Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Follow Me

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, March 1, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Mark 8:1

When I was in seminary, a professor once challenged us wannabe priests with the following question:  If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Now, that is a provocative and somewhat humbling question, isn’t it?

After posing the question, the professor then asked us to participate in a little exercise.  Close your eyes, she invited us, and review your own life’s story as if it were a silent film.  Just play back your life in your own mind’s eye:  your childhood and adolescence, your college years, the relationships you formed, the people you’ve loved and been loved by, the work you’ve done and now do, your family life, your contributions to your community, all of your day to day actions and interactions with the people around you, the legacy you will leave behind.  How would your life look to an outside and independent observer, to an imaginary audience watching your life unfold?  More importantly, would Christ recognize himself in this film?  Is this life of yours a distinctively Christian life?

If you’re like me, this little exercise makes you feel more than a little uncomfortable.  Indeed, I feel convicted by it.  Truth be told, my actions and relationships rarely seem to measure up to Christ-like standards.

The point of the exercise is not to depress us, but rather to remind us that the Christian faith is far more than just having the right beliefs and showing up at church on Sunday.  Christianity is as much a way of life as it is a set of creeds or worshipping practices.  Indeed, if you read the gospels closely, you’ll notice that Jesus never asks the disciples to believe this or that; rather, what Jesus asks is that they follow him.

This is a hard message and one to which the Church, quite frankly, has not always paid heed.  As the great American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick used to joke, so-called Christians have for thousands of years been trying to get rid of Jesus. First, they crucified him. And when that didn't work, they started worshipping him. Worship can be just another form of crucifixion because we often use it to get ourselves off the hook of answering the real question Jesus poses. For the truth of the matter is that Jesus doesn't ask to be worshipped, any more than he asked to be crucified.  What he asks is to be followed.

So, how then are we to follow Jesus? What Jesus tells the crowd in today’s lesson is that following him requires two things: to deny oneself, and to take up a cross.  Let’s talk a little about each.

First, what does it mean to deny oneself?  We oftentimes mark Lent with spiritual practices of denying ourselves this or that satisfaction, whether it be certain kinds of food, spending time on Facebook, or whatever.  And these can be small steps towards the type of self-denial that Jesus speaks of today.  But ultimately the denial of self that Jesus embodies and invites us into is something much more radical one.

To deny one’s self involves, at bottom, an act of trust:  trust that we don’t have to fret about our own needs because we will be cared for by God, come what may, and that we can therefore turn our attention outward rather than inward.  In this act of faith, we are freed from the idolatry of the self, and all the worries that come with self-absorption, to live in freedom for others.  As Martin Luther put it, in faith, we are freed from the tyranny of ourselves so that we might, through love, become slaves to one another.

But there is more to discipleship than denying one’s self.  Jesus tells us that we also must take up our cross.  This is the first time in the gospel of Mark that the word ‘cross’ appears, and while we have become so familiar with the symbol that we take it for granted, you can only imagine the shock of Jesus’ hearers when he invites them to take up a cross.

The cross, as we know, was an instrument of torture and death used by the Romans to punish those who dared oppose their power.  The Jewish historian Josephus tells of thousands of crucifixions in the area of Jerusalem during Jesus’ day.  It was primarily a political punishment, inflicted above all on the lower classes, slaves, violent criminals, people the Roman government perceived as dangerous if they got out of control.  Death by crucifixion was a long and painful ordeal, done quite publicly, so as to terrify all who saw it.

We will, of course, vicariously re-live the ghastly drama of Jesus’ own crucifixion when we get to Holy Week and Good Friday, for his own experience of the Cross, his Passion, is at the center of our faith.   But the question today’s lesson poses is what does it mean for us, here and now, to take up our cross, when persecution and martyrdom by the Roman Empire are no longer dangers?

Jesus is not, I think, inviting us to manufacture suffering in our lives for the purpose of establishing our own Christian credentials, as if being Christian were a contest to see who has the most courage or endurance.  Mel Gibson to the contrary notwithstanding, imitating Christ does not require us to become superheroes who inflict pain upon ourselves in a vain effort to prove our merit.  This is the way of narcissistic martyrdom.

