Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday in Holy Week: The storm before the calm

Today it rained buckets. Our staff meeting went through the details for the next five days. Do we have enough candles? Does anyone remember where we hid the towels for the foot washing Thursday? Any last minute music changes? And on and on the day went.

At noon I took a break for the Holy Eucharist led by the Rev. Ed Tourangeau. He preached about courage. I enjoy his gentle style.

We were no sooner done than the bishop's secretary, Amy Williams, came through the door holding a box with the supplies (oil, programs) for the Maundy Thursday reaffirmation of ordination vows service with Bishop Gulick (11 am -- come if you can). We went to lunch, then it was back to our respective to-do list.

Tomorrow we have our regular Community Night dinner, and Joe Lenow will be preaching. Joe is a very gifted PhD student who is also preparing for the priesthood. Do come if you are in the neighborhood.

May your Holy Week be blessed.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pray for Peace: Monday in Holy Week

The day was relatively quiet at St. Paul's. I rummaged around in the storeroom looking for small candles for the Great Vigil of Easter. I found five boxes with 100 candles each -- that should be enough.

We got the sign up outside advertising our Easter services. We found the brass basin for the fire for the vigil on Saturday evening. The new paschal candle is safely in place in its holder.

Spring has at long last come to Charlottesville. Even the trees now believe it -- the first buds of new leaves have finally appeared.

And so this week of sometimes daunting contrasts unfolds. Life, death, new life is all before us.

As we have done every Holy Week on Monday for the past six years, we read the names of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have died in our wars. Three years ago we read the names of 455; this year we read 126. Fewer, yes, but still 126 young men and women who did not come home and whose families grievously miss them.

And as we have done on Monday in Holy Week for more years than I have been here, we prayed for peace.

Our world desperately needs peace, and who better to pray for peace than us? War clouds loom in Ukraine, Iran, North Korea;drug wars continue on our border with Mexico; and the civil war in Syria has taken a horrific toll. There is no peace in Egypt or in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. Pray for peace. Pray without ceasing. And do what you can, no matter how small. Peace begins with us.

I noticed something else this year: The Collect for Monday in Holy Week is the only collect this week that mentions the word "peace." Here is the Collect for Monday in Holy Week:

Monday in Holy Week
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Watching our words: Anti-Jewish language in Holy Week

I ran across this today, a commentary by Louis Weil, now-retired distinguished professor of liturgy from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (and the author, with Charles Price, of the landmark book "Liturgy for Living").

Louis, who is a dear friend, wrote this last year about the lectionary readings for Holy Week. His observations, particularly about the Gospel of John, nonetheless apply to the readings we will soon hear.

Louis also inserts an interesting history of Palm Sunday and a thoughtful opinion about whether Christians should celebrate Passover Seders. Here is his commentary:

