Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Manna, Mercy, and God's Unfolding Promise

"Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.  He said, 'When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name...and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.'"
--I Kings 8: 22-23, 41, 43

"A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  When he heard about Jesus he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal the slave."
Luke 7: 1-2

A few weeks ago I read a wonderful book called Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander.  It's somewhere between a deep theological commentary on Scripture and a comic book, so it's not really a surprise that it was right up my alley.  Mann and Mercy takes our Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, and weaves them together as one narrative.  Normally this isn't how Scripture is suppose to be read because there are so many messages, so many themes, and it's nearly impossible to paint a clear picture that includes all of those details.  Instead the book focuses on one particular theme and that is God's original dream for the people of Israel, that they would be a beacon to the rest of the world, that other nations would see this covenant way of living in relationship with God and our fellow human beings.  As a result, then, all those nations would flock to Israel to learn how to live in this bold new way, a way in which everyone was treated with mercy and everyone received the appropriate manna.  It's a great read, and because it's gorgeously illustrated, folks of all ages can enjoy it!

The cover of Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander. (See the bottom of the post for a link to pick up your copy!)

That all nations would flock to Israel to learn this bold new way of living.  That is God's dream, and we see glimpses of it in our both our Old Testament and our Gospel readings.  In our story from the First Book of Kings we find Solomon, the son of King David and supposedly one of the wisest people in history, standing at the Temple in Jerusalem just after its construction has been completed.  The king prays this long prayer exalting the majesty of God, which fills the crowd with hope for the future, a future grounded in their relationship with God and one another.  Solomon prays that God will not only hear the prayers offered by the Jewish people in this place but also the prayers of any foreigner, any Gentile, any one of those other people.  Solomon reflects that great dream of God, that others will come from distant lands because of the name of the Lord our God.  They will come to see just how we are suppose to live in union with one another and with God, and it is in that hope that Solomon prays for God to hear the prayers of the foreigners and do whatever they ask, so that they too will know God's mercy and love.  For a Jew, especially a king, to pray that God hear the words of Gentiles, is pretty bold, and very much against the grain of the Law.  But God's dream was shining through Solomon on that day, in the hope that others would see just how to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other.

Of course, we know how this plays out.  After Solomon the kingdom is split in two, the Asyrians conquer the north, the Babylonians conquer the south, and God's dream appears to have gone up in smoke.  But wait!  Here comes Jesus, the living embodiment of God's covenant, and the dream is renewed because in him we see God's dream lived out.  In our story from the Gospel of Luke we see Solomon's prayer come to fruition, at least in part.  A centurion, a Roman soldier, a Gentile, a foreigner, has a slave with whom he is especially close, and that slave is near death.  Out of respect for the Jewish Law, which had said that a Jew could not come under the roof of a Gentile, he sends his friends to plead with Jesus, knowing that if Jesus only says the word then his servant will be healed.  This man is not your typical Roman.  He has, according to those who came to Jesus on his behalf, shown great affection for the Jews and even helped build the synagogue at Capernaum.  He, like the very ones Solomon spoke of in his prayer, is a foreigner who has been drawn to the people of Israel because he knows there is something special about this covenant relationship with God, and he wants to be a part of it.  His faith is so great that Jesus commends it, saying he hasn't seen such faith in all of Israel.  The servant, then, is healed because this fella, this outsider, was drawn to the way Jesus and his people lived lives of loving relationship with God and one another.  God's dream, Solomon's prayer, coming true.

An artist's depiction of the faith of the centurion.

Israel had been set apart from all other nations for the purpose of being different from them.  Others sought to rule, but Israel was never meant to rule over others.  Instead, Israel would show the world how to live in relationship with God and one another.  God had brought the people of Israel up out of Pharaoh's Egypt, a society built on the backs of the poor, where there were big deals who had more than others, and God said to Israel, "You will NOT be like this!  You will show the world what manna and mercy look like!"  Over time new Egypts would appear, often times taking the people of God into captivity, telling them that such a way was a sign of weakness. Still, God kept calling them, through the words of Solomon and the actions of Jesus, to show the world a different way.  A better way.  A way that is grounded in relationship with God and one another.  As followers of Jesus we are the part of that calling, and it is up to us to show to show this different way, this better way, to the world.  We look around and see so many similarities in our world to that of Pharaoh's Egypt, and we can hear God's voice calling us to a way that is not like them.  It's up to us to show this way of living to the Egypts of our modern world.

