Tag Archives: Church Divinity School of the Pacific

Broken Bread and Impossible Hope

Tuesday of Easter 3

May 6, 2014

Acts 7:51-8:1

Ps 31:1-5

John 6:30-35

All Saints Chapel

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

 

Christianity is a story — a deep sacred story that changes lives in its telling.

As a story it depends on conflict to drive it forward and to draw people in.

But sometimes the conflict we find in Scripture cannot be easily resolved.

We are left grappling with troubling moral questions in our sacred stories.

 

We encounter this in our Easter lectionary, especially with Acts and John.

These books have profoundly shaped the Christian faith but have also contributed to a long narrative of Christian hostility towards Judaism.

We hear conflict in Acts 7 when Stephen blames the Jewish leaders for killing Jesus, just like other leaders had killed the prophets in the past.

And then these same leaders go and stone Stephen, as if proving his point.

The Jewish priesthood is painted as oppressive and only capable of murdering the righteous.

In John 6 we hear a snippet of a longer argument between Jesus and “Jews.”

In this passage it sounds as if Jesus is dismissing the formative experiences of Israel in the wilderness.

Moses and the God-given miracle of manna seem to matter little.

The old is dismissed – Israel’s sacred story is forced into the past it seems.

 

These words of conflict have had a terrible effect.

These words have been used to justify a complete rejection of God’s promises to the people of Israel.

They have been used to say that Jews no longer have a covenant with God.

This has not only been incredibly destructive for Jews, but has also served as the blueprint for later Christian abuses in eras of empire and colonialism.

The denial of God’s covenant with the Jews provided the foundation for the denial of the rights of the Lakota and Navajo and Maori and Zulu when European Christians came to their lands.

 

And yet we also are gathered here because we know that Jesus Christ entered this world and transformed it in the process.

We are here because we have encountered something life giving and completely transformative in him.

We gather because we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life.

But, how can we gather in the breaking of the bread when claiming that Jesus is the Bread of Life has been used against Jewish people to say their story of life giving bread is best remembered as a story to fade away?

How can we break bread in a way that creates peace and not division?

 

This search for unity amidst division is at the heart of the mystery of God’s work in the world.

The gospels themselves force those who encounter Jesus Christ to make a choice about who they believe he is.

This process of making a choice about Jesus, whether he is the Anointed One sent by God, itself leads to conflict and division.

While these processes have life changing outcomes, they also have bled over, literally, into the lives of innocent people.

How do we live in the broken spaces that these readings open up?

What do we do with the stories of Jewish resistance to the Gospel of Jesus?

 

First, we should note that these stories are not history, at least not in our way of thinking.

They are not facts in the way we take facts.

We are dealing with narrative in a strongly rhetorical form that the people of Israel knew well.

We hear this in both stories – with the allusion to the giving of manna in the wilderness in John and when Stephen speaks of the tradition of leaders persecuting the prophets.

The subtext of the manna episode is that Israel was not satisfied with the giving of manna but demanded even more from God.

And the Hebrew Scriptures attest that the appointed leaders of Israel too often (but not always!) rejected God’s message from the prophets.

Part of Israel’s own story they told each other was that the people of God are not perfect.

Sometimes they fail totally in keeping their side of the covenant with God.

Sometimes the people of God grumble over what they lack when they should give thanks for what God is doing among them.

Sometimes those in power persecute the prophets when instead the proper response to the word of God is repentance.

And yet, the people of Israel always remain the people of God because God is not a breaker of promises.

Again and again, God promises to Israel through the prophets that he will always abide with them.

Israel always remains God’s chosen people for the sake of the nations — that truth is at the core of the very mission of the disciples of Jesus.

 

But the language of division in our readings remains.

We are not the first to have to grapple with these divisions.

These divisions were a core preoccupation of the Apostle Paul.

 

In Romans 11, we hear these words from Paul:

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.

And so all Israel will be saved . . .

As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. . .

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “ (Romans 11:25-33)

 

We are compelled to sit with the reality of disunity among the people of God, Israel and the Church.