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Anti-Judaism Issues in the Scriptures for Holy Week
By Louis Weil
One of the consequences of Jewish-Christian dialogue in recent decades has been a growing awareness of the role played by the New Testament lectionary readings for Holy Week. Consciously or unconsciously, interpretations of these readings in the preaching of Christian pastors have fostered anti-Jewish attitudes among Christians over many centuries. Preachers have propagated the idea, from the earliest times and continuing into our own day, that the Jews as a people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus.
Although this effect was at times unintended, we have explicit evidence of preaching in which the Jews were demonized from the pulpits of Europe.[1] We find this especially in the preaching which took place during Holy Week, and most particularly in the intense focus on the death of Jesus on Good Friday. Preachers did not hesitate to remind their hearers of the guilt of all Jews for the death of the Lord, with the consequence that quite commonly on Good Friday Jewish families would remain hidden in their homes in order to avoid abuse and even death.[2]
This history places an enormous responsibility upon preachers today to remain alert for any comment in their preaching which might give renewed support to this anti-Jewish prejudice which was often communicated by parents to their children from their earliest years. The hearing of the Scriptures and the interpretations offered by preachers had a determinative effect in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes as characteristic of a Christian identity. A potent example of this is the use of the term “the Jews” as a factor in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes within a congregation as being appropriate for people of Christian faith.  Such preaching shaped an identity in which these anti-Jewish attitudes might become embodied in words and actions against one’s Jewish neighbors.
Our goal in this commentary for Holy Week 2013 is to focus on certain ‘difficult’ issues which emerge from a consideration of the Holy Week readings.  Since we are in Year C of our lectionary cycle, our initial attention must be given to the Gospel of Luke which plays a primary role in this year’s cycle.
The Sunday of the Passion:  Palm Sunday
The proclamation of the Passion holds primary place on this Sunday.  This tradition predates the introduction of what we know as Holy Week, including the Liturgy of the Palms, which was introduced in the fourth-century in Jerusalem. The normal day for the assembly of Christians was Sunday, the Day of the Lord, and so the Sunday one week prior to Easter was the day on which the Passion would be read, being the last day of assembly prior to that on the Day of the Resurrection.
The Liturgy of the Palms was a later addition at the time of the historicizing in the liturgy of the events prior to the death of Jesus. This development took place quite naturally in Jerusalem since that is where the events occurred.  It was from there that the Holy Week rites spread to other parts of the world.  In Jerusalem, the Liturgy of the Palms was not attached to the reading of the Passion at the Eucharist, but rather became the first part of the evening liturgy of Vespers, thus quite separate from the proclamation of the Passion. The people gathered on the Mount of Olives in the late afternoon and from there moved in procession into the city.  The Palm liturgy thus began the “second layer” — the weekday sequence — commemorating the daily sequence of events leading up to the Sacred Triuduum, the Three Days which took as their focus the final meal, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the Easter Vigil and first celebration of the Eucharist of the Resurrection.
The proclamation of the Passion in cycle C, being drawn from the Gospel of Luke, immediately faces us with the significant distinction between the Passion in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Passion of John.  In the synoptics, the death of Jesus has the appearance of defeat — he is, as it were, a martyr, and the Jews are given the blame.  In Luke, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate declares Jesus to be innocent and is prepared to release him, but in the end submits to the Jewish leaders and the crowd by authorizing the execution.  But the preacher must make clear that by the time of the writing of Luke’s Gospel, the hostility between the Christian disciples (most of whom were themselves Jewish) and the Jewish leaders had become acrimonious.  It is likely that this hostility affected the way in which the recounting of the events of the Passion were presented.
It is not special pleading to suggest that the account in Luke may exaggerate the culpability of the Jewish leaders for its own polemic purpose.  At the very least, the presentation of the Jewish leaders and of Judaism in general is complex.  The early part of the Gospel dealing with the events around the conception and birth of Jesus, his circumcision, and his presentation at the Temple all place his life in the context of a faithful Jewish community, which sets these chapters in sharp contrast to the harsh descriptions of the Pharisees in later chapters.  New Testament scholars generally agree that the Gospel of Luke was the work of a Gentile writer and was addressed to Gentile readers, and so looks at the events, as it were, from ‘outside’ Jewish religious experience.
Maundy Thursday
The lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, offered Luke 22:14-30, as an alternative to John 13:1-15.  The Revised Common Lectionary does not offer the Lucan alternative, but expands the Johannine reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35. This expansion articulates the particular perspective in John that the crucifixion of Jesus is his glorification:  the Cross is the sign of victory, as in the ancient hymn Vexilla regis (Hymnal 161), “God is reigning from the tree.”  Thus the Gospel reading for Maundy Thursday links us to the proclamation of the Passion of John on Good Friday.
This supports the claim that the liturgies of the Triduum are actually one great liturgy in three ‘parts’ which are celebrated over that number of days.  This understanding is further supported by the rites themselves in that there is no dismissal given in the prayer book for either the Maundy Thursday or the Good Friday liturgies.
Another dimension of the Maundy Thursday rite which invites an exploration of the common heritage of Jews and Christians is the presumed character of the Last Supper as a Passover seder, as it is presented in the Gospel reading. Many Christians have had the experience of participating in the Passover meal with Jewish friends.[3]  For me, this experience has been much more rewarding than that of a so-called ‘Christian seder’. It is worth remembering that in 1979, the Standing Liturgical Commission issued a document in which such Christianization of the Jewish rite was strongly discouraged as a presumptuous use of a Jewish ritual that removes it from its appropriate context.[4]  When I last attended the Passover with Jewish friends, I was profoundly moved by the many moments in the ritual when within me the connection of the Passover to our Lord’s final meal was made real in its own terms.  If a preacher on this day chooses to talk about the Last Supper, it offers an occasion to again emphasize the common heritage in which both Jews and Christians are rooted.
Good Friday
