Wednesday, April 5, 2017

To Look for Resurrection

Olivia Hamilton
The Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2017

This past summer I worked as a chaplain intern at Boston Medical Center. We’re really not supposed to have favorite patients, but the truth is, I did. The first time I met Marcus, as I’ll call him, he was brought onto my ICU floor – he had been living across the street at the Barbara McGinnis House, a medical facility for people experiencing homelessness, but he had been having severe shortness of breath and needed to be transferred over to BMC to get more advanced care.

Before I went to visit Marcus for the first time, my supervisor told me that Marcus was a frequent flyer at the hospital – she said that he may be too sick to talk, but that he loves having scripture read to him. So, I grabbed a bible and headed up to the fifth floor. When I arrived in his room, Marcus was pretty out of it, his eyes barely open and his breathing incredibly labored. He had a nebulizer mask over his mouth and nose and hardly responded when I introduced myself. Given his sorry state, I didn’t have high hopes for our visit, and wondered if he would even know I was there. Nonetheless, I flipped open the bible, and happened to land on the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, which I then read to Marcus.  I couldn’t tell if he was listening or not, but at the end of the reading, I asked him, “Marcus, what did you think about that?”

“Well,” he wheezed, still in what seemed like a half-sleeping state, “it’s a great teaser for the main event.” I wanted to make sure I understood what Marcus was saying – “tell me more,” I inquired. “You know,” he replied. “The Resurrection! If we didn’t know that life after death was possible, how would we believe it when it happened to Jesus?”

The irony was not lost on me that this acute theological insight – about life after death and how we understand it- was coming from a man who seemed to be on the brink of life and death himself. The next time I visited Marcus, he was feeling better and was much more alert. I quickly learned that although he spoke very little during our first meeting, that his personality was anything but quiet. Now, feeling stronger and breathing better, and without the nebulizer mask covering his mouth, Marcus talked for nearly an hour, nonstop. In that second visit, Marcus, as a means of introducing himself, ran through a vast and diverse litany of his own near death experiences; gruesome fist fights, police chases, drug use, asthma attacks, pneumonia, and the everyday dangers of living life on the streets. “I really shouldn’t be here,” he would always say. “There’s just no way not to believe in God after everything I’ve been through! Somebody’s watching over me, I know it.” To Marcus, resurrection wasn’t experienced in the abstract – he had, on many occasions, existed in that thin space between life and death, and recounting these experiences was how Marcus made meaning of his life, and how he conveyed his faith to me in our many subsequent visits. In a sense, it seemed to me that the fabric of Marcus’ life had been punctured or perforated with experiences of being near-death, and those places were the places where God’s love penetrated his heart and shown through most clearly.

And, back to Lazarus, of course Marcus was spot on when he said that the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead helps to prepare our minds, hearts, and our imaginations for the Resurrection, with a capital R, that is to come. The narrative that John’s gospel develops – and of which Lazarus is key - both bespeaks the resurrection inherent in everyday life and transforming the experiences of everyday people, and also points toward Christ’s own passion and resurrection that is to come. For John, a persistent theme is that our God is a God that beckons sweet life in all its forms to emerge from  the stench of death, and in turn beckons us, as God’s people, to emerge from binding brokenness into the freedom of wholeness in Christ.

Another foreshadowing element of tonight’s gospel is found in the theme of sacrifice that permeates the story. When Jesus encounters Mary and Martha in Bethany, he has just been in Jerusalem, where he was stoned for claiming himself to be the Son of God. After being pelted with rocks he narrowly escapes arrest. It is no wonder, then, that the disciples say to him “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus loves his friends, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, and risking death, goes to them at once. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus asserts his power in a way that ultimately makes him a threat to the imperial government, and secures his fate on the Cross. Through this action, we come to understand something significant about the character of Jesus and the nature of God; that the power that Jesus has to bring to life that which was once dead is subversive. It shakes up the social order, and takes a Samaritan woman, a blind man, and Lazarus – a man who has been dead for four days – and places them in the heart of our salvation narrative.