But even among these divisions, God has promised in a deep and mysterious way, to keep his covenant with his people, both Israel and now the Church.

This is the case even when Israel appears to be an enemy of the Gospel.

They still remain beloved of God.

Given this, we are required to not deepen division.

 

In the very next chapter of Romans, Paul urges us to a life of reconciliation:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another; …; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil . ..

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:14-18)

These words of Paul take us back to the bread in John 6.

 

If we believe that God is a keeper of promises, we can affirm that the bread Israel received in the wilderness was good.

We can also say that when we receive our bread, we encounter the Bread of Life who sustains us by the promises that God still offers.

Paul attests that the two realities of the entire people of God, both Israel and the Church, are one in God but for now live in tension.

And we have no choice but to live in the midst of that tension.

We should use that tension to witness to the hope of reconciliation.

And the reality of that tension should inform how we live in other places of conflict – within our church, within our culture, within our own lives.

It may lead us to affirm God’s covenant making with other people like the Navajo or the Maori who have been drawn into the mystery of Christ.

 

We are a people of hope living in the tension of the impossible because we confess a Risen Christ who impossibly was dead and is now alive.

And we know our hopes are impossibly true because we have met the risen Christ, the Bread of Life, in the broken bread.

We hope because we know that by the power of God the Father the broken body of the Bread of Life was raised up whole and transformed.

And we hope for reconciliation between Israel and the Church because God does not break promises.

We take the broken bread with the audacious hope that the power of God will one day restore us all as one body.

God gave bread to sustain Israel in the wilderness; God gives us the Bread of Life to share in now.

 

Come, let us eat.

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Absalom Jones and Reconciliation

Commemoration of Absalom Jones

February 13, 2014

Isaiah 11:1-5

Psalm 137:1-6

Galatians 5:1-5

John 15:12-15

All Saints Chapel

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

In commemorating Absalom Jones, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, I want to offer three snapshots from his life.

The first snapshot:

It is the year 1787 in Philadelphia, a few short years after the United States of America has been founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On a Sunday morning at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, a mixed congregation of whites and free blacks gather for worship.

Tensions have been on the rise at St. George’s.

Two freed blacks serving as lay ministers, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, have been actively drawing other free blacks to the church.

With some many blacks joining services and freely mixing with whites, the all white vestry unilaterally rules that all blacks were to be seated only in the balcony.

The free mixing of blacks and whites was a disruption to the perceived order of things.

Absalom Jones and others refused to abide by this act of segregation.

Instead, they knelt in prayer in their usual places, only to be picked up and physically thrown out of St. George’s.

The white leadership of St. George’s was not willing to accept the new life that the blacks of the church represented.

The second snapshot:

In 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever struck Philadelphia, killing almost 4000 people.

As tens of thousands of people fled the city, Allen and Jones led the free black community in ministering to the many sick people left behind.

The black community, laboring out of the conviction that they had a Christian duty to aid the suffering, set to nursing the sick, attending the dead, and ensuring a proper burial.

240 members of the free black community died in this service.

When the yellow fever epidemic ended and many of the white Philadelphia community returned, the black community that had worked on behalf of the sick under Jones’s leadership were wrongfully accused of exploiting the sick and robbing their houses.

Against these false attacks, Jones tried to defend his community, but it was clear that many of the leading whites in Philadelphia regarded them with enmity.

The third snapshot:

In 1794, free blacks established St. Thomas’s African Church with permission to have control over its own affairs and with Jones as its leader.

In 1795 Jones was ordained a deacon by Bishop William White, but he was not made the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church until nine years later in 1804.

Even though St. Thomas was part of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Bishop White only permitted this if the parish did not send representatives to diocesan conventions.

Blacks could be part of the church, but they were not permitted full life within it.

These stories of Absalom Jones and the black community of Philadelphia are emblematic of the difficult circumstances of African Americans throughout American history.

Several things strike me about these stories.

First, is the persistent fact of racism,not just in United States history generally, but as part of woof and warp of American Christianity.