Finally we turn to what is in many ways, along with Passion Sunday, a rite that offers particular challenges to the preacher. Albeit allowing for differences of emphasis, it is in both of these rites that the Passion is proclaimed, and thus where anti-Judaic attitudes have most been nurtured. It is with regard to the Gospel of John in particular that commentators have raised the question of anti-Judaism. That is, of course, an important question for us, and perhaps particularly for those who preach on Good Friday.
Throughout the Gospel of John there are comments about “the Jews” which have confirmed in the minds of many people that the Gospel is itself anti-Jewish.  But is this claim justified? In the Gospel of John, who were “the Jews”? The term appears over seventy times in this Gospel, far more frequently than in the other three.  Whereas the Synoptic Gospels generally refer to specific Jewish groups such as the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, John generally refers indiscriminately to “the Jews.” We have been conditioned to hear those words as applying to the opponents of Jesus, and thus as pejorative.
Commentators have noted, however, that the term is used with various meanings in John. “The Jews” can refer to the people who live in Judea (John 7:1—18), or it can refer to a sub-group within the synagogue (John 9:22). At other places, the term is used in reference to people who are clearly friends, like those who comfort Martha and Mary when their brother Lazarus has died (John 11:31f.), or in reference to “the festivals of the Jews.”[5] We need always to remember that all of the people in the Gospel narrative were Jews, therefore the preacher must avoid any hint of seeing “the Jews” in caricature.
The problem for us is that, although we may assert that the Gospel of John is not anti-Jewish, it seems that it often sounds that way to our ears.  For this reason, it is imperative that preachers — generally, of course, but especially when preaching on the Passion — be very attentive to their choice of words.  Unless we are careful about this, our hearers may not hear what we intend.  In this regard, it is helpful to read a variety of translations of the pericopes assigned for Holy Week in the lectionary. Every translation offers, of course, an interpretation, and if we are attentive to a variety of voices offering to us nuanced distinctions, we shall be more prepared to meet this challenge, and to proclaim the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord with words that embody the Gospel in its integrity.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in celebrating a Passover Seder on Maundy Thursday. Sometimes the meal is thinly Christianized; sometimes a traditional Jewish Seder is used without any change. (The word seder means order). Although this practice grows out of an understandable desire to reproduce the circumstances of the Last Supper, and so to participate more vividly and intimately in one of the central events of Holy Week, it is a questionable practice for several reasons:
There is a serious disagreement within the New Testament itself as to whether the Last Supper was in fact a Passover Meal. The first three Gospels clearly describe it as such; but the Fourth Gospel declares that the crucifixion occurred on the “day of Preparation” (John 19. 31), and thus the Last Supper fell on the night before the Passover.
For another thing, a true Passover Seder is a highly festive occasion, inappropriate during the Lenten fast.
But most important, every aspect of the Jewish religion has been transformed for Christians by the death and resurrection of Christ. Even Maundy Thursday is not simply a historical reconstruction of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Although our attention on Maundy Thursday is fixed on the scene in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, nevertheless our primary act of worship on that day is a full Christian Eucharist, during which we proclaim, as we do throughout the year, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
Thus, even on Maundy Thursday, Christians worship in the power of the resurrection. On the Passover, Jews remember their deliverance from Egypt, and thereafter from all the enemies of their historical existence. But Christians, in their worship, remember their deliverance from “the last enemies”, sin and death. We say “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” because we believe that Christ, through his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter, has brought the fulfilment of God’s promised deliverance. It is the death and resurrection of Christ, rather than the Last Supper, which most nearly correspond to the Exodus from Egypt; and thus the Great Vigil of Easter which most nearly corresponds to the Passover Seder of the Jews.
Christians who celebrate a Jewish Passover on Maundy Thursday are not truly respecting the integrity of Jewish Passover expectancy, for Christians believe that Jewish expectations have already been fulfilled in Christ. (Christians can truly worship only by expressing that conviction, as in the Eucharist. For them to participate in Jewish worship requires a degree of mental reservation: a temporary setting aside of their distinctive Christian identity. ) Also, they are failing to recognize that the fulfilment of those Jewish expectations in Christ is through the whole paschal mystery, through his death and resurrection, rather than in the Last Supper, which was a preliminary anticipation of that hope.
It is a right instinct to celebrate the Lord’s death and resurrection at this time of the year in a more intimate and familial way than usual. The holding of agape meals during Holy Week, especially on Maundy Thursday after the celebration of the Eucharist, is to be encouraged. But these meals should be simple, even austere, in keeping with Lenten fast. They should point forward to the great paschal fast, which begins after the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, is intensified on Good Friday, continues through Holy Saturday, and is concluded by the reception of Easter communion.
Part of the pressure for observing a Passover Seder may arise, even unconsciously, from our desire to experience transition or passage to a new life. Of course, it is the celebration of Holy Baptism within the Great Vigil, and the Lenten preparation for it, which constitutes for Christians our passage to new life, our “Exodus.” When Christian initiation is better understood, and its practice becomes a dramatic part of our celebration of the Easter mystery, the desire for a Christian observance of a Passover Seder may pass away.
[1] See Devils, Women, and Jews by Joan Young Gregg (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 1997. This book gives examples of medieval sermons in which evil is attributed by nature not only to the devil, but also to women and to Jews.
[2] We must remember, however, that such anti-Jewish preaching was by no means limited to the liturgies of Holy Week. Anti-Judaism was fostered in devotional literature as well.
[3] It is important to note that the seder as we have come to know it probably does not follow the same ritual which Jesus and his disciples would have used. The pattern now familiar to contemporary Jews did not appear until several centuries after the time of Christ.
[4] The text of the Statement from 1979 is being added as a supplement to this commentary.
[5] See the discussion of this question in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (eds. Levine & Brettler), NY:  Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 155-6.