This business of resurrection is dangerous stuff, and it also poses a threat to anything and anyone who uses violence and death as a means of gaining power. As theologian John Dear remarks, “Wherever he goes, [Jesus’] disarming presence leaves merciless death embarrassed and impotent. Threats and dicey situations abound, but Jesus faces them with fearlessness and truth. The downtrodden who cross his path feel better, more dignified, because here is one with no trace of violence in him...His was a risen life before resurrection ever occurred.” In other words, Jesus is not just one who has the capacity to resurrect, Jesus is Resurrection itself.

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In closing, I want to turn your attention to one of the elements of our liturgy, the Nicene Creed, which serves as a symbol of our faith and a testament to our beliefs as Christians. As you likely know, the final phrase in the Creed is this: “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

This statement serves as a simple reminder that being a Christian means not only believing that Christ was resurrected, but just as importantly, perhaps, it means living as though resurrection is a constant and unfolding feature of our world, which it is. The language of the Creed says that more than acknowledging resurrection as a possibility, we look for it in the world around us and in our own lives. Perhaps you’ve never seen a dead person return to life, or rolled a stone away from an empty tomb. But I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen a relationship that you thought was hopeless mended, or a missed opportunity redeemed, or a new pathway or possibility emerge where you thought there was none. Following Christ, then, means that we are continually cultivating our senses in order to perceive the places where life is emerging from death.

The late, great writer, thinker and neurologist Oliver Sacks knew quite a bit about looking for resurrection – he was known to connect with, and to bear witness to the experiences of patients whom many other doctors, for a variety of reasons, considered unreachable. Sacks once wrote that “every act of perception is an act of creation” and I think that this is precisely what it means to look for resurrection of the dead – by perceiving life through the lens of the Cross, but also the empty tomb, we create openings where life can emerge and where love can transform us.

“Can these bones live?!” cries out the prophet Ezekiel. My prayer for each of us, as we journey toward and through the Passion in the coming weeks, is that we can say, without hesitation, YES, they can. These bones which were once dry and rattling, can come together, can move, can live.

Amen.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Amazing Grace

One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” John 9:25

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Lent 4A – March 26, 2017

            “I once was blind,” the man said, “but now I see.” Those eight words from our gospel text are possibly the most well-known phrase in American hymnody and are associated, of course, with the great hymn, Amazing Grace, which we will soon sing to conclude our worship today. One writer estimates that Amazing Grace is performed over 10 million times each year. The Library of Congress has cataloged some 3,000 different renditions of the song. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson recorded a signature version of the hymn in 1947 and performed it thousands of times thereafter. During the 1960s, it became one of the anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements and was performed by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, and Judy Collins.

            In this country, the song has become something of a spiritual anthem at times of national tragedy: it was sung in the aftermath of 9/11, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, and after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. And more recently, as I will talk about in a few moments, it was sung by President Obama at the funeral services of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Mother Emanuel 9 in Charleston, South Carolina.

            Despite all of this attention, many people do not know the hymn’s remarkable origins. It was written by the Englishman John Newton, the son of a shipping merchant. Born in 1725, Newton had a hard life as a child. His mom died when he was six. At the age of eleven, he joined his father as a sailing apprentice and spent most of his youth at sea. By all accounts, the young man Newton was an awful person. He was a mean, vulgar drunk, who treated most people with disdain. Eventually he became involved in the slave trade, sailing ships to Africa loaded with goods from England, trading them in Africa for human beings, and then transporting these human beings as slaves back to England for sale.

            His life came to a turning point, however, in 1748 during a voyage off the Irish coast, when Newton almost died during a fierce storm. According to his journal, one night as the ship was taking on a lot of water, Newton suddenly awoke, got down on his knees, and prayed for help. The ship by all accounts should have sunk. But it somehow stayed afloat, and Newton ever after remembered that day as his moment of conversion toward a life in Christ.

            Change, however, is never easy and Newton’s conversion took time to take hold. At first, he merely cleaned up his personal life, giving up his fondness for drinking, profanity, and unruly behavior; but he continued for a period of years to engage in and profit from the slave trade. Ultimately, however, he came to see that slavery was a barbaric practice incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, and he gave it up. He studied for the priesthood, and after a period of years was ordained as an Anglican priest.

