Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Speaking of Glory...

Speaking of Glory, our trip last week to Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon was filled with encounters with unspeakable Glory (I think that is the best kind--when something puts you beyond words). As I look at this picture, taken on my 55th birthday (a landmark with Glory all its own), it almost looks faked, like standing in front of some blown-up picture postcard.  It was, however, the real deal.

Look what happens when God's ruach blows through Mother Nature's handiwork! (ruach is Hebrew for spirit/breath/wind).  I'm talking about the Canyon, of course, not the "little" guy in front of it. But then, the "little" guy is so very grateful to be in this place at this time.  I look happy and I am, although there are still many days when I struggle for this state of being.

Now back among the hills and fields of the Southern Tier of Western New York, spring is springing. The hills are developing that light green cast as the leaves begin to poke through the buds. What a wonder creation is. There is such glory in the desert we spent several days exploring last week, and such glory in this very different landscape I see out my window this morning.  It makes me think of one of my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins poems:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

In the late 19th century, Hopkins could already see the damage done to the creation by humankind, although 125 years or more later we might not be so sure that "nature is never spent." And yet, nature, the creation, is still charged with the glory of God.

Here's a couple more pictures:
The Verde Canyon:  Oasis in the desert.
A sample of the red rocks that surround Sedona, Arizona, which was home base for us.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Gracefully Loved, Gratefully Alive

Today, April 4, 2016 is the 50th Anniversary of my  Baptism.  I was just shy of five years old, but I have no memory of it.  The oldest of my sisters, Leann, was baptized at the same time. She was a bit over a year  old.  It happened in a country Methodist Church, where my Hopkins' grandparents belonged most of their lives.  It has become the most important day of my life, which may seem very strange, but let me tell you why.

No matter what has been going on in my life, spiritually or otherwise, I end up going back to that day.  I must admit that at first this was a discipline based on my theological understanding of Baptism, but it very quickly became a natural habit.  This habit was formed by what I began to find as I tried too go back to that moment of which I have no memory.

What I began to find was real relationship with God, and by that I mean that I discovered God as wholly and holy gift.  My relationship with God is neither something I created nor is it something I earned, it was simply given to me, and my job since that day, through many fits and starts, tosses and turns, deep awareness and blissful ignorance, has been to be grateful.

Over time I have discovered that being grateful is what it is all about, and by "it" I mean life, everything.  I can talk about and write about the intricacies of Christian theology and understanding the Bible, but when all is said and done, this simple truth is the core:  I am gracefully loved by the force that created the universe and for that I am grateful.

Now, of course, I have many days when I forget this truth, and many days when it is hard to accept it, and many more days when I struggle with the fact that the person who just annoyed me is equally graciously loved.  This simple truth does not always make life easier.  I struggle with it, and that is where my participation in the Christian community, my study of the Bible, my experience of the crucified and risen Jesus, and my life with my husband and family comes in.  They all help to remind me that I am, indeed, graciously loved and my only lifelong pursuit is to be grateful.

I am grateful for my baptism, and I wouldn't want it to have happened in any other way.  I do not need to remember it; I simply need to use it as my reference point for striving to be as fully alive as God would have me be.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Nothing is Impossible for God

Sermon preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

          Why did it have to happen this way?

          Maybe there is a clue in an odd juxtaposition today, a liturgical collision, if you will.

          On the Christian calendar today—March 25—is usually the Feast of the Annunciation when we tell the story of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the miraculous conception of Jesus.  This alignment is rare.  It has happened only 3 times in our lifetime, including today, and it will not happen again in this century.

          What does it mean for these two events of Jesus’ life to be on the same day?  I am struck mostly by Gabriel’s primary message to Mary that echoes down the ages to us:  “Nothing will be impossible for God.”

          We usually think of this as a statement of hope, perhaps the definitive statement of Christian hope.  But what if it not only points to the ability of God to bring miracle to human life, but the ability of God to embrace the entire reality of human life, even to the point of the suffering and death Jesus experienced on the cross?

          What if Gabriel was saying, “It will not be impossible for God to experience the greatest depths of human rejection and suffering”?  “Nothing will be impossible for God” is not only about the miraculous birth, but also the horrific death.

          It seems to me this brings home a question I think we all need to contemplate on this day.  Do we really want a God for which this day is not impossible?  Do we really want a God who suffers and dies?

          Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?  Wasn’t it enough to teach us about the kingdom of God?  Wasn’t it enough to give us a Golden Rule and a Summary of the Law, a Sermon on the Mount and a bunch of pithy parables?  Weren’t they enough to make the point?

          Why did Jesus have to suffer and die, for his life to be made a sacrifice?  We might be inclined quickly to say, “But Easter made it all better!”

          We all have a tendency to want to jump over today and go straight to Easter.  Why must we stay here?  What good is Good Friday?

          I was reminded of these questions by a dear friend of mine, a priest, who lost her oldest daughter, age 34, to a strange liver disease several years ago on Palm Sunday.  She wrote to several of her friends later that week,

When it comes to Easter joy, I fear that I no longer know what I'm talking about.  Everything I've previously written now seems to me as if penned by some stranger in a foreign tongue. . . . I am humbled, this year, not to be able to rush the resurrection.  To have to live it.  Breathe it. Weep it. Wait it. Hope it. Live though it as a mother dies to the pain of her labor so that she may bring forth new life.