Second, Absalom Jones never abandons a vision of a life lived in harmony between the freed blacks and the white citizens of Philadelphia.

And finally, what was most evident in these events was the lack of reconciliation between these groups, a burden that must be born by the white Philadelphians.

Reconciliation is one of the greatest human needs.

To be reconciled is to live in harmony, peace, and justice with others.

It is the opposite of discrimination, oppression, rivalry, and enmity.

Reconciliation is at the core of the message of Jesus — it is what logically follows from a life lived as an expression of God’s love made known in Christ.

We hear this in the Gospel reading:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  [John 15:12]

Given that in overwhelming numbers those living in the early American republic were Christian, it would be safe to assume that the majority of white Philadelphians were also Christian.

All followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to love one another as Christ loves them.

This love is to be total and self-giving — “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” [John 15:13]

That total self-giving love is evident in the work of the free blacks led by Absalom Jones, who died serving others during the yellow fever epidemic.

They showed that they were the friends of Jesus by doing what he commanded them — to love other Christians completely. [John 15:14]

Jesus desires all his followers to be joined together as friends.

We are not servants of Christ, but his friends, because by his words God has been revealed to us. [John 15:14-15]

And so if we are all friends of Christ, we are certainly not to make one another servants to exploit and abuse.

The white Christian of Philadelphia missed out on a moment of great possibility when they chose to treat Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and the other free blacks as less than friends.

Certainly there were signs of God’s grace at work — Absalom Jones was ordained the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, St. Thomas church still flourishes today as a vital parish, and a precedent was set for the eventual full inclusion of all people in the ministry of the church.

But what could have happened if whites had treated blacks as friends?

In pondering this, I would offer that Jesus’ vision of friendship speaks to his larger desire that all of his followers be made one as he and the Father are one [John 17:21].

In order for friendship and unity to be real among groups that are divided there is a need for reconciliation.

In Absalom Jones’s time, what would reconciliation leading to Christian friendship and unity have looked like?

I imagine it would have started with a fully integrated church at St. George’s.

No one would have been thrown out in the streets for sitting in the wrong place.

There would have been no need for a separate St. Thomas church.

Going deeper, white Philadelphians would have recognized their racism and prejudice for what it was.

Bishop White would have given black Episcopalians full privileges in the diocese.

Others would not have accused blacks falsely during the yellow fever epidemic.

Perhaps, there would have been common cause made to deal with the terrible American sin of slavery and racism then and not let the problem fester for decades and centuries.

So, if we can take the words of Jesus about friendship and apply it to Philadelphia during the time of Absalom Jones, what would it mean for us to apply these same words in this time and place?

How could this church today better serve Christ’s vision of love and unity today?

Where are the divisions in it which must cease?

One of the bedrock teachings about the sacrament of the Eucharist is that before Christians take part in Christ’s body and blood, they should be reconciled to one another.

This is what Paul means when he warns the Corinthians about the divisions that exist among themselves (I Cor. 11:18ff).

And Paul cares about arguments regarding the observance of the Law in the passage we heard from Galatians not because he rejects the Law but he rejects the human use of the Law to divide people against each other.

So, as people of Christ, as a church, as those gathered to receive communion, be reconciled.

Look within yourself — what people or groups do you refuse to be reconciled with?

Who is it that you cannot stand that Christ calls you to love?

Who is it that you cannot even stand to call a Christian that you must love and be reconciled to?

Work to overcome the divisions that separate you from other Christians because until you do that, God’s will for us cannot be fulfilled.

Be reconciled.

Find ways for the love of Christ to transform your relationship with others.

May the one who calls us friends bind us all together in friendship as Absalom Jones sought to be a friend to all in Christ.

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Living Together

A sermon preached at the end of Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s Student Orientation

————–

1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Ps. 90:13-17

Matthew 24:42-51

 

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”[1 Thess 3:9]

 

This time has been in the making for so long and in so many ways.

You all have been individually called out by God to lay claim to your particular gifts and to lay claim to your vocations.