Friday, March 28, 2014

May you be blessed with discomfort

We heard an extraordinary talk this afternoon at our Lenten Luncheon by Dr. Brian Wispelwey, professor of infectious diseases and among the leading clinicians treating patients with HIV/AIDS. He told us of progress but also setbacks in politics that have made it harder to stem the spread of the HIV virus. He also gave us a blessing from the Franciscans. Here it is:

May you be blessed with discomfort
At easy answers, narrow views, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart. 
May you be blessed with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. 
May you be blessed with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
So that you may be one with all who suffer. 
And may you be blessed with boldness
To encounter life in all its extremes and not to shrink back,
So that you may live out God’s sacred intention for your life. Amen.

It has been our privilege to host these luncheons and give you an opportunity to meet and hear some of those most extraordinary, creative – and yes, courageous – individuals from the University of Virginia. We’ve had professors Jim Galloway talking about climate change, Margaret Mohrmann talking about ethics, and last year, President Teresa Sullivan talking about creating the caring community – and some of her travails.

Our extraordinary guest this year is very much a part of this esteemed group. I met Dr. Brian Wispelwey a few years ago when he gave a lecture at what is called the “Mini-Med School,” which is a series of presentations about medicine, designed for lay people, given by clinicians and researchers at the UVA Med School.

In all candor, was not particularly looking forward to Dr Wispelwey’s. His topic: HIV/AIDS. It is a subject that I find difficult. I’ve lost quite a number of friends to HIV/AIDS.

My best friend from childhood, Brian, succumbed to the epidemic. His name and many others who I know are on the AIDS quilt.

