected, but also the community of love which he had called into being through his life, and which had itself also become a casualty of the cross.
Up there, in the icon banner, you see an image of what this new creation means. There is the resurrected Jesus, reaching down into the place of the dead to draw from it none other than Adam and Eve, our mythical progenitors. Having lost the first creation through their own fault, Jesus now invites them—no, pulls them really—into the new creation. It is as if he says to them (to quote an ancient 4th century write),
O sleeper, awake! I did not create you to be held a prisoner by death. Come, rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. [We are the new creation.]
What you seen happening in that picture says to us that the bedrock meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is nothing less than the remaking of humanity itself. The same Spirit that hovered over the deep and brought life out of nothing in the first creation, now hovers over us, bringing new life out of our spiritual death. Looking at that icon, we are encouraged to see that the way things happen to be now, is not the way they have to be—there is in Christ a new opportunity. That’s why (as one theologian put it), “Christians go on being rather tiresome, constantly saying, ‘It could be that human beings can live into a bigger space, a higher vocation, a greater glory’” (Rowan Williams, The Sign and the Sacrifice). Perhaps that’s why the fire at Notre Dame this week touched many people so deeply: it was an architectural emblem of God’s vision of how much more noble human life can be than we often allow it to be. Losing the cathedral, we also lost something of our confidence in ourselves.
But Jesus doesn’t just pull Adam and Eve up into this new creation, only to leave them once again to their own devices. John’s gospel records that on that first Easter day, having extended his peace to the disciples, Jesus also breathed on them his Spirit, empowering them to live the new life he was offering to them. Over time, the disciples came to realize that whenever they lived life following his ways, they felt strangely strengthened to do so, sustained by this Spirit, far beyond what their own capacities might be.
They discovered, in other words, that the experience of living the life in Christ is indeed as if one had been made new, recreated. And so they remembered that on the night before he died, Jesus had promised that whenever they broke bread together in his name, and to remember what he had said and done, he would be there at table to encourage and inspire them—which is of course exactly what we are doing here today, and what we do every Sunday of the year. It is the experience, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, of God “eastering in us,” shaping us into a new way of being.
So look around you. Look at the community gathered in this room. Here is the community that is the true fruit and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Here in this room, and wherever Christians are gathered on this holy day, is the community that is his risen life. So here, too, is our true human destiny as God’s new creation. Amen.
14 April 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23)
At every celebration of the Eucharist during Lent, we say the words, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” They echo the words of John the Baptist, who when he first saw Jesus coming to be baptized shouted out, “Behold, the lamb of God.” But what do they really mean?
To get ahold of that, we have to turn back to the Old Testament, in the 16th chapter of the book of Leviticus. There God give Moses and Aaron explicit instructions that to deal with the sins of the people, a live goat shall be presented in the tent of meeting, and Aaron is to lay his hands upon the head of the goat and confess over him “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, and all their sins,” as the text puts it. “He shall put them upon the head of the goat, and then send him away into the wilderness.” The animal that takes away sins, in other words, is at its most literal level a goat that symbolically has the sins themselves placed upon his back, and then is banished to die in the desert. He is a scapegoat—blamed for the faults of others, and made to pay the price for their sins. And so Jesus, the “lamb of God,” has been interpreted in that framework. But there’s a lot more going on in this idea of scapegoating than that.
It is, for instance, not merely an archaic form of sacrificial religion. We human beings engage in scapegoating all the time. Whenever we are confronted by our own unresolved problems, or unfulfilled desires, our tendency is to blame someone else for our own faults, and then to make them pay for it—what the theologian James Alison calls the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating is therefore driven by our own irrational emotions, instead of coherent fact. And rather than the guilt of those who are its victims, all scapegoating really demonstrates is the hollowness and anxiety of those who engage in it. And not only that, but the scapegoat has to be someone sufficiently like us to be recognizable, yet sufficiently different to be expendable.
So think of how Nazi Germany treated the Jews. Or how the Jim Crow south segregated the blacks. Or how the rightwing in today’s Poland calls for bans against gays. Or how immigrants in today’s America are labeled as the enemy. Or even how a family learns to ostracize its proverbial “black sheep.” We always find it easier to scapegoat (to blame) someone else, than to take responsibility for own deficiencies. “If only it weren’t for ‘those kind of people,’” we tell ourselves (whoever that might be), “then all would be well.” As Dwight Eisenhower once remarked, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all human hunting expeditions.”