The continual discernment of the mystery of your lives has led you now to this place here in Berkeley at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

All of us have individually followed paths that have led us to this particular community of faith lived out in this community of learning.

We have all arrived here as strangers and we have learned how to grow together as a community.

And now this week, you who have come through orientation have been gathered together as people who were once strangers but now have become friends in this community of followers of the way of Jesus.

 

The passage we heard from I Thessalonians offers us a window into the creation of one of the earliest Christian communities we know of.

As you will learn later, First Thessalonians is the earliest letter we have from the Apostle Paul and so also the earliest written Christian document.

In this passage, we hear the joy experienced by the earliest Christians as they came together to worship the God of Israel in gratitude for the reconciling work of the risen Christ.

We hear of the mutual longing of Paul and the community in Thessalonica to see one another.

We hear of the joy that each gains in their fellowship and a desire to grow in faith that is uniquely gained by living in community.

Paul’s words teach us that a key component of living together in Christ is a mutuality and reciprocity that leads not only to love for one another but also to growth in faith.

This communal growth not only exists for the sake of the present but it is also directed to the future.

Our passage ends with this exhortation from Paul:

“And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” [I Thess 3:13]

Here Paul’s words remind us that what we do together matters.

God cares deeply about how we shape our common life together.

We hear Paul with our modern ears that God will judge us individually for what we have done.

And we recoil.

But remember this – Paul did not think like a modern person.

He thought as a Jew of the ancient Mediterranean world.

And so he thought not of individual entities but of communal realities.

How we live as community is what God will judge in the age to come.

And life in community is hard.

 

We hear about the difficulty of community life in the passage read from Matthew 24.

The context of this passage is Jesus preparing his disciples for the coming of God’s reign that will be signaled by the return of the Son of Man.

It is important to know that the Son of Man refers to a heavenly figure in Daniel 3 who in Second Temple Judaism was identified as the messianic agent of God’s restoration of Israel.

In Matthew, Jesus is identified as the heavenly, messianic Son of Man.

And we hear a parable by Jesus about faithful and unfaithful household slaves.

This teaching is similar to others Jesus offered in which he used the economic and social realities of his time to exhort his disciples to work carefully with what has been entrusted to them.

I don’t think this parable means that the good slaves are Christians and the bad ones are non-Christians.

I think he is asking his disciples to imagine themselves as a household devoted to serving God by following the teachings of their master Jesus.

 

This parable is not about us and them.

It is about us.

And it asks a hard question — Are we ready for the Son of Man coming among us at an unexpected hour?

When he comes, how will he find us?

Will he find us treating one another well and nourishing one another or will he find us beating up on each other? [Mt 24:45, 49]

It is not an abstract question about when Christ comes again.

It is about how we choose to live together now, in this community, at CDSP.

We here are part of the household of God, following the way of Jesus.

We’re an intentional community – we have chosen to live together.

And we will be held accountable for how we live together and with one another now.

 

This truth reminds me of something that Mark Richardson has spoken of as a desire he has for life together here at CDSP – that we learn to cultivate the habits of ethical living and the ability to engage in moral conversation that leads to deeper life in Christ.

Moments and opportunities will come for us to follow Jesus and to show we are ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

These moments will emerge as we live together in this place in community.

Our time in this community will be determined in part by how we choose to be open to living side by side as members of the household of God, brought together as followers of the reconciling Christ.

This kind of living together is what Paul writes about in First Thessalonians.

It is a community in which the workers within the household attend to and care for one another.

It is a community that gives thanks for one another.

It is one in which the love of God serves as a common bond among us, even when we disagree or disappoint one another.

 

So we are here together facing this new semester, gathering together again as a community.

Let us care for one another.

Let us give thanks for one another.

Let us love one another.

Living this way, together, we will be ready when the Son of Man comes among us, now and in the day to come.

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Barren Branches and Flowering Branches

Thursday in Second Week of Lent
February 28, 2013
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Berkeley, CA

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
Luke 16:19-31

“They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jer. 17:8a)

If we imagine Lent as a journey through the wilderness, by now we have taken a bend in the road.