            Perhaps the single most important thing Newton did as a priest was to become the spiritual mentor to William Wilberforce, the great English abolitionist. Wilberforce is probably as responsible as any single person is for the abolition of slavery in the Western world. Newton, however, was the one who persuaded Wilberforce to remain in political life and to relentlessly lead the charge against slavery decade after decade until Parliament eventually passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

            Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace on New Years Eve in 1773 and at its heart the hymn is the story of his conversion. When Newton writes about the sweet sound of God’s grace, he is writing about his own experience of being rescued not merely from drowning at sea but from a destructive life of human cruelty. When Newton writes about “how he once was blind, but now sees,” he is testifying to his own conversion from the death-dealing darkness of slavery to the life-giving light of Christ.

            Many people who sing this great hymn today wince when they get to the words “who saved a wretch like me.” To think of ourselves as “wretches” runs counter to contemporary views of human self-esteem, of our “I’m okay, you’re okay” culture. Yet Newton understood well and deeply the dark side of the human soul, what our faith calls “sin,” and he wasn’t afraid to name it and confess it. We don’t have to buy into extreme Calvinist notions of the “total depravity” of humanity to acknowledge that each one of us is capable in our weaker moments of true wretchedness, and that our social institutions can also embody such wretchedness.

            Indeed, America’s “original sin” of racism, in which we all participate to one degree or another, is a perfect example of such wretchedness. Just read the historical accounts of the obliteration of native American peoples, and the enslavement of African peoples, upon which our country was founded.  And we know, of course, that these historical patterns of racial violence have lasting legacies in our nation, and have found new expressions in, for example, our country’s current suspicion of refugees and others who claim different racial, ethnic and religious identities.

            For these reasons, when I sing the hymn, I have no problem whatsoever acknowledging my capacity for wretchedness, and hoping and praying that God will save me from the utter blindness of viewing other children of God as either objects to be used or enemies to be feared.
           
            Appreciating this history of Amazing Grace makes even more poignant President Obama’s use of that hymn at the funeral services two years ago held for Clementa Pinckney and the Mother Emmanuel Nine. Indeed, there are layers and layers of painful, yet somehow beautiful, irony here. Nine black Christians welcome a white stranger into their bible study group, only to be viciously gunned down by him in the name of white supremacy. The black families of the victims then respond to his racial hatred, not with vindictiveness, but by publicly forgiving him and asking that he be spared the death penalty. Then, as the community gathers to bury the nine innocent victims, we witness America’s first black President, surrounded by the leadership of one of America’s great black churches, joyfully sing a hymn celebrating God’s amazingly redemptive grace, a hymn that was written by a former slave trader turned priest, a man who may well have bought and sold the ancestors of many people in the church that day. The paradoxes of grace in that moment take your breath away.

            And, while many will remember President Obama for the courage he displayed in singing this famous hymn, unaccompanied, in such a tender, yet public context, what really makes his eulogy remarkable is its theological integrity. The focus of Obama’s remarks was not on our all too human notions of justice, but rather on the sheer power of God’s grace to break through the blindness of even our darkest moments and lead us toward the light of redemption.

            Obama began his eulogy by humbly stating the most basic truth of the Christian faith: “We don’t earn grace,” he said. “We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.” And then he explained:

“[The killer of these nine Christians] surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin. Oh, but God works in mysterious ways” Obama continued. “God has different ideas. Blinded by hatred, the killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court – in the midst of unspeakable grief – with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that. Blinded by hatred, the killer failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace to save, to overwhelm evil with goodness.”  

            We are invited by our gospel text today to reflect on our own blindness, the many ways in which we blind ourselves to God’s goodness and to the goodness in each other. We are indeed blinded by racism, as these words from our former President remind us. But we are blinded too by greed, by ambition, by a preoccupation with ourselves, and by so many other weaknesses. And in the midst of such blindness, we are prone to blame others rather than ourselves for our plight. Like the Pharisees, who only want to talk about how Jesus is violating the law by healing on the Sabbath, or how the blind man must have deserved his blindness due to past sin, we too would prefer to scapegoat someone else, rather than humbly acknowledge our own brokenness.  And yet, with unrelenting patience, Christ stands before us waiting; waiting for us to turn to Him for the healing grace He so longs to give.
            Let me then conclude with a simple suggestion. Among the prayers we keep close to our hearts this Lent, let us include this one:  "Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, whose face is hidden from us by our sins, and whose mercy we are often too blind to see: grant that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Human Weakness and the Strength of God: Wandering in "the Place"

First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017
Olivia Hamilton


My best friend is a Hebrew School teacher in Brooklyn – one of the main responsibilities she has in this role is to prepare middle-schoolers for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. As a performer and a poet, she undertakes this endeavor with endless creativity, always coming up with new ways to engage young people in the richness of the Jewish tradition, and to help them locate their own unique place within it. The young people embroider prayer shawls, they create raps and rhymes in order to learn Hebrew letters and words, and they engage their Torah portions with awe and wonder, as if the text were alive, always being encouraged to make connections between the world we live in, and the world they encounter in these ancient stories.