How do we do that?  Well, how will they know we are Christians?  Will they know we are Christians by how much money we accumulate?  Will they know we are Christians by how elite our status is?  Will they know we are Christians by how smug and cold and angry we are?  Of course not!  Say it with me now: they will know we are Christians by what?  By our love!  By our love!  Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love!  And that's not just love that is poured out in our songs and prayers and sacraments that we share on Sundays but the love we show out in the world, to the ones who are not part of this community, to the ones who need to hear of the love of God and and need to feel the healing power of Jesus so very badly.  

Churches are always asking themselves what they can do to bring people in, what programs can they put on, what can they do to fill up the pews so the church doesn't die.  The truth is that while some programs or some charismatic preachers might draw a few folks in, none of those kinds of things will make them stay.  The only thing that will do that is love.  It is a love that is made manifest in the way we live our lives outside the walls of our church buildings, as well as by the welcoming presence that we have when new folks enter our houses of worship.  It is a love that is shown to the very ones that we may find it so hard to love. It is a love that hopes for a world where all are drawn to God, where all have enough, and where all are treated mercifully.  This is what Solomon prayed for and it is what Jesus embodied, that we would show the world a better way by loving others in such a crazy way that they would see it and be drawn into a relationship with God through us. This was God's dream then, and it is still alive now!

We are inheritors of God's great dream and active participants in God's unfolding promise to mend the entire universe.  We are the ones who can draw all people into this beautiful relationship with God and show the world a better way, a way that isn't like Pharaoh's Egypt. We can choose not to be ruled by our possessions or social constructs. We can let people know who we are by the way we love them. We can reach across the boundaries of race, creed, social status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and political affiliation and show the world the kind of way of living that Solomon dreamed of.  We can carry on that dream for Israel. It IS possible.   But it is up to us. For when we choose to live lives of love, brothers and sisters, we will make God's dream of a world of manna mercy come true!

Visit Daniel Erlander's website to order your copy of Manna and Mercy!

Monday, May 23, 2016

I Bind Unto Myself

Shamrocks in Ireland, Fleur-de-lis in New Orleans, mosaics of three fish swimming in an endless circle on the floors of Palestinian churches, an icon of three individuals sharing a meal.  These are all images we use for the Most Holy Trinity, that great mystery of our faith.  We use images like these for the Trinity because, honestly, words aren’t enough.  Images attempt to paint for us a picture of something that is beyond human comprehension.  We try to use words like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, words that are more than words, that attempt to explain the inexplicable, that is the nature of God. 

The Holy Trinity

The Bishops at Nicea did their best in the 4th century, that’s how we have our Nicene Creed.  Julian of Norwich, the 13th century mystic who just so happens to be my favorite saint, did her best when she had a vision of something the size of a hazelnut in God’s hands and described it by saying it had three properties:  that God made it, loves it, and preserves it.  Our own church did its best back in 2009 when it approved a resource called Enriching Our Worship, which gave us some new language for talking about God, substituting Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for the three traditional names of the Trinity.  We do our best, but it’s never really enough. 

Karan Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, wrote a wonderful book called A History of God, and in it she points out that  Scriptures—not just ours, but the Jewish Tanakh as well as the Muslim Qur'an—are meant to put into human language that which is ultimately beyond human knowing.  At the end of the day, none of us really does understand who God is, not fully. 

This, though, is the very reason the Trinity is so special and so important.  While all three persons dance and move and exist in, through, and around each other, they speak to each one of us differently, showing us God's grace and Truth.  Each one of us has experienced the presence of each person of the Trinity.  These persons convey something to us of the majesty and mystery of God and meet us right where we are.  Each person of the Trinity does this--and yes, they are persons, not things, because you can’t have a relationship with things!

Anyone who knows what it’s like to hold your child in your arms knows what it was like for God the Father to create and hold the world.  In times when you have felt lost and in need of guidance, many of you have leaned on the Father to provide wisdom.  Waylon Jennings had a song I Do Believe in which he sings “I believe in a loving Father, one I never have to fear.”  God the Parental Figure provides us with comfort and strength, holding us and telling us, as a parent would tell a child, "It's ok.  I love you."  Such is the love of the First Person of the Trinity.