We can’t turn around and see Ash Wednesday behind us.

The memory of ash on our foreheads is not as strong.

But perhaps the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy still echo in your ears: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those words call us to penance, rightly and surely.

But, remember also the ultimate referent of those words is God, the creator and source of all life.

God created all that is, setting forth and ordering all of the tremendous beauty, diversity and mystery of creation.

Remember you are made from the dust of the earth.

Remember you are made from dust that came from the stars shining above.

Remember you are dust from which plants spring forth.

Remember that when you die you will return back to the elemental realities God formed.

Remember God the Creator.

Forgetting God the Creator, the source of all being, is the essence of idolatry.

To forget God as the source of all is to break the First Commandment – “I am the Lord your God.”

When we forget this, then we forget the Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself any idol.”

Jeremiah addresses this forgetfulness when he speaks to the people of Israel: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jer 17:5)

Immediately before in this chapter, Jeremiah has condemned the people for turning away from Torah to idols.

That turning away includes looking to foreign powers instead of God.

Israel was threatened from all sides by foreign powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon.

Rather than trust in God, Israel sought political solutions by turning to their own strength and by seeking alliances with other powers.

In the course of these pursuits, Israel also turned to idolatry, forgetting God’s covenant with Israel made at Sinai.

For Jeremiah, idolatry happens when the people of God move from relying on God the Creator and instead turn to their own strength.

This indeed is the origin of sin – turning away from God.

The problem is not simply in turning away from God.

Sin involves losing sight of God as the source of all creation.

Sin disfigures God’s plan for creation – that all should live in harmony and unity with God, with each other, and with all that God has created.

Jeremiah uses a striking image for this idolatry – sin is like a drought.

He declares that those who put their own agenda before God’s desire for creation will be:

“like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jer. 17:6)

By putting other things in the place of God, sin dries up and shrivels the vibrancy of life.

Sin causes the leaves and buds and flowers and fruits to fall off the branches of our life until we are left with a broken stick.

We find a similar image of sin in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke.

In this parable, the rich man dines sumptuously his whole life; he is blessed with many fine things.

Even his burial shows that he had the means to ensure not only a comfortable life but a seemly transition to the world to come.

His wealth would have been interpreted by Luke’s audience to mean that God had favored him.

And then comes the great reversal that is the core of Luke’s gospel.

The poor man, Lazarus, is exalted to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man is cast down to Hades.

The rich man went down to Hades not because he was rich but because he did not heed the word of God regarding his wealth.

The Scriptures of Israel that Jesus taught from held that the people of God must care for the poor in their midst.

Moses clearly taught this when in the Torah provisions are made for the poor and aliens in the midst of Israel.

Jeremiah taught this when he wrote: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow . . . and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place.” (Jer 7:5-7)

For Jeremiah, not caring for the poor in your midst is linked to idolatry.

They are linked because both show a disregard for God’s plan that all be in relation with God and with each other.

And when the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his thirst, Abraham tells him it is too late – his way of life has sealed his fate.

And neither does Abraham allow Lazarus to go back to the rich man’s brothers to warn them of their fate – the words of Moses and the prophets are sufficient.

Indeed, even if someone comes back from the dead, they will not believe.

In this world, the rich man never saw Lazarus.

He neglected Torah by neglecting Lazarus.

And that neglect shows that he placed himself before others.

That attitude of superiority in itself was an act of idolatry because it signaled that God was not at the center of life for the rich man.

And so he did not respond to God’s desire for communion among all created things.

And for that, he thirsted.

Sin had rendered him dry and without the vibrancy of life.

There was no water for him.

Sin had ruined all the comforts he had carefully laid up.

Scripture is clear.

There are two ways – a way that leads to flourishing and life and a way that leads to dryness and lifelessness.

Both Jeremiah and the psalm imagine one who follows the wisdom of God as being like a flourishing tree that has set down roots by running waters.

In contrast, to not heed God is to be like a withered shrub or chaff that the wind blows away.

I imagine these two ways as the way of the barren branch and the flowering branch.