Palm Sunday is a day when the dynamics of scapegoating are on full display. At first, the people welcome Jesus as their king, “All glory, laud and honor.” But then, in the part of the story that we don’t get today—what comes between his entry into Jerusalem and the people turning against him—Jesus starts to confront them with what is wrong. They have confused their loyalties to God and Caesar; they have let the temple lapse into a house of corruption; they rely on religious sophistry, rather than true conversion of spirit. No wonder they turn against him! And they make him the scapegoat for these, their own shortcomings, project their own sins onto t his innocent person by shouting “crucify him, crucify him!”
The cross, however, is where God intervenes to unveil the hypocrisy and self-deception that are at the heart of the human rush to scapegoat. When Jesus pleads from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” he names scapegoating for what it is: an irrational reliance on violence and exclusion to try to resolve the human conflict that is the fruit of our rivalry and desire.
And naming it as such, Jesus simply absorbs it, judging it by giving in to it as one who is nevertheless innocent of its claims. And then, just when we would expect him to return in judgment and indignation, Jesus debunks this predilection to self-righteous violence as having nothing to do with God. In the resurrection, the victim becomes the healer; the accused becomes the reconciler. Jesus returns to reknit the community that had disintegrated through his trial and death. He shows us that God is not about blame. God is not about violence, and has no interest in it. God does not scapegoat, projecting onto Jesus the guilt of our own fault, and making him pay the price.
Rather, through Jesus God calls us out of and beyond all that, into a new way of being in the beloved community. Having voluntarily stood in the place of the victim, in the place of the one who is excluded, the resurrected Jesus goes about reconstituting humanity instead as a place where “everyone’s in.” In this new creation, there will be no scapegoats, no distinctions based on difference. So rather than the cross being a necessary act of violence that somehow satisfies God’s anger at our sin (as we have sometimes been taught), Jesus shows us through the cross that God’s real interest is to reveal the uselessness of violence and to lead us toward a better way.
The challenge, then, is for us to become the sort of people who can let each other in without fear. No matter how strong the temptation is for us to behave as if we can solve our problems by all agreeing on who the bad people are, and then banding against them—we are called by Jesus to be a people of wholeness. Or, to use a word that we explored in last week’s forum, we are called to be “catholic,” in the sense that to be catholic is to undo all the forms of separation or differentiation over and against someone else that allow scapegoating to occur.
Of course, it is difficult to do this. To receive and welcome someone whom we usually regard as a strange or fearful Other involves growing beyond the limitations of our own self-identity, actually to become someone more than who we now are. In short, we are called to become a new sort of “we,” refusing to let difference become determinative. And that’s the frightening thing about being a catholic church, a church where “everyone’s in” (as we claim to be): the defense and reception of the Other doesn’t mean a whole lot of different groups of separate people who merely get along. It means we, the holy common people of God, the entire people of God, the reconciled people of God. Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, is a day to discover God’s vision for that depth of solidarity among the whole human family. No more scapegoating—not in the kingdom of God! Amen.
Warm baked apple pie and freshly cut grass. This is a smell that I will forever associate with my childhood. The human body truly is a wonderous creation. It continues to amaze me how senses are instruments which can so intimately draw us into the present moment yet are capable of time travel. Our sense of smell relates closely to how we experience life and recall significant memories. I smell the aroma of baked apples or the scent of freshly cut grass and suddenly I am back in rural Virginia. But not just Virginia, I’ve returned to the kitchen of my childhood home. Standing barefoot, just barely able to look over the kitchen counter and watching my mom delicately align the crust on her apple pie. And 28 years later, I can still feel the intensity and love of that experience. I will always carry this memory with me as it profoundly impacts how I feel about my relationship with my mom today. Who here can smell that apple pie and freshly cut grass right now? Most people have experienced a smell that can take you back to a different time in your life. Smell is so closely tied to emotion and memory, and our emotions bind us in close, intimate relationships.
In our Gospel today, we hear about the anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary of Bethany with pure nard. Passover is near and so is Jesus’s hour. Jesus is at table with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Judas. The significance of this is that this moment follows the revival of Lazarus. This is a pivotal moment because this is the sign that calls many to believe in Jesus, to love and worship him. It is also the moment that pushes some to plot his death. And in today’s passage, Jesus acknowledges his own burial which confirms that his death is coming. Without saying it, the depth of her action is illustrated in using the nard to anoint his feet at table rather than use for it for its intended purpose of his actual burial. She acknowledges the nearness of Jesus’s death with this intimate gesture. She could have anointed his head, but she did not do that. When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet: the ultimate act of servitude. "Leave her alone," Jesus said to Judas, and let her finish delivering the message. When Jesus looks at Mary and asks Judas to be quiet, he meets Mary with an unjudging love and understanding.