 

There is one activity that she does with her students that I have become really fond of –the prompt is simple and goes as follows: the young people are instructed to identify ways that God is depicted and imagined in the Hebrew Bible. For example, some familiar images include God as a teacher, a father, a king or a ruler. In Exodus, God is called a “man of war” and Moses calls God an unchanging rock. The student’s attention is also drawn to more ambiguous terms that are used in the Hebrew Bible to talk about God, such as the word makom, which literally means “the place.” Rather than signifying a precise location, makom is a way of gesturing toward God’s revelation in time and space, and how God manifests in particular communities and is revealed in particular places. For instance, when Abraham is preparing to sacrifice Isaac at Mount Moriah, makom is used to signify both the place where God has instructed Abraham to go, but also God’s closeness to Abraham there. As Jewish scholar Barbara Mann writes, makom, in this instance “indicates the biblical topography – in this case the heights – as well as the presence… of divinity.” Makom is any place where we meet God intimately in our lives, and in the Bible is variously depicted as a desert, a mountaintop, a wilderness, a winding road – not places on a map, per se, but times in our lives when we are disoriented and must pay close attention to where God is leading us.

 

Next, the students are asked to think about how each of these images of God help to shape our understanding of ourselves – and by that I mean: if God is _____ than we are ­­­­­­­­______. So, using some of the examples that I just named:

 

·                    if God is a judge, than we are people who have erred and are in need of mercy.

·                    If God is a teacher, than we ought to listen, learn and observe.

 

Those analogies come pretty easily – but what about if God is makom, the place? I encourage you to think about this for a moment. (Silence).

As I think about it, if God is the place, than perhaps we are pilgrims or travelers, seeking rootedness, disoriented, but always wandering on the terrain of God’s loving-kindness, whether we know it or not.

 

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On Wednesday when I had ashes imposed on my forehead, I was thinking of this image as I heard the words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If we are dust, than it seems God is the place from which we came to which we are always coming back to. I think of it as a blessing that our scriptures give us so many images for who and what God is, and how what it means to be in relationship to God. I am especially grateful that starting with the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season when we are reminded that although our lives are fragile, God’s love for us is unfathomably strong, and whether we are wandering through the temptations of the wilderness or walking on the road to Jerusalem, following Jesus to the Cross, God is the solid ground under our feet – the context in which our whole lives take place.

 

Today we hear the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness – the wilderness, I think, is makom:  it is a place that represents Jesus’ trusting relationship with God, and it is a potent reminder of human vulnerability, on one hand, and divine strength on the other. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by Satan, who desires to outsmart him and cause him to disobey God. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a test of sorts: how bad are his hunger pangs that he would be tempted to turn a stone into a loaf of bread in order to eat? How compelling is his desire for power that he would follow Satan in order to have all of the kingdoms of the world handed over to him?

 

There Jesus is, famished and weak, vulnerable to temptation – a very human moment in the narrative of his life. But he also trusts in the strength of God’s promise to him, and knows that he will not be abandoned there. This temptation seems to foreshadow what we know will happen on the Cross: the jeers and taunting and humiliation that Jesus will endure, his body hanging in a posture of ultimate weakness, nailed to a cross, tempted to believe that God has forsaken him, but trusting in God’s strength nonetheless.

 

Human weakness and the strength of God. These are the realities that we encounter and move between in these forty days: we encounter our own weakness as we reflect on the ways that we sometimes sin and miss the mark, so to speak, failing to treat our neighbors as ourselves. We hold grudges, we don’t ask for help when we need it, we judge others and the world through our limited perspectives, failing to see how each person encounters God in a unique place, in a unique way. We encounter our own vulnerability as we are reminded that life is fleeting, and that our bodies will not last forever.