          The truth is that we live in these three days all our life, not just Easter.  The suffering of Good Friday is our constant companion in this life.  Bombs in Brussels, politicians cynically playing on our fears, sudden death of the young, or the old, for that matter, mental illness that robs you of normality again and again.  Much of life is actually lived in tomorrow—Holy Saturday—the day of waiting, of teetering on the edge between hope and despair.

          Easter is our hope, and we Christians dare to proclaim that it is our reality, but we have to be honest enough to say, it is so only by faith.  Easter is a glimpse of all our Good Fridays undone, enough of a glimpse to give fuel to hope and even to joy, but never enough in this life to make Good Friday go away altogether.  For that we still wait.

          Why did God have to do it this way?  Do we really want a God who had to do it this way?

          The answer is often given to us in the logic of a theory of atonement that says it had to happen this way to fulfill the requirements of God’s law.  Jesus had to sacrifice himself for the sins of the whole world, because God requires bloody sacrifice for sin.  And because Jesus was also God’s Son, the sacrifice of his life was enough for all.

          That is one answer, with some biblical authority to back it up.

          But there is another answer.  Jesus’ death is not only about sin, but also, and perhaps mostly, about suffering.

          How can we trust a God who does not know the absolute depths of what it means to be human?  How can we trust a God who has never been rejected, who has never suffered, who has never died?  How can we trust a God who has never lived the reality of my friend and her daughter, and all our realities of life falling short of what we had hoped and dreamed?

          Jesus’ death on the cross is about God’s utter solidarity with us.  Jesus did bear the sins of the whole world on the cross.  That is important to me.  But what is more important to me is that Jesus also bore the suffering of the whole world on the cross.

          This is why I am a Christian, because nothing is impossible for God, even this day, even bearing the suffering of the whole world.  And because of this reality—Good Friday—I can trust this God enough to believe that Easter is possible.  I can hope for a day when it is all undone, and you and me and all who have suffered are so sure that there will be no more Good Fridays that we cannot stop singing and dancing for joy.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Do Not Presume One of the Thieves was Damned

Sermon preached on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016  at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  John 19:1-42

          When I was in college in Plattsburgh, I became friends with a local family who attended the same church I did.  The father of the family happened to be an Episcopal priest who was the protestant chaplain at Dannemora State Prison (yes, the prison that was in the news not long ago).

          On the grounds of the prison is a very beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Dismas, the good thief.  Early Christianity was fascinated with the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, and gave them names:  Dismas, the good thief, and Gestas, the bad one.

          These names are taken from the fourth century apocryphal gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus.  In that apocryphal gospel, after Jesus has died, Dismas goes on to accompany Christ on his journey to Hell to redeem the dead. This occurs between his death and the resurrection.  It is what is referred to when we say the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead,” or, in more traditional language, “he descended into hell.”

          Luke’s story of Dismas and Gestas seems obvious.  It seems like a picture of the choice before each one of us.  Be like Dismas and associate yourself with Christ or be like Gestas and reject him.  If you accept him you will join him in paradise.  If you reject him you will be left hanging.

          There is a saying attributed to St. Augustine (although no one has ever been able to find it in his writings) about the two thieves that is intriguing and may open up another possibility:

Do not despair one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.[1]

          Now what these two lines mean depend on where you put the punctuation. The oldest Latin forms of it that exist do not have any punctuation.  One assumes there should be a semi-colon after despair in the first line: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.” It doesn’t make sense any other way.

          If you put a parallel semi-colon after “presume” in the second line, the line becomes a warning:  “Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”  But if there is no semi-colon it means an entirely different thing: “Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.”

          What if that is what is being said?  What happened to Gestas, the “unrepentant thief?” The Bible is actually silent.  We assume that he went to hell. We have always assumed he went to hell.  But do we need to reserve judgment?

          Can the news be this good?

          I spoke earlier of the Gospel of Nicodemus’ story that Dismas, the good thief, accompanied Jesus to hell to preach the good news to those trapped there.  That story rose up among the first followers of Jesus after the resurrection. The First Letter of Peter refers twice to the story (3:18-20 & 4:6).  It seemed to answer a question that troubled early believers. What happened to all those who had died before Jesus was raised from the dead?  There was a special concern for Adam and Eve and for those who died in the great flood when God had destroyed the earth.

          So the story was told of what Jesus did between his death and resurrection.  It is sometimes called “the Harrowing of Hell.”  I mentioned its sneaking into the Apostles’ Creed, but it also plays a part in Christian art—especially Orthodox icons.  Orthodox icons of the resurrection do not show an empty tomb with a triumphant Jesus.  No, Orthodox icons of the resurrection are really icons of the harrowing of hell.  The icons show the results of this visit to the dead, show Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell.  He is hauling up Adam with one hand and Eve with the other.