So when Dr. Wispelwey began his presentation, I held my breath. And then I was amazed. I left that evening with enormous respect for him and the many researchers, doctors, nurses, social workers and health care professionals who are bringing hope and care to so many people. I left with a better understanding of the possibilities and the challenges.

And I left with hope.

Let me tell you a little about him.

As one writer has noted about Dr. Wispelwey, when other doctors and researchers were fleeing AIDS research in the 1980s, considering it career suicide, Dr. Wispelwey had an epiphany about how to approach the disease.

Dr. Wispelwey was among a handful of doctors at Harvard working on the first trials of the drug AZT. He brought that experience to UVA set up the first AIDS clinic in Central Virginia. In the first 15 years more than 500 people were treated. By the mid-90s, the clinic was considered among the best in the country.

He was the force behind a successful telemedicine program that has brought long-distance care to those suffering from the disease in eight Virginia prisons.

He has many publications to his name and is a renowned and inspiring teacher and professor of infectious diseases at the Medical School. He is also a man of great faith and courage.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pray for the Pope: Words from Gene Robinson

From my friend Gene Robinson, the retired bishop of New Hampshire...

The Daily Beast

A Gay Bishop’s Prayer for Francis
I love this new pope. I pray for him every day—for his ministry, his safety, and the daunting tasks that lay before him. I like all the connotations of “Francis,” the papal name he took, conjuring the saint whose humility, sympathy for the fragile condition of humankind, and his commitment to the poor still are both exemplary and legendary.

Perhaps most dramatic in that change of tone came in his question, after he was asked about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” Who indeed?  His immediate predecessors seemed not to hesitate in heaping judgment on homosexuals, women (especially those who made the excruciating decision to have an abortion), the divorced, and a vast array of people who fell short of the Vatican’s moral ideal (exempting at times, of course, members of the Church’s own clergy and hierarchy from those same ideals).But I am under no illusions that the journey ahead will be easy for this new pope, assuming that he continues to move in the directions he has thus far signaled.  And let’s be clear:  Pope Francis has, so far, only changed the tenor and tone of the voice of the Church he leads. That is no small thing, of course, when most Catholics and non-Catholics alike experienced his predecessor as aloof, hierarchical, and pretentious.
How odd that the leader of the Catholic Church would make big news, espousing an attitude promoted by Jesus of Nazareth himself. Jesus dramatically lived out the command to “judge not,” so why would it be such news when his followers (not to mention the Pope!) would follow in his humble, non-judgmental footsteps?!  It is only a newsworthy development because there had been little evidence of non-judgmental and loving acceptance by his predecessors.
In other words, so far, so good—but it is only a good beginning. The hard work lies ahead: There is more to the Christian enterprise than merely being more kind, more sympathetic.
One of my favorite old sayings goes like this:  “It’s not enough to pull drowning people out of a raging stream; we must walk back upstream, and see who is throwing them in in the first place!”  Charity (pulling people out of whatever raging stream they’re in, like poverty, disease, discrimination, hunger) is a great and cherished tradition. Nothing wrong with it—as far as it goes. In addition to rescue and charity work, people of faith—indeed all who long for justice—must also do the hard, systemic work of changing the systems that cause and trap people in demeaning, dehumanizing conditions in the first place.  Some of those oppressive systems are found in the Church itself! Not just the pope’s church, but my church and every religious community of believers.
If Pope Francis is to be believed in all the kindly pronouncements of his first year (and I do), his good tone should be followed by the tough work of changing the systems of belief, doctrine and religious practice which perpetuate the victimization of those he seeks to serve. It is a small step forward to say of homosexuals, “Who am I to judge?”  Yet the official teaching of the Catholic Church is that homosexuals are “intrinsically disordered.”  Not a lot of wriggle room in that, is there?  That judgment and teaching about LGBT people is the basis for discrimination, rejection and violence the world over. It is fine to verbally decry the ecclesial “circle the wagons” approach to the child sexual abuse exposed in the last two decades, but real commitment to the safety of vulnerable children will require the Church to take steps to value and protect those children over the careers and reputations of its abusing priests.  Positive comments about the contributions of women in and to the Church sound fine, but what is needed is a long, hard look at its entire approach to human sexuality and gender which still treats its female adherents as “less than.”
I do not mean to be uncharitable here, nor naive. Such systemic overhaul of an institution that has existed for the better part of two millennia cannot and will not happen overnight, if it is seriously tried at all. Under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Church may have the best chance at giving it a serious try since the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII.  But the Vatican Curia was there before he was elected pope, and it will be there long after his ministry ends.  There will be resistance to any change, much less the kind of change to which Francis’s humble ways point.  Over the years, we have learned what happens to people who are just too good for us!  But this pope seems to know that sacrifice is part of the deal of living with God.
I hope this pope keeps surprising and delighting us, sitting a boy in his papal chair and allegedly sneaking out of the Vatican at night to work with the homeless!  I hope he continues to show us the mind of Christ by his acts of humility and compassion. I pray that he persists in eschewing luxury and pretension. And I pray that he will stay close to the Son of God he is supposed to represent on earth, despite the institution’s every effort to tame their new leader and rob him of his pizazz.
The Catholic Church is a mighty big ship to turn around, even with a beautiful, charismatic, and inspiring captain at the helm. But God is good, and God will be at Francis’ side as he challenges the Church to live up to its lofty, humble, servant values. Like I said, I pray for him every day.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Church needs to repent