[Pull out budding branch]

We can imagine ourselves, our society, and our planet as a budding branch.

And it can become a flowering branch or a barren branch based on our actions.

We become the barren branch when we do not obey God’s desire for us, for humanity, and for creeation even when we know words of God spoken by Moses, the prophets, Jesus. [pluck buds]
Our society becomes a barren branch when we neglect the poor right under our feet. [pluck buds]

When we are willing to be complicit in injustice. [pluck buds]

When the diminishment of others is not our concern. [pluck buds]
Our world becomes this barren branch when we consume and don’t care. [pluck buds]

When we desire products that rely on rare metals whose mining means poisoned waters for indigenous people and civil wars in corners of the world remote to us.  [pluck buds]

This has been the driest winter in the Bay Area on record.

The sunshine you enjoyed today was not good news.

It was as bad news as Hurricane Sandy was. [pluck last buds]

Like this barren branch, it is a sign of the destruction that human sin causes among God’s creation.

We have created barren branches in ourselves, in society, and upon our earth.

[Put down barren branch.]

And there is the way of the flowering branch.

Psalm 1 and Jeremiah teaches that the wise and blessed are those who trust in the Lord and delight in God’s Law.

They are like trees by streams of water, bursting with green leaves, flowers and fruit.

This is the way of flourishing: choosing the way of wisdom that places God at the center and as the source of creation.

Discerning God as source and center allows us to see the goodness and communion God desires for all of creation.
To return to this sense of God’s desire for us requires repentance.

It requires seeing the world and our lives and our society not as we want it but as God does.

[Hold up flowering branch]
Repentance brings forth the buds of the branch and causes flowers to bloom.

When we turn to God and in prayer discern God’s will for us, flowers bloom.

When we heed God’s call to care for the poor and hungry, flowers bloom.

When people make a stand for a society that is just, honest, and fair, flowers bloom.

When greed gives way to generosity, flowers bloom.

When we stop consuming and start sharing, flowers bloom.

And is it possible?

Can we imagine a way past the destruction of creation that looms on the horizon, that is indeed upon us?

Might the barren branch become the flowering branch in the desolate places we have made?

Amid the melting ice, warming oceans, and parched land?

Might the flowers on the branch bloom?

There is one who has come back from the dead to warn us.

And not just to warn us, but to give us abundant life.

[Put both branches together]

He is the branch that has sent forth new shoots from the root of Jesse.

He is the one who says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 2:15).

Blessed are those who walk in the way of the Lord for they shall bring forth fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither.

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Sermon on Ash Wednesday

I know this is a bit late, but here is the sermon I preached this Ash Wednesday at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, CA.

—————-

Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Why are we here?
That answer seems simple enough: We are here to begin the season of Lent.
We are gathered to prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Christ’s death and his glorious resurrection.
We are here to prepare as the holy people of God have always prepared when approaching the mysteries of God’s grace.

Scripture testifies that drawing near to God includes purification by fasting and repentance.

But Scripture also warns that we need to have a right understanding of this process.

We live in an age in which our focus is so highly individualized.

So when we hear the word repentance, our minds first go to personal sins.

It is appropriate to deal with these but Scripture teaches that our concern ought not to be just with how our sins touch us but even more so how they effect others.

The purpose of fasting and repentance of sins is not to make ourselves feel closer to God.

God desires our fasting and repentance to be a way to reset the entire social order

The message of Scripture, over and over, is that sin matters because it distorts our relationship with God, with one another, and with all that God has created.

God’s desire for the people of God to reset their social order is found in our reading from Isaiah.

These words are addressed to the exiles from Babylon.
They are seeking to re-establish their relationship with God as they restore their worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem.
A fast, they believe, will draw them closer to God.
But the prophet tells them a fast alone won’t suffice.
Attending to their personal sphere alone won’t do it.
And they know it.

They ask: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (Is 58:3a)

The prophet responds:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.” (Is 53:3b-4)
God will not hear the people’s cry until they repair their relationships with one another.Isaiah reminds us that God the Creator desires all creation to be in right relationship.