 

The poet Christian Wiman grapples with this in his lyrical autobiography, My Bright Abyss, which was written shortly after he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. He writes, about his own frailty, saying -- “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ's weakness equals… strength.”

 

What Wiman seems to be saying here is that in Christ, strength and weakness are altogether bound up in one another, and more, that our own weakness – our own tendency to give into temptations of power or ease or material stability – is reconciled through Christ’s total trust in the strength of God.

Thinking back to the concept of makom – the place or places where we encounter God – I want to leave you with a few questions to ponder today, and throughout these next forty days:

In the terrain of your life, where are you feeling closeness (or distance) from God?

Where is the place where the wounds of Christ are touching your wounds?

Where is the place where God’s strength is yearning to meet your human weakness?


I want to close in the words of our collect for the day, which I think is so powerful as to bear repeating: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” Amen.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Get Up and Do Not Be Afraid


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew 17:1-2

Last Epiphany 2017 – February 26, 2017
The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Mountains are holy places.  They are high places, where the earth and heavens seem to touch.  The air is crisp and invigorating.  On mountains, we are closer to the brightness of the sun during the day and the illuminating array of stars at night.  We go to the mountains to retreat from the craziness of our daily lives, and from their tops we are able to gain perspective, to see more clearly where we are and who we are.

It is no wonder that mountains figure so prominently in the Bible as places where people meet God.  In Exodus, Moses goes to the mountain in Sinai to receive the law, and it is on another mountaintop that Moses sees the Promised Land just as he is about to die.  In First Kings, Elijah, the great prophet and forerunner of the messiah, goes to the holy mountain to hear the still, small voice of God in the sheer silence of the mountain pass.  And today, in our gospel reading, it is on the mountaintop that Jesus is transfigured before his inner disciples – Peter, James, and John. 

Every year at this time we hear the Transfiguration story, at the end of Epiphany season and before we embark our Lenten journey to the Cross.  Transfiguration Sunday, as we sometimes call it, is a “hinge” time, a transitional moment in the liturgical year, a time when we are invited to look both backward and forward, as if we were indeed standing on a mountaintop, glancing back whence we have come and looking ahead to what is yet to be.  And so too does the Transfiguration story itself invoke both past and future.

The story looks to the past by connecting Jesus’ life and ministry to the two great prophetic figures of the Old Testament – Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet whose primary mission is to herald the coming of a Messiah.  Their appearance with Jesus in this vision tells us that, yes, Jesus’ life is in continuity with the prophetic tradition and the Torah. Jesus is fulfilling the work God started in Moses, and he is responding to the clarion call of Elijah for a messiah. 

The Transfiguration story likewise looks backwards to the scene of Jesus’ baptism.  You will remember that at his baptism in the River Jordan, a spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, with a voice from the heavens saying to him:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”  Now, this same voice from the heavens calls out again, but this time it speaks not to Jesus alone, but to those who would follow Jesus, saying:  “This is my Son, the Beloved,” and then adding three simple, yet daunting words:  “listen to him!” 

But the Transfiguration story also looks forward, foreshadowing things to come.  Jesus’ mysterious transfiguration into a dazzling white figure, such as no one on earth has seen before, points us unmistakably to the Resurrection.  In this brief mountaintop experience, the disciples get a glimpse of the glory that is to come, and are thus reassured that, even though the way of Jesus will be a way of suffering, and even death, Jesus’ solidarity with God will somehow endure.  For all of these reasons, it is entirely fitting that we end the season of Epiphany with this greatest of Epiphany stories.  

Many commentators have pointed to the many striking parallels between Matthew’s description of the Transfiguration, on the one hand, and the account of the crucifixion, on the other.   In the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble over his garments.  In the transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah; at the cross, he is flanked by two criminals.  In the transfiguration, God Himself declares Jesus to be the divine Son; at the crucifixion, the words “he said ‘I am God’s Son’” become a taunt of mockery on the lips of the religious authorities.  At the end of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah have departed, leaving Jesus to stand in singular glory; at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus dies in humiliation while the crowd stands around waiting to see “whether Elijah will come to save him.”  In both stories there are three witnesses: in the transfiguration, the witnesses are men (Peter, James and John); at the crucifixion, they are women (Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome, the mother of James and John).