          Our eyes might role at the quaintness of the story of Jesus’ entering hell, but the image is a powerful one, and its meaning even more so.  No place and no one is out of reach of the love of God in Christ Jesus.  That, of course, would mean Gestas too, and, by the way, you and me.

          A writer in The Christian Century a few years ago, David Cunningham, commented on the story of the two thieves this way:

While we are busy dividing up the world into the saved and the damned, God is at work on an entirely different project: reconciling the world—the whole world—to one another and to God’s own self.[2]

          The good news of the cross is this good: do not presume one of the thieves was damned. Do not presume that Gestas was left hanging.

          As Luke tells the passion story we are meant to appreciate the words of the good thief and reject those of the bad.  But who among us has never asked his question in some form or another:

If you are God, why don’t you do something to get me out of this mess?

          Gestas was a sinner, yes, indeed, but no more so than you or me.  We judge him at our peril.  The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was as much for him as for anybody.  If he was in hell, Jesus and Dismas were there to lift him up among the redeemed.

[1] I found this in an article in The Christian Century by David Cunningham: “The Fate of the Other Thief: “Do not presume,” March 23, 2010, p. 30.  The idea for this sermon came from that article.
[2] Ibid., p. 33. Cunningham teaches religion and directs the CrossRoads Project at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Psalms for Week of Lent 5

Fifth Sunday in Lent:  Psalm 114
#Psalm114 uses the power of memory to proclaim God’s power of liberation. Given that freedom is a desire of God for us, what holds us back?

Monday in Lent 5:  Psalm 117
#Psalm117 is a short, summary announcement of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. How does this work as a statement of your faith?

Tuesday in Lent 5:  Psalm 124
#Psalm124 “If the Lord had not been on our side…then…” When have you experienced that the Lord has been on your side…your “help” (v.8)?

Wednesday in Lent 5:  Psalm 135 (1-10)
#Psalm135 sings the memory of the chosen people’s inheritance, albeit by acts of violence. Does grace have to occur at the expense of others?

Thursday in Lent 5:  Psalm 138
#Psalm138 gives thanks for God’s enduring faithfulness to “the lowly” (v.7). All people have purpose. What is your purpose? How do you know?

Friday in Lent 5:  Psalm 146
#Psalm146 asks us in whom we put our ultimate trust, look to for justice, care and sustenance. Does this mean we should distrust anyone else?

Saturday in Lent 5:  Psalm 147 (1-12)

#Psalm147 gives thanks for return from exile, from the feeling of a broken heart. Have you ever felt God’s presence lift you out of such a time?

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Servant on the Cross--Remembering G.A. Studdert Kennedy

Today we remember Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, whose name is a mouthful, and not well known, although he has a place now on the Episcopal Church's calendar of remembrances.

Kennedy was of Irish descent, but raised in Leeds, an urban center in the north of England.  A priest of the Church of England, he served as an army chaplain in World War I, and it is out of that experience that most of his writing was done.  His prose and his poetry are examples of theological reflection, well before the time we ever used those words together.

His writing was not universally well received.  His language was at times rough, and he was constantly criticized for a less than systematic theology.  Kennedy was actually a prophet, who used his experience of the war to call the church to a renewed understanding of God.  Here's a small sample from his book The Hardest Part.

It's always the Cross in the end--God, not Almighty, but God the Father, with a Father's sorrow and a Father's weakness, which is the strength of love; God splendid, suffering, crucified--Christ....There's the Dawn.

Of the soldiers with  whom he served, he said,

They do not, and will not, believe in [God Almighty] the monarch on the throne; they do, and will, believe in the Servant on the Cross.

The more I read of Kennedy, the more I consider him to be the Bonhoeffer of our tradition, and a full generation earlier.  It is Bonhoeffer who famously said, "Only the Suffering God can save."

I thank The Rev. Dennis Wienk for giving my access to Studdert Kennedy's work. It has enriched my own theological reflection, and, even more, my relationship with God.

Here's a link to some of Kennedy's poetry: Kennedy Poetry

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Psalms for the Fourth Week of Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent:  Psalm 47
#Psalm47 holds together a God who loves all people but has special love for Israel. Can you leave room for God to love the very different other?

Monday in Lent 4:  Psalm 65
#Psalm65 admits guilt and proclaims forgiveness (v.1-5), then sings God’s praise. How hard is it to forgive? To be forgiven? To experience joy?

Tuesday in Lent 4:  Psalm 66
#Psalm66 reflects on times of trouble as also times of testing. Is disorientation necessary for reorientation? Have you experienced this truth?

Wednesday in Lent 4:  Psalm 91
#Psalm91 tells of total trust in God’s provision of safety. It may seem unrealistic but it’s meant to inspire. Can we trust in spite of trouble?

Thursday in Lent 4:  Psalm 96
#Psalm96 proclaims the future belongs to God and not to our idols. With what idols do you struggle and what would life look like without them?

Friday in Lent 4:  Psalm 99
#Psalm99 proclaims God as King. He loves justice, equality and righteousness. What is a way you could love these things more right now?

Saturday in Lent 4:  Psalm 103

#Psalm103 proclaims God’s judgment as coming in unexpected ways (v.8-18). What are these ways? What keeps you from faith that they are true?