But the returning exiles are not in right relationship with their neighbors, and thus not with God either.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until it is accompanied by justice and peace.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until their workers are paid fairly.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until they cease fighting with one another.
This is the fast God desires from the people of God.

Scripture says it plainly:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [Is 58:6-7]

The fast that pleases God is a just fast.
It is a fast that involves sharing what you don’t eat with the hungry.
It is a fast that houses the homeless.
It is a fast that clothes the needy.
It is a fast that purifies not only your soul but also heals society.

And the prophet is clear: if you do not counteract injustice you are complicit with it.

Will your fast be a just fast?
It is this question that drives Jesus’ words on fasting that we have heard.
Jesus does not disapprove of fasting.
We know this because he himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
What he opposes is the fast that is not just.
He opposes the fast that makes us feel we are holy and special while we ignore our responsibility as people of God to do justice and to make peace.
If we are satisfied with the simple act of fasting and penitence today and this Lent, Jesus tells us we have lost our way.
In the Gospels, over and over again, Jesus calls his disciples into relationship with the God of Israel and with one another.
Jesus, like Isaiah, teaches that all we have is from God the Creator.

We are made from dust, to dust we will return, all we possess comes from God.

Being from dust, depending on God for our being, we are set free to be in loving relationship with all, including those we have oppressed, whether personally or complicity.

This is a key element of what the Kingdom of God means to Jesus.
This vision of the Kingdom of God encompasses a life in which all of God’s people are in a relationship and in which no one is diminished.
All are to be loved as God loves, both your neighbor and your enemy, both those you aid and those you oppress.
The point of repentance is to not only focus on what inhibits our relationship with God, but to repent of that which harms and diminishes others.

And when Jesus speaks of the rewards of heaven, I think he has in mind rewards that bring us closer to God and to the ideal way in which we are called to live.
We are called to feed hungry and care for the needy.
When this happens, what was missing and broken in our common lives is repaired.
We are called to a fast in which we move beyond ourselves and our personal concerns to a wider circle of concern for others.
We are called to a just fast.
Our reward for taking on a just fast is that in those small mundane tasks of justice the patterns of the kingdom of God slowly become visible among us.
We will come up soon and receive ashes on our head and be told that we are from dust and will return to dust.
We are born with nothing and we will leave with nothing.
We depend on God alone for our life.
And so if we depend on God alone, what is there to lose in taking on this just fast, this fast in which we expand the circle beyond ourselves?

We are dust.
All we have depends on God.

So, feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Care for the needy.
Stop your quarrels.
Make peace.

This is the fast God desires.

This is the fast that leads to the cross and to the empty tomb and to the risen Christ.
The ash on your head will mark another step on the path of living out God’s justice.

There is nothing to lose and the treasures of heaven to gain.

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Sermon for Thursday of Proper 19

Thursday of Proper 19
1 Cor. 15:1-11
Psalm 118:14-29
Luke 7:36-50

Prof. Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski
All Saints Chapel
Church Divinity School of the Pacific

September 20, 2012
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When she came in did you see her?

You are lying around the banquet table with the others.

Perhaps you missed her when you rearrange the pillow you are resting on.

Or you are listening closely to what Jesus and Simon are talking about.

You are riveted by their conversation.

It’s not surprising that you don’t notice her at first.

After all, Simon has put on a public feast for Jesus.

At these kinds of things all sorts of people crowd in along the walls to hear the conversation flowing around the table.

And the people in town really want to hear Jesus.

He had preached in the synagogue earlier and now Simon has put on this banquet for him.

People want to hear more.

Some think he is even a prophet.

Simon himself wonders if this might be true.

That’s why he has hosted this banquet in the first place.

So you are there with the invited guests lying around the table.

And then there are the other men and women along the walls.

You really don’t know if she has been there all along or if she came in later.

But then while Jesus is talking, she kneels down by his feet.

You see it all happen because you are just across the table from him.

At first you think she is going to rub the ointment in her little jar on Jesus’s feet.