These extraordinary parallels invite us to consider the deep theological connection between power and powerlessness, between glory and sacrifice, between self and selflessness, and how God in Christ utterly upends our all-too-human fantasies of how we would like our lives to be.  As followers of Jesus we live between the two poles of crucifixion and transfiguration.  

Like Peter, I am sure that most of us would prefer to stay with Jesus on the mountaintop, to build him a house there with Moses and Elijah, to preserve that moment of mystery and splendor forever, to bask in it, and to block out all this business about suffering and serving and bearing one’s cross.  But that is not Jesus’ way.  Much as his disciples want to hang on to the glory of the moment, Jesus gently leads them back down the mountain.  His future is not to withdraw from the world, but to serve it, to stand up to its injustices, to speak out against its corruption, and ultimately to suffer at its hands and to die for it.  And, if we are to “listen to him,” as the voice of the Father urges us to, we know that we must follow him down the mountain, through the stark wilderness of Lent that lies ahead, toward that mount on the other side, Calvary. 

But notice this one other detail in the story.  What happens to Peter, James and John when the veil is drawn back, and they see Jesus in his glory, and they hear God’s command to listen to him?  As usual, the disciples are afraid, and fall down.  And what does Jesus do?  He gently comes over to them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  The Greek word that is here translated as ‘get up’ has the same root as the word for resurrection.  Jesus literally raises them up out of their fear, so that they might follow.

I have a foreboding sense that this year’s season of Lent may well be one of the more challenging ones of our lifetimes.  We’ve already seen the dark clouds on the horizon:  signs that our country is so intoxicated with “making America great again” that we are prepared to crush those who get in our way, to ignore those whose needs are perceived to be a drain on our greatness, and to silence all those who dissent from the ruling narrative.

In the face of such idolatrous nationalism – for that is what it is – our call as Christians is to stand with the weak and forgotten, and to give witness to an alternative community that is rooted in love rather than fear, and that is known by embrace rather than exclusion.  From the vantage point of the world, nothing could be more foolish than to pick up a cross and follow Jesus.  A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, welcoming the stranger, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age; but in the divine economy, such a life is a precious thing indeed.  Suffering on behalf of others may appear to the world to be pouring one’s life down the bottomless drain of human need; but in the Kingdom this is what saving one’s life looks like.

One of the gifts of the season of Lent, which begins for us this coming Wednesday, is that it offers us a ‘pause’ in the midst of overwhelmed lives and a troubled world, to consider whether we are being truly attentive and receptive to the transfiguring work of Christ in our lives.  Let us use this season of Lent to listen to him with a renewed sense urgency, confident that when we do choose to follow him, he always remains by our side, ready to raise us up when we fall.
  
Please pray with me:  “Lord Jesus, pull back the veil of ignorance and unbelief that blinds us to your glorious truth, dispel our fears, raise us up out of despair, and then send us back out into the world to be your agents of transfiguring love so that through us you might heal all who are hurting, make whole all that is broken, and renew the spirits of all who have lost hope.  We pray these things for your love’s sake.  Amen.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Edges of the Field


“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 19:9-10

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Epiphany 7A – February 19, 2017