Nor, I think, is Jesus asking us to suffer for suffering’s sake.  A lot of harmful nonsense has been said across the generations about “redemptive suffering” by people in power who seek to retain their privilege by persuading those who don’t have power that they should look for the blessing in their lot.  Whites have done it to people of color, men to women, “upper classes” to “lower classes.”  Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross is not this.  Indeed, if anything, it is the inverse of this:  As his life and ministry abundantly demonstrate, taking up the cross is about suffering for and on behalf of others, in an entirely selfless way, when such suffering is required to oppose injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to defend the innocent, to heal the sick, or just to share in the pain of another as an act of mercy.

To take up the cross in this sense means to identify and accept all those opportunities in our lives where we can stand in solidarity with those who are without.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as “the view from below”:  assuming the perspective of those at the bottom of the ladder and on the wrong end of power, not so that we might avenge their plight, but rather out of a desire to restore their humanity when they are at most risk of losing it.

What does this look like for you and for me?  It can be anything and everything from devoting your vocational life to a cause aligned with the gospel, to caring for a child with disabilities, to volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen, to visiting the aged and infirm, to befriending the lonely, to refusing to engage in social patterns of exploitation, abuse or neglect of others.  But in whatever form it may assume in your life, taking up the cross, by its very nature, requires stepping out of the safety and security of privilege and stepping into the messy chaos of human pain and suffering.  Not for the sake of suffering, not for the sake of our own egos, but for love’s sake.

The wise Episcopal priest and teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, talks about ‘taking up one’s cross’ in these terms:  Crucifixion was used by the Romans, Taylor says,  to “reinforce the idea that death is the most awful thing in the world and that people with any sense should do anything in their power to avoid it.  By telling his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus defied that idea.  He suggested that there are things worse than death in the world, and that living in fear is near the top of the list.”

If we let fear run our lives, Taylor explains, then fear becomes our god.  And if fear becomes our god, all our days are consumed by anxiety and worry, such that when our anxious days finally come to an end – for death cannot be avoided forever – we come to discover that we have really never lived at all.  This is, I think, what Jesus means when he says that those who are preoccupied with saving their lives will lose them.

Let us not give in to, much less worship, fear.  Let us instead offer up our selves, our souls, and our bodies to Christ, to His world, and to each other; let us take up our cross, whatever it may be; let us be willing to give up our lives so that we might save them; let us, in short, follow Jesus.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Marked by Ashes

by Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.
   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
   Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Growing up into God

This sermon was given by Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, February 8, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

If we were living in biblical Palestine, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you. I’d be dead. I probably would have died at the age of eighteen, when I had an emergency surgery to remove a massively infected wisdom tooth after twenty hours of antibiotics squeezed in just before a blizzard. Or perhaps I would have died a little earlier, when I was seven years old and had my tonsils removed after two years of escalating strep infections, each held off for a while with stronger and stronger antibiotics. No antibiotics, no modern surgery, no Greg.

Most of you would probably have similar stories, in one way or another. Life expectancy at birth in ancient Rome, was about twenty-five to thirty years. Half of children didn’t making it past the age of ten. Once you had escaped childhood, you could reasonably hope to live to about forty-five or fifty —less for women, who ran a high risk of dying during childbirth; less for everyone during times of war and rebellion; and, generally speaking, not very high in a world wracked by famine and plague.

You can see why whole cities came flocking to Jesus. In our Gospel reading for today, we see examples of physical and mental healing drawing in increasing crowds. What’s most interesting to me, though, isn’t what Mark says Jesus does here. It’s what Jesus doesn’t say he’s here to do.