You and others at the table saw how Simon had forgotten to offer Jesus water for his feet.

Simon had been so busy getting ready that it just didn’t happen.

You think at first that maybe Simon had sent this woman to clean Jesus’s dusty feet.

But then she bursts into tears.

Jesus doesn’t know she is behind him and he is startled.

But he lets her weep.

He does not move.

Soon the tears bathe his feet.

Then she surprises you even more.

She undoes her head wrap and uses her hair to wipe his feet.

And then, even more surprising, she kisses his feet over and over.

Only after that does she do what she came to do and rubs ointment on his feet.

Of course you know her.

Everybody does.

Simon sure does.

You can see it on his face.

And everyone looks around.

Doesn’t Jesus know who she is?

Isn’t that the sort of thing a prophet knows?

And now you remember that you had seen her earlier today.

She was there when Jesus taught this morning.

That was when he had spoken of God’s forgiveness

She was in the crowd around him afterwards.

And now Jesus turns gently to Simon.

He can tell what Simon is thinking and he tells a story.

He is explaining that this woman has been forgiven.

Her sins have been forgiven and Jesus has done it.

He forgave her of her sins after his talk today.

She wanted to show her gratitude with the ointment but burst into tears before she had a chance.

Is that all it took for her to weep so much?

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 118:29)

And you see the face of Simon – how it changed from annoyance to tenderness.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 118:29)

And you wonder, can you be forgiven too?

What would it take for you to weep like her?

“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. “ (Psalm 118:19)

You are moved by it all so much that you get up and leave the table.

People are talking to their neighbors so you think no one notices.

But Jesus follows you outside.

You turn to him.

“Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.” (1 Cor. 15:8)

He looks at you.

And it all comes tumbling out of you, out of your mouth, from your heart.

All of it – everything you have kept hidden.

Everything you thought nobody but God knew.

All of it – every last bit of anger and pettiness and jealousy and greed.

And now you hear his words.

He tells you that you have been forgiven.

He assures you of God’s love.

And he tells you to sin no more.

Your heart is ablaze.

“But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” (1 Cor. 15:10)

And then he goes back into Simon’s house.

And you return to the banqueting table.

“This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” (Psalm 118:20)

You are at the table.

The woman is on one side of you.

Simon is on the other.

And from across the table, Jesus looks into your eyes as he hands you the bread.

You take it and you eat it and you pass it.

The banquet goes on.

Your heart is ablaze.

And you weep.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 118:29)

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Meditation on the Feast of the Holy Cross

This meditation was delivered today in All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA.

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Image

You have in front of you something called a carmina figurata.

In English, this phrase would mean something like a “picture poem.”

It was a form of writing and meditation popular in the 8th and 9th centuries in the theological circles of the court of Charlemagne.

This poem is by the great theologian Rabanus Maurus, abbot of the monastery at Fulda. It was composed sometime in the 820s.

This carmina figurata is titled In honorem sanctae cruces, or, In Praise of the Holy Cross.

We have here an image of Jesus as a stiff body with open eyes.

This is sometimes called the Christus Rex – Christ as an unvanquished King.

We have here Christ hanging on the cross but also defeating the cross, showing forth his immortality and defeat of the cross.

Indeed the cross has entirely disappeared.

It has been replaced by words praising Christ and proclaiming his victory as the fully human and fully divine King of kings and Lord of lords.

Those are the words we read around his nimbus, his halo – King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

This poem hails Jesus Christ as the author of the cosmos, the one who is of the same substance with the Father.

He has conquered death and conquered it so thoroughly that we now use the cross as a sign of victory.

Rabanus intended his viewers to meditate on this picture poem.

He wanted his viewers to not only to look at the images but to sense their spiritual reality.

I invite to spend some time meditating on this image with these words from the Gospel of John in mind:

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12:32)

Christ has been lifted up from the earth upon the cross.

He draws all to himself and as he does the cross disappears and the embrace of his arms remain.

I invite you into meditation.

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For more on Rabanus Maurus and this poem, I recommend: Celia Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

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