Anyone who has ever felt pain knows what it was like for God the Son when he bore it all on the cross.  Jesus Christ provides humanity with the face and voice and touch of God, and when we are at our lowest points and feel that the world is beating us down and that we can’t go on we turn to him, to God who knows pain and suffering just as much, if not more, than we do.  I have had many moments when I have felt I cannot go on, cannot face whatever is before me, and I ponder that image of Jesus on the ground in the garden, praying and crying, just as I am on the ground, praying and crying.  Knowing that my God, that the Second Person of the Trinity, has been there and felt what I felt, is enough to give me strength to carry on. 

Anyone who has been moved to tears in a worship service, or anyone who has had his or her heart set on fire, knows the power of God the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost.  Or, as one of my parishioners says, the HOLY Ghost, emphasis on the holy.  There’s a great scene in the Robert Duvall film The Apostle, which you should totally see if you haven’t already.  Duvall is in a church with his parishioners, singing and wailing and raising their arms and he keeps repeating, “We got Holy Ghost power here today!  We got Holy Ghost power here today!”  That Holy Ghost power manifests itself in folks dancing and singing with arms outstretched, but it also manifests itself in the still small voice that speaks to us when we come to the table and quietly reach out our hands in the hope that we will meet God in our very hands.  It manifests itself in those liminal moments where God breaks through the monotony of our lives and we just know that God is real.  The Third Person of the Trinity continues to move among us, as she moved among the apostles on the day of Pentecost, stirring us up and opening our eyes, hearts, and minds to God’s presence and God’s love and challenging us to be agents of that love, just as she challenged the prophets back in the day.

Robert Duvall's got Holy Ghost Power in The Apostle (1997).

But the Trinity is more than this.  It's not like each person just has one function, and that's it.  No, that's called modalism!  The Father also sets our hearts on fire, the Son also creates, the Spirit also feels our pain. Together.  As one.  How amazing is our God?!  In any way, in any circumstance, at any point in human history, God has broken through (and continues to break through), to speak to us, to hold us, and to show us how to be people of mercy and love. As Trinity of persons and as Unity of being.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the beginning, now, and forever.

The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is not a day to grill each other on the various heresies of the Trinity.  No,on this high holy day we are meant only to bind unto ourselves the strong name of the Trinity, to bind this day to us forever by power of faith Christ’s incarnation, to bind unto ourselves the power of the great love of cherubim, to bind unto ourselves the virtues of the starlit heaven, to bind unto ourselves the power of God to hold and lead. But, if you REALLY want a rundown of those heresies, check out the video at the end of this post!

It is a mystery.  We do not understand it.  We cannot understand it.  But we can rest in it.  For the Trinity is behind us, before us, below us, and in us, even if we don’t know how or why.  So take heart, brothers and sisters, and find peace in the fact that we don't have to have all of the answers. For God in Trinity continues to be revealed to us, inspiring us to be God's people of mercy and love.  So bind unto yourself the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three-In-One and One-In-Three.

C'mon, Patrick!!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

In the In-Between Time

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more...I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb...And the city has no need of soon or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb...And he said, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.'"
--Revelation 21: 1, 22-23, 22: 13

Recently I started a garden. My dad, he's gardened before, but he can tell you I'm not really the gardening type.  Still, with some help, I've planted a few things in my back yard--blackberry bush, wild flowers, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, hoping maybe I can make the yard a bit prettier. I have no idea what God is going to do, whether anything will actually grow, but I'm optimistic that God will do something.  Now, though, I enter an in-between time, a time of hopeful expectation.

We, the Church, have entered an in-between time.  We had the Feast of the Ascension last week, and next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.  But right now, between the moments of Jesus going back into heaven and the Holy Spirit coming and giving birth to the Church, we find ourselves, like the apostles, in this period of hopeful expectation, and we wonder:  what is God going to do? 