Let me explain. The Gospel reading for today breaks down into three short episodes, picking up shortly after the demonic fight scene we heard last week, a week later in our lectionary but only a few hours in the story. Later in the afternoon on the same day as this opening battle, Jesus goes to Simon and Andrew’s house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Hearing that she has a fever, Jesus takes her hand and raises her up. He raises her up, foreshadowing how Jesus himself will later be raised up, in the resurrection—not from the brink of death but from beyond it. Mark uses the very same verb. The fever leaves her, and she begins to serve them. (If it troubles you, by the way, that the one, unnamed woman in the story is healed in order to serve the men, good. You’re not alone. Hold that thought for a few minutes.)

Then just after sundown, the whole city comes to him, and he heals many who are sick or possessed by demons. In Mark’s gospel, these demons are mostly associated with what we would probably now diagnose as mental illnesses of various kinds: powerful supernatural forces seemingly external to our own selves that control our actions in ways that strip us of our dignity. In Greek literature the demons are semi-divine creatures, between humans and the gods. This builds a parallel structure: demons, pagan demi-gods possessing individuals; the Roman Empire occupying the Jewish homeland; and the powers of evil, sin, and death embodied in the character of Satan corrupting God’s whole creation. And so it’s unsurprising that the monotheistic Jewish authors of the New Testament uniformly have Jesus triumphing over demons, casting them out of Jewish bodies and out of Jewish land. And all this combined with real physical healing in a world where you only had a fifty-fifty chance of becoming a teenager.

So Jesus is a hero. He’s overturning the powerful forces that are holding down his people: sickness and death, demons and false gods—and by extension, the crowds hope as they wait for their Messiah—Rome and its armies. Jesus comes into a town and all other powers are cast down.

And then, a few hours later, he goes out to a quiet place to pray. The disciples hunt for him, trying to find the man everyone’s looking for, to bring him back to heal more people. And he turns away.  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38 NRSV). I said before that this reading fascinates me not for what Mark says Jesus does there—healing and casting out of demons—but for what Jesus doesn’t say he’s there to do: healing and casting out demons. Let us go elsewhere, not in order that I may heal the people; not in order that I may cast out demons, but that I may “proclaim the message, for that is what I came out to do.”

So what does that mean? The phrase “proclaim the message” is one Greek verb, κήρυσσω kēryssō. Although it’s occasionally translated as “preaching”, its sense is not primarily teaching moral behavior, or telling strange parables, or discussing and interpreting holy texts, but rather “proclaiming” as in heralding: announcing, declaring, making known and, in a sense, making real the good news. Just as when Neil Armstrong, in that iconic image of the moon landing, plants a flag in the moon, it’s a statement that “the United States of America are here,” when Jesus goes from town to town “proclaiming the message” it’s a statement that “the kingdom of God is here.”

I’m reminded of an analogy from the Egyptian theologian and bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the fourth century:
You know how it is when some great ruler comes into a large city and dwells in one of the houses in it; all people consider the city to be honored by this, and enemies and robbers no longer come down to attack it. So it is with the Ruler of All. At his coming into our land, and dwelling in a body like ours, the entire plot of the enemies of humankind has been brought to an end, and the corruption of death, which was formerly powerful against them, has been put away. 
God, dwelling in a human body in Christ and dwelling in the metaphorical “city” of the earth, pushes away all the enemies of her human children. All the loyal subjects of the realm come looking for Jesus—for healing, for teaching, or simply to be in the presence of the conquering king, like kids young and old at the Patriots’ victory parade.

And then he abandons them. There may be a nicer way to put it, but I’m sure that’s how it felt at the time. Jesus leaves behind all those in that city who are still looking for healing, still hoping to be for a moment in his presence, and moves on. Many of us, I suspect, know the feeling. We have wandered through months or years of spiritual desert, with no sense of God’s presence. We have suffered from physical illnesses, or seen loved ones die without the intervention of a sudden, divine cure. We have been crushed by the unrelenting grip of the demons of mental illness; we have lived two thousand years, even in our ostensibly Christian societies, without Jesus our Messiah overturning the structures of oppression, exploitation, and evil. It often seems that the city in which we’re living is not the same one in which the Ruler of All has come to dwell.