My sermon today is based on Matthew 4:1-11:

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         As you have gathered by now, we have entered the Holy season of Lent, a special time set aside by the Church for repentance, penitence and forgiveness.
         So I want to ask your forgiveness up front about this sermon. Forgive me: I want to ask you a loaded question:
         When you think of the word “Christian,” what words come to mind?
         You could call me a professional Christian, so I have something of a vested interested in how we are thought of.
         But, alas, I must admit that first words that come to my mind when I hear the word “Christian” are not always positive.
Some of the words that come to me about the word “Christian” are “narrow,” “judgmental,” “self-righteous” and “dogmatic.”
         Perhaps some of you might have similar reactions to the word Christian?
         I thought so.
         I often meet people, including in this church, who say they don’t want to be known as Christians, and often it is these negative connotations that are the reason.
You might say they love Christ, but Christianity, not so much.
         I bring this up on the First Sunday of Lent as a way of acknowledging that in this season of penitence, we have a great deal to be penitent about as a church.
         This Lent, let’s start our repentance with the Church asking for forgiveness.
This repentance needs to start in from our pulpits. And let that begin here with me.
         For this to be meaningful, our penitence should include substantive actions that change the negative images that Christianity evokes.
One of my priest friends, Lynell Walker, preached a sermon last Sunday that grabbed my attention on this point. I want to read you this paragraph from her sermon:

“What would it be like if when you heard the word ‘Christians’ you came up with: Oh, I know them. They are a people utterly committed to forgiveness. They are about making this earth reflect God’s generosity. They see to it that grace rains on the just and the unjust. They are even in fervent prayer for those who mean us harm.” 