I'll be honest with you, I'm not a very patient person, so in-between times are a bit of a challenge for me.  I get anxious, nervous, my mind races with questions and I usually brace myself for the worst possible outcome.  Hopeful expectation isn't always my strong suit; shoot, I'm a Cleveland Indians fan, and our hopes have been getting dashed year after year after year after year. My dad wasn't even born the last time the Indians won a World Series.  We've been waiting a looooong time!
What was it Tom Petty said?  The waiting is the hardest part?  Ain't that the truth?!  Whether I'm waiting for something to happen in my garden, or you're waiting to go to the beach or to your mountain home for summer, the in-between times can be pretty vexing. They can be especially vexing if we are in-between jobs, in-between houses, in-between relationships, or in-between moments of stability.  Our spirits can go to very anxious places, and those expectations which may have started out as hopeful start to fade.  I know what it's like to start to lose that hopeful expectation, and I'm not talking about my baseball team.  I've been in-between school, jobs, relationships; I've had expectations for each, made plans for each, and I've seen those expectations crumble.  Some of you may be in your own in-between time, and maybe you feel like the trapeze artist between the bars.  Maybe hopeful expectation is something you can't quite grasp right now. I suspect that was how the apostles felt during their in-between time.  After witnessing Jesus' Ascension, they went back to Jerusalem and to their homes, and for 10 days they experienced a period of total uncertainty.  They had no idea what was going to happen on the Jewish festival of Pentecost.  They didn't know that the Spirit was going to come and shake up their lives and give birth to the Church.  They must have been scared, unsure about the future, trying desperately to hold on to the hope that God was still working and would still do something. Still, their in-between time--like ours--must have been fraught with anxiety and fear.

Those in-between moments are, in fact, a microcosm of our Christian journey. We Christians live in a constant in-between time, in a period of already and not yet.  The Kingdom of God has already come in the form of Jesus, who showed us God's love, God's mercy, and God's dream for this world.  But the Kingdom of God has not yet come, not yet reached it's culmination, which will happen in that moment that has many names:  the eschaton, the 2nd coming, the day of resurrection.  We are living in that time, and there are many Christians who live in it with fear and anxiety.  Still, our faith teaches us that God has already won through the death and resurrection of Jesus and that God will win in the end, too.  So there is no need for such fear and anxiety.  

The last few weeks we have been from the Revelation to John on Sunday mornings.  While some may focus on the more graphic and dramatic parts of Revelation, whole of that story is really tied up in the final section, where the new heaven and new earth have come together and  all of creation is one with God, and we hear those reassuring words, "I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.".  John wrote to the seven churches, not to frighten them with tales of wars and famines and disasters--these were merely allegories for the difficulties they were facing at the time--instead he paints for them this picture, a picture of a world in which God wins, in which all the fears and anxieties of the present time are gone, and Jesus' great hope is fulfilled, and all people are completely one. This is why Revelation is so important.  It fills us with hopeful expectation during our anxious in-between times. 

We might not know what the immediate or even long-term future holds for us.  One thing we do know, however, is that in the end God wins.  In the end all manner of things will be well, as Julian of Norwich put it.  And if God is alpha and omega, in the beginning and at the end, then surely God is also right in the middle, in the in-between times.  God did not stop moving in the lives of the apostles during their in-between time, nor will God stop moving during yours.  

Whatever uncertainties lie ahead of you, whatever anxieties you feel, whatever fears you have about the future, know that God has not stopped and will not stop being present in your life, and may you find peace and strength in that fact. Whether the flowers bloom or not, God's still present.  Whether those things you're anxious about work out in the end or not, God's still present.  Hanging on to that fact can be enough to give us a hopeful expectation, even during those uncertain in-between times. They can be full of anxiety, and the waiting can be really difficult, but as John reminds the seven churches, God wins. Always  So as we enter this final week of Easter, as we sit in hopeful expectation of the Holy Spirit's arrival, and as we ponder our own moments of in-between-ness, may we have the grace to remember that God is with us, in our beginnings, ends, and all points in-between.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

Jesus Healing

"When Jesus saw the man lying there and knew that he had been there for a long time, he said to the man, 'Do you want to be made well?'"
--John 5: 6

Healing Ground, Summerfield, NC

I spent Friday afternoon at a place called the Healing Ground, which is affiliated with the Servant Leadership School out of Holy Trinity in Greensboro. It's very serene and peaceful, with its lush gardens, lake, outdoor chapel, and labyrinth.  God was there,  and I could tell that this place must have facilitated a  great deal of healing for many people.  So this got me thinking:  what do we mean when we talk about being healed? 

Often our concept of healing is tied into some sort of quick fix.  We wanna feel better and we want it now.  It might be a cream that fixes baldness or a belt that works your abs at the push of a button.  Turn on any infomercial late at night and you'll see the kinds of quick fixes that folks go after to get the healing they want.

The Abgymnic does all the work for you!!