If it’s any comfort at all, Athanasius wasn’t among the “fair-weather faithful.” He was born in Egypt in the last few decades of illegal Christianity. His teachers and mentors were slaughtered in the last great gasp of persecution, which was most ferocious in Egypt and Palestine. Athanasius was a bishop for forty-five years, of which he spent seventeen years in five different exiles ordered by four different Roman emperors—all, it’s worth noting, Christians—not counting the six times he fled Alexandria to escape attempts on his life. He truly earned the nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum: “Athanasius Against the World.” And yet he maintained the faith that God, in Jesus Christ, had come to dwell in our earthly city, defeating evil and death.

The line that is perhaps Athanasius’s most famous statement is this: “God became human, that we might become god.”  This is not about becoming gods, in the sense of super-heros with divine powers. It’s about growing up into our nature as human beings created in the image of God. Although we cannot take on what Eastern Orthodox theologians call the “divine essence”—the indescribable and transcendent inner nature of God—we become godly when we participate in the “divine energies,” the work or actions of God. When we love one another, when we comfort one another, when we heal one another, when we pray with one another, we are joining in God’s love, in God’s compassion, in God’s healing, and in God’s prayerful relationship with Godself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the divine community of the Holy Trinity. When we gather to offer our lives and our selves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving at the altar, or when we see the light of God in the eyes of those around us, we are entering into the kingdom of heaven that is veiled just behind everything we see. This is not a restoration to the days of innocence before suffering and death, nor of the days of Jesus’ ministry of miraculous healing. Rather, God comes into the pain and the brokenness of our world, and—having experienced it himself at its very worst—brings us through it to the other side.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, you see, is the only one who really gets it. If you look through Mark for the moments when he says someone serves Christ—the few times he uses the Greek verb διακονειν diakonein, “to serve,” the source of our modern word “deacon”—it’s never about the male disciples, who are usually looking out for their own status, or disputing among themselves who will get to sit at his right and left sides in heaven. No. It’s the angels, when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness; it’s Peter’s mother-in-law; it’s—fast-forward fifteen chapters—the women watching at the cross: Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James and Salome, who had followed and served him in Galilee. And, crucially, it is Jesus himself, who says to the disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant [διάκονος diakonos], and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45). Peter’s mother-in-law, the first to serve God in Christ, the first to be deacon to his followers, has shown herself to be great among the disciples.

Jesus has proclaimed the good news: God’s reign is here, God has claimed us for God’s own, God’s flag is planted in the soil of our hearts and of our minds, of our societies and of our world itself. We can choose to participate in that divine life or not; to serve God and one another or to seek our own glory. It isn’t the instantaneous cure we’ve been expecting—if there’s one thing we can say for sure about Jesus, after all, it’s that he rarely does what we’re expecting—but the love, care, and support we show in serving one another are God’s miraculous intervention in our world.

God, the Ruler of All, turns out to be pretty good at delegating—not because God doesn’t care about comforting and healing us, but because God cares even more about giving us the opportunity to grow into our human nature as images of God, by comforting and caring for one another.

“When [the disciples] found [Jesus], they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’” (Mark 1:37–38)


Monday, February 2, 2015

Encountering Our Demons

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, February 1, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’” Mark 1:23-24

Who is Jesus?  In many ways, this is the central question that drives the narratives of the four gospels. Who is Jesus?  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each construct their gospel accounts around this question, seeking to answer it by bringing together the central stories, teachings, events, and episodes that framed their respective experiences of Jesus and the impact he had upon them and their communities.  We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the gospel accounts differ in some important ways, because they are told from different human perspectives, written at different times, and in different historical settings.  Far from being troubled by these differences among the four evangelists, I actually think this diversity points to an important underlying theological truth:  Jesus Christ as the ‘divine become human’ is an inexhaustibly rich source of meaning that resists any tidy conceptual or descriptive treatment.