Yet we know it doesn’t quite look that way.The long history of Christianity is filled with inquisitions, Crusades, and the persecution of Jews, Muslims, and fellow Christians.
Christians have used the Bible to justify slavery and all manner of prejudice and abuse.
         Sadly, persecutions and prejudices are not behind us, but are still with us.  I am especially mindful that in Uganda the government recently approved a law that makes it a criminal offense to be gay or lesbian, punishable by long prison terms, and a crime to hide someone who is gay or lesbian, punishable by long prison terms.
         Before we dismiss this as the backwardness of a developing nation, we need to know that it is American Christians who have been the driving force behind this law in Uganda.
         I am also mindful that it is Christians, who in the name of religious freedom, have pushed for a law in Arizona that would make it OK to discriminate against gay people.
People of all political stripes, left and right, urged its veto, and I am thankful that the governor of Arizona did so.
         What should especially concern us about these trends is that in the name of Christ, there are Christians who want to break the connections we have with each other as human beings by being able to discriminate against people they don’t like.
That should not be what Christianity is about.
And, forgive me, there is one more recent example, though subtle. Russians invading the Crimea is not only about geopolitics, it also has a religious undertow.
David Brooks wrote a fascinating column last week in the New York Times pointing out that Vladimir Putin ordered his regional governors to read books that assert the messianic role of the Russian Orthodox Church in restoring a Greater Russia.
Annexing Ukraine is viewed as part of that mission. Politics and religion are definitely mixed up in the new Russia.
I want to be very careful on this topic. I am not an expert, though let me mention that Lori and I spent a brief time in the Soviet Union as journalists.
We definitely learned that Russia is a complicated and contradictory culture.
As I say, I want to be careful on this topic, and the pulpit is not a good place for a lecture on geopolitics.
         And I especially share the concern of many about mixing politics with religion, but let’s also note that politics has been mixed up with religion for a very long time.  
So I let me suggest that in this penitential season, Christianity itself needs to repent of the political sins we have committed in the name of Christ.  
          I believe at the root of much of what is wrong with Christianity, and really all religions, is the quest for institutional power.
         The gospel lesson we hear today is a huge antidote – and warning to the institutions of religion. 
In the story, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led away from the refreshing waters of the River Jordan and into the desolation of the desert where he has this frightening vision of the Devil.
I know that as modern people we have a hard time with the concept of Satan or the Devil.
What the gospel writers are getting at is that evil is not just an abstract idea, but is a tangible force in the world.
And so Jesus is confronted by the force of evil, and he is tested by the greatest temptation of all: Power.
Jesus is dared to use power to turn stone into bread; to use power to stay unharmed if he falls from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem;
And then comes the biggest test of all: he is tempted to take power to rule every kingdom.
He can fix everything if he will take power, but to take power, he must stay in the clouds above us, and ultimately rob us of our freedom to be human.
The end will justify the means, or so the devil argues.
But Jesus rejects all of it.
Instead, he chooses to be here, with us, in the griminess of the world.
He chooses to be with us especially in those moments when we feel the most powerless.
He chooses to be with the refugees, not the oligarchs. He  their confronts power and shows it to be empty.
Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity by being with us in the Valley of Lent.
This rejection of power also invites us to make a finer distinction about how we view our involvement in the world, and our involvement politics.
Are we involved in the world to bring justice to the oppressed, relief to the captives, and peace to the nations?
Or do we seek power for our own comfort and for the comfort of our institutions?
As the gospel story will unfold this Lent, Jesus does one more thing: He invites us to walk out of the valley, as difficult as that walk might be.
He invites us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation; agents of love and kindness; agents of generosity and grace.
We are invited to be peacemakers.
The question for us is how we will walk the walk? How will we be known as Christians?

“Oh, I know them. They are a people utterly committed to forgiveness. They are about making this earth reflect God’s generosity. They see to it that grace rains on the just and the unjust. They are even in fervent prayer for those who mean us harm.”

         May it be so. Amen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

"Unbind him and let him go!" An invitation to join me for a Lenten quiet day and reflections on the Raising Lazarus from the Dead

Please join me on Saturday morning March 8 at St. Paul's for a Lenten Quiet Day. I will offer a series of reflections on the Gospel of John, and specifically on the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is the hinge point in John's gospel; it is the moment that leads to Golgotha and the Cross. 

I would also suggest that the story is key for not just understanding John's deeply mystical gospel, but it is also crucial to understanding the meaning of Jesus being God's son and the meaning of the Cross.

We will begin at 10 am with a brief Morning Prayer and a reading of the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. I will then offer a series of reflections and give you time to yourself for reflection, prayer and quiet (or private conversation). We will end at 1 pm (please bring your own lunch), but you are invited to continue your quiet reflection on your own as you feel able.

To give you a head start, here is the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead:

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The Raising of Lazarus from the dead

John 11:1-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”
The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to weep.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”