It's not a new phenomenon, of course.  The folks in Jerusalem by the pool called Beth-zatha wanted a quick fix.  These folks were in all kinds of bad shape, and they were certain if they could get into that water, especially if they were first, then they'd get that quick fix and be healed of their infirmities.  They believed that an angel of God came down and touched the water, causing it to bubble up with healing power.  Nevermind the fact that the Jewish historian Josephus points out that the bubbling actually occurred because of a subterranean stream beneath the pool.  Those gathered there didn't care so long as they got that quick fix, that healing for which they longed. 

We meet one of those folks today, and we can hear his frustration.  He longs to get in that pool, to get that healing, but no one will take him down there and put him in.  What he and the other folks by the pool don't realize is that healing won't come from some superstitious waters, but it will come from Jesus, who approaches the man and asks if he wants to be made well.  I've always been fascinated by this line because of course the man wants to be able to walk.  But as I think on this passage I begin to think that that's not what Jesus is asking.  The Greek that is used here can be translated into "do you want to be made well" or "do you want to be healthy" or "do you want to be changed."  Jesus' question is not just about curing he man's physical ailments, but it is about healing his very soul. True healing, the healing of the soul, as well as the body, cannot be obtained by a quick fix like those waters. 

An artist's depiction of the lame man by the pool of Beth-zatha.

The healing that this man finds, this changed state of being, does not come from an angelic pool, instead it comes from a relationship with Jesus.  We don't see Jesus use magic hands or some kind of special prayer, instead he asks the man a question.  He begins a conversation, and in doing so he invites him into a relationship.  It is from that relationship with Jesus that the man finds more than just the quick fix he thought the pool would provide.  Instead he finds a new state of being, and his life from here will never be the same.  That's real healing. 

How does Jesus bring about healing now?  Through you.  Through us.  The Body of Christ. We are the agents of Jesus' healing.  That healing occurs when we change our expectations for what healing looks like.  The kind of healing that leads to a changed state of being is done through conversation, which leads to relationship, and relationship leads to community.  And it is in community that we find salvation, which is nothing less than God's healing grace for the entire world.  Salvation is not a solo-endeavor, that's what it means to be a Catholic Church, a church that knows that we get to salvation together, through praying together, sharing Sacrament together, and working together.  The healing of God's world comes through that kind of community, and it all begins with relationship. 

Those kind of salvific, healing relationships are what  NetworX Randolph County seeks to cultivate in its efforts to alleviate poverty.  Most people in poverty in this city and county are just like that man in the gospel--in pain and seeking healing over a long, long period of time.  It isn't that they don't want it, it's that they can't do it alone, and they need help.  They need someone to start a conversation and begin a relationship with them that will lead to healing.  As a Christian-based organization, NetworX looks to embody the love of Jesus by forming relationships with these folks, helping them develop skills that can get them over the hump and make their lives better.  If you come to their Poverty Awareness Day in two weeks you'll see for yourselves the difficulties faced by those encountering both situational and generational poverty, and you'll see how lives can be changed just from having a conversation and forming a relationship.  It's not a quick fix.  It's the kind of healing that is sustainable, as well as sacred.  NetworX knows what it means to be agents of healing.

For more information on NetworX, visit www.facebook.com/NetworXForHopeRandolph

It starts with relationship, understanding that a quick fix is not what changes lives.  Often times folks come by the church office seeking some sort of help, some sort of healing.  Instead of just writing a check, I always try to have a conversation.  What's going on in this person's life?  What led them to our door?  What are they really searching for (it's usually much more than money)?  Sometimes we walk around the church and talk about what the folks at Good Shepherd are all about.  Sometimes I've seen those folks out in the congregation the following Sunday, and sometimes I don't.  But it doesn't matter.  What matters is that a conversation was had, a relationship was formed, and seeds for healing were planted.  We all have the opportunity to plant such seeds, to be agents of healing.  Maybe it's through a program like NetworX.  Maybe it's by volunteering with a similar organization in your area.  Or maybe it's just by talking to someone who's going through a tough time and asking what you can do to help.  Those are the kind of seeds that sprout into real, salvific healing.

I don't know where you are right now, but I'm sure some of you are looking for healing.  And I'm sure some of you are wondering how you might offer healing to someone else.  Remember the lesson of the man by the pool: true healing--sustainable and salvific healing--comes not from something magical but from conversation, relationship, and community. This is the kind of healing that is so much more than a quick fix.  This is Jesus healing.