We can illustrate this point by looking at the four very different, but ultimately complementary, ways in which the evangelists describe the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry:

  • In John’s gospel, the very first act of Jesus’ public ministry is his surprise visit to the wedding at Cana in Galilee; that beautiful story where Jesus’ ensures that the wedding banquet is saved from disaster by miraculously changing water into wine, so that all the guests can celebrate the nuptials into the evening. It is a classic Johannine story of perceived scarcity being transformed into abundance as the result of Jesus’ presence.  For John, Jesus is the generative Word, the creative Logos made flesh.
  • In Matthew’s gospel, the very first act he tells of Jesus’ public ministry is the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus preaches the Beatitudes, offering a new constitution for a new humanity.  For Matthew, Jesus is the Great Teacher, the new Moses, who has come not to abolish but to fulfill the Law.
  • In Luke’s gospel, the first act he tells of Jesus’ public ministry is his appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth, where Jesus proclaims that, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, he is the anointed one who comes to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.  For Luke, Jesus is savior, the Messiah who will invert the established order.
Notice how different Mark is in his account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  In Mark’s gospel, as we just heard, Jesus’ public ministry begins with a fight scene.  Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath and he is beginning to proclaim the good news of the coming Kingdom.  And he does so, Mark tells us, “with authority” to the great astonishment of his listeners.  He speaks like someone who is in intimate relationship with the Creator and Lord of the universe.  But then the drama begins when, out of nowhere, appears a man at the back of the synagogue, a man with ‘an unclean spirit.’  The unclean spirit within the man recognizes Jesus, not only by his given name, but it also recognizes Jesus’ identity as the ‘Holy One of God.’  “Have you come to destroy us?,” the unclean spirit asks.  And in no uncertain terms, Jesus rebukes the demonic power that has overtaken the man and frees the man of the unclean spirit.

Here, then, right at the outset of Mark’s gospel, we have a dramatic encounter between God’s Son and an agent of evil.  For Mark and his community, it seems, a core aspect of Christ’s identity is that He is the Holy One of God who stands in solidarity with all who struggle against evil.  And the theological upshot of the contest is clear:  Jesus announces to the world that the Kingdom of God is absolutely incompatible with the tyranny of enslaving demonic powers.

Let me just say, preliminarily, that I have noticed over the years that contemporary readers of the gospels sometimes cringe with embarrassment or discomfort when they hear stories such as this of Jesus ‘exorcising’ ‘unclean spirits’ or ‘demons.’  Many of us have been taught that such talk is the product of a superstitious age, of a bygone era when people failed to understand the science of mental disorder and believed instead in a magical world of evil spirits.  With all respect, I think this modern take on these stories is a seriously reductionist misreading of them, amounting to the hermeneutical equivalent of tossing the baby out with the bath water.  I fully accept and embrace neuro-physiological descriptions of mental disease, and the various therapies that we have developed to address these disorders, but I think these New Testament stories about ‘demons’ and their capacity to possess the human soul have a far deeper theological significance than merely a primitive failure to understand brain science.

In fact, I think this spare story of Jesus’ encounter with the unclean spirit from Mark’s gospel has several important theological lessons to teach us:

The first lesson is that evil is real, and that there are destructive powers at play in the world and in the human soul that we are called to confront.  Too often, I’m afraid, we liberal Christians domesticate and tame our vision of Jesus and his message by saying that it is all about love, compassion, and ‘being nice.’  Love may very well be at the core of Christ’s identity – I do not doubt that for a second – but God’s love is a bit more complex than ‘sugar and spice and everything nice.’  It is, indeed, a love born of struggle, and pain, and endurance in the face of adversity, and yes, conflict with the destructive elements within ourselves and our world.  By placing this story of exorcising demons near the outset of his gospel, Mark is communicating to us loudly and clearly that Christ’s loving and redeeming work in the world will indeed win out in the end, but it will almost certainly involve convulsive struggle and pain with our darker side. This is the way of the Cross. 