When reflecting on today’s lesson, I read other sermons and interpretations of this passage to see what spoke to other people. Some of the points I came across explored the extravagance of Mary’s gift and the hypocrisy in Judas’ command to serve the poor; or even the shocking and profound intimacy of wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair. The message I invite you to consider is one that overwhelms our senses and offers a glimpse into the power of God’s extravagant mercy and unjudging love. The vividly aromatic nature of this passage invites us to think about the Gospel by engaging our senses beyond sound, beyond words. It is as if Grace and mercy have a fragrance. Mary’s gift of nard emits an aroma that saturates the house and the minds of everyone in it. Can you imagine what a significant memory this must have made? Not only the strong aroma but the significance of Mary’s gesture and the significance of the interaction between Judas and Jesus.
But let’s look at what is so profoundly intimate about this moment between Mary and Jesus. Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so valuable that it could have fed a family in need for an entire year. But it’s not about the expensive perfume. Instead, it’s the intent behind the gesture and the vulnerability of Mary letting her hair down in room with men present. The love that Mary models, to everyone in that room, and even to us, is a love marked by extravagance. Mary loved Jesus so much that she exemplified humility and intimacy in wiping clean his feet with her hair. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that in Jesus, the extravagance of God's love is made flesh. In Jesus, the excessiveness of God's mercy is made manifest. The focus of the extravagance isn’t in the perfume or anything that money could buy, but in this radical, unjudging love. By pouring this very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, Mary is inviting all of us to love Jesus in the same extravagant way; to give not necessarily the best of what we own, but the best of ourselves to him. Mary teaches us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And in true reciprocal and unconditional form, when we love Jesus, Jesus gives the best of himself to us by way of God’s mercy.
And what do I mean by mercy, especially because I’ve mentioned it quite a bit in this sermon? How is mercy related to this intimate moment at the table? Cynthia Bourgeault writes in Mystical Hope that mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. She highlights that Thomas Merton offers an impactful understanding in his essay, The Good Samaritan. He writes that the word translated as “mercy” in English actually means “a fierce, bonding love.” Merton argues that Mercy is not about pity but is actually about passion. Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet demonstrates this kind of passion. Merton writes that it is ultimate and unfailing because Mercy is the unconditional power that binds one person to another in a covenant of hearts. That when we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. If Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet does not represent mercy, I don’t know what does. Or if receiving 55 immigrants (as our congregation did this week) to care for them and relieve their distress does not represent mercy, I don’t know what does.
The moment at the table reveals a love so powerful, that like our senses, it pulls us into the present moment by drawing us into a closer relationship with God. I cannot imagine what that experience must have been like for Mary knowing the impact that apple pie and fresh cut grass bears in the relationship with my mom. I know that when my mother is no longer living, that memory will bring me into her presence and suddenly I will remember how she smells, the sound of her voice, and how it feels to be hugged by her. Perhaps our relationship with God works in the same way. In Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault goes on to tell the story of a woman who dies from a ten-year struggle with breast cancer from the perspective of one of her sons. She writes: “Before she lost her voice, she called all her boys around her and told us to keep our eyes open after she died, because although she would be gone from her body, she said she would still exist in smaller things, and she hoped we would recognize them. Although these smaller things don’t always jump out at me, when they come back to mind, I realize she was right…she is there.” Bourgeault adds that, the mother’s greatest gift to her sons was the insistence that they did not need to lead their lives looking backward. But by keeping their eyes and hearts open, they would encounter her love for them in the smallest of ways as long as live. Extravagant love can exist in small ways. By giving the best of ourselves Mercy is what remains.
This moment of intimacy between Mary and Jesus is not about the extravagance in her gesture but about the extravagance in her unjudging love. Feeling, through her senses, Jesus’s facial expressions and cues, and energetically, perhaps, sensing the death that awaits him; even before Jesus acknowledges to the group the death that awaits him in the ultimate act of unjudging love for all of humanity present and yet to be born. This is a powerful passage and one that draws us in deeply through our senses. When I think of my mom and challenges, I have encountered in my relationship with her, what remains is our unjudging love. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, the room smelled of nard: natural, warm, sweet, spicy, and musky. It causes the room to be filled with a fragrance of Christ so that ALL present will remember the power of God’s love and mercy. We will smell the smell of that nard as Jesus enters Jerusalem. We will smell it as he washes the feet of his disciples and when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Perhaps even before the stone rolls away and the tomb is empty, we will smell Christ’s presence on Easter morning.