Mark’s readers were comfortable with phrases like ‘demons’ and ‘unclean spirits’ and ‘evil powers and principalities’ to describe the array of destructive forces that surround us, both personally and socially.  We may well have a slightly different vocabulary, being familiar instead with the scourge of addictions, obsessions and compulsions; the plague of depression and melancholy; human preoccupations with violence and domination; institutionalized patterns of racism, misogyny, and economic oppression.  We like to think we have a more sophisticated understanding of these debilitating and dehumanizing forces, but at the end of the day, they remain as seemingly intractable and destructive as ever, notwithstanding our enlightened capacity for describing them.  Call them what you will, we still have our demons.

But the good news of today’s gospel is that in every generation Christ stands with us in naming, confronting, and ultimately overcoming these destructive ways of life, even though it may require the pain of a convulsive exorcism to defeat all that enslaves us.  Indeed, what I love about Mark is that he, most starkly of all the evangelists, presents Jesus as at once the Son of God who ultimately conquers death and evil and a human being who ends up abandoned by his friends, subject to a painful and humiliating death, and crying out at the end to ask God why he has forsaken him.  This story of exorcism at the beginning of Mark foreshadows that Christ’s goodness will triumph in the end over all that is evil in the world, but the balance of Mark’s gospel describes just how difficult and painful the journey to the Cross will be.  

The second point I take from today’s gospel is a more subtle one.  Notice that the man with the ‘unclean spirit’ in today’s lesson is not an outsider.  While Mark doesn’t offer any details about his specific identity, the man is someone who emerges quite unnoticed from within the community, from within the temple itself, on the holiest day of the week.  The man who is possessed by an evil spirit is not some foreign outsider, some interloper; he is one of us. 

This subtle observation points to, I submit, one of the most important and underappreciated aspects of Jesus’ ministry – namely, that when Jesus confronts evil, or hypocrisy, or faithlessness, or other destructive patterns of human behavior, it is almost always from within the community.  Whether it is the self-righteous Pharisees, or the power-hungry and suspicious Sanhedrin, or even the faithlessness of his own disciples on the way to the Cross, Jesus is constantly pointing us to the power of evil and sin to corrupt from within. When confronting evil, he seems to be urging us to look first at ourselves, to the log that is within our own eye, rather than to those outside ourselves.  

On the other hand, Jesus’ treatment of outsiders, of foreigners, is almost always consistently hospitable.  He reaches out to those who are different and ‘other’, and in his encounters with the foreign and the reviled, more often than not goodness and faithfulness emerge from these unlikeliest of sources, including, for example, Samaritans, Roman centurions, prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves.

We would do well, I think, to study this pattern in Jesus’ encounters, for it seems as if one of the most pernicious tendencies of the human heart is to treat ourselves as chosen and exceptional and to demonize ‘the other,’ those who are different from us:  whether it is European settlers slaughtering native Americans; or colonial Americans enslaving Africans; or men enslaving women for their sexual satisfaction; or Islamic jihadists beheading Westerners in the name of Allah.  Human beings seem to have an inveterate tendency to divide the world into good guys and bad guys (and notice that it is almost always ‘guys’), and to demonize and destroy all those who don’t share whatever our perception of the right and good social indicators are.

Jesus’ encounters with the demonic, as we see in today’s story and elsewhere, are always more complicated than that, and always have a different focus.  The evil Jesus confronts, and by implication asks us to confront, is first and foremost the darkness that resides within our own souls and our own community.  He invites us to name this darkness, confront it, and with His help, overcome it.  I suspect that we would all draw closer to God’s heart and to building up His Kingdom if we followed Jesus’ example in tending first and primarily to our own capacity for destructive behaviors, rather than in persuading ourselves that surely it is the other who is the evil one.  


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Shoveling Snow with the Buddha

Shoveling Snow with the Buddha
A Poem by Billy Collins

Here we are, the Buddha and I, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"The Journey of the Magi"

T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


"Gaudete," which is the Latin word for "rejoice," is a name for the Third Sunday in Advent. It comes for beginning of the traditional introit for that Sunday, which begins: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice" (Philippians 4:4–6). Gaudete can be seen as a break from the "mildly penitential" season of Advent. The traditional color for Gaudete is rose, reflected in the color of the third candle in the Advent wreath.

by Brad Reynolds

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.