         St. Francis famously said:  “Preach the gospel always; use words if you must.” At the heart of this saying is the insight that what we do matters every bit as much as what we say, if not more so.  Long before Christianity became an institutionalized religion with creeds and confessional statements, the faith was known simply as “the Way,” and its followers were known primarily for how they lived, not just what they believed.  The early church was organized around a commitment to Jesus Christ as the divine embodiment of a new humanity and a new model for human community.
         In the early Church, what differentiated Christians from others in the Empire were primarily practices that pointed to the in-breaking of God’s reign:  early Christians cared for the sick; established communities without regard to class, social status, privilege or gender; repented of their sins with humility, and sought and extended forgiveness; exercised an unrelenting ministry of reconciliation; and they prayed for others and for the world with regularity.
         But there was another set of key practices that marked the life of the early Church too – how Christians related to property. The earliest Christians were known for sharing their resources without a sense of possessiveness, giving to the poor, and extending hospitality to strangers.  We hear this message, of course, in Jesus’ words today, in which he urges us to give to anyone who asks, to lend to those who need to borrow, and to give up not only our coats but our cloaks as well.
         This notion that our lives should be grounded in generosity, freed from undue to attachment to the things we own, has deep roots in the Bible that we can trace back to our first lesson from the Book of Leviticus. God is describing what it means for his people to be holy, and notice what the very first item on God’s list is.  God says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:9-10)
         I used to think that this holiness commandment, like many others from Leviticus, was an antiquated, if charming, holdover from an agrarian society that has little relevance to us today.  But I was convinced otherwise – and here, you may be surprised – by a member of the faculty at the Harvard Law School, Joseph Singer.  Joe is a distinguished property law professor, the husband of Dean Martha Minow, and an observant Jew.  Joe is also the author of a gem of a book entitled, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership,[1] in which he seeks to demonstrate the enduring relevance of these two verses from Leviticus 19 to modern property law and American capitalism. And he does in a mere 136 pages in plain English that any layperson can understand.
         And like any good rabbi, Joe organizes his book around a story:
         Just before Christmas 1995, the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, suffered a devastating fire. When the flames finally died down, three of the nine buildings were in ruins. The next day, the owner, Aaron Feuerstein, assembled the workers in the high school gymnasium. They feared the worst. Most of the textile mills in New England had long ago moved to other parts of the country, other parts of the world. Aaron was seventy years old and might be ready to call it a day. The workers wondered if he would collect the insurance money and retire. What was going to happen to them? More than three thousand people worked for Malden Mills and their prospects looked bleak.
         Then Aaron got up to speak.  To their astonishment, Aaron announced that he would rebuild the factory and that he would rehire every worker who wanted a job. He would continue to pay their wages for the next month and they would each receive their expected $275 Christmas bonus on time. Pandemonium broke out in the gymnasium.  It is reported that “grown men cried, and in the several languages of the largely immigrant workforce – Portuguese, Spanish, and others – prayers of thanksgiving were said.”
         Aaron Feuerstein made good on his promises.  Not only that:  He continued to pay his workers’ salaries for several months, until he could no longer afford to do so.  He had no legal obligation to pay these salaries or to help his employees get through the down time.  Ultimately, the factory was rebuilt.  As of 1998, almost all the workers had been rehired.
         When asked why he did it, Aaron replied simply that he had a moral obligation to do so.  “The workers are depending upon me,” he explained.  “There was no way I was going to take 3,000 workers and throw them into the street, and there was no way I was going to send the city of Lawrence into economic oblivion.”
         In his book, Joe Singer explains that, as an orthodox Jew, Aaron relied upon traditional Jewish teachings about the moral obligations of property owners, whether they be farmers (as in the days of Leviticus) or factory owners (as in Aaron’s time). At the foundation of such teaching is the conviction that human beings are not the ultimate owners of their property and labors, but that God is.  In the words of the Psalmist:  “‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’ Ps 24:1.  Stated differently, because the land and its fruits and our labors are all divine gifts, human beings are merely stewards of these gifts.  Through our time, talent, and effort we may well earn the right to exercise responsibility over property and labor, but within the Torah these property rights are only qualified rights.  And because God intends for the fruits of the land and our labors to be enjoyed by all God’s people, such fruits cannot be withheld from those who need them.
         And so, as we see in our lesson from Leviticus, God commands individual owners of property to set aside a portion of what they own for the poor. Property holders are commanded not to reap to the edges of the field, not to pick up grain or grapes that have been dropped in the course of harvesting, and not to return to the field to retrieve ‘forgotten sheaves.’ This portion of the fruits of the land is in fact owned by the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor – those who have no access to land of their own or whose family ties have been shattered. To preserve such fruits is, on this view, not a matter of charity and does not constitute a transfer from the landowner to the dispossessed. Rather, the fruits at edges of the field are the share of God’s bounty belonging to the landless.” (Singer, 49)
         Aaron Feuerstein recognized that his family’s success in the textile business was made possible only by God’s grace and with the support of the community.  And so, in a time of crisis, Aaron recognized his own responsibility to care for those who made his business the success that it was.  
         The biblical notion of titheing – of giving away ten percent of one’s income – likewise has its roots in this biblical concept of stewardship.  The admonition to tithe is not fundamentally an exercise in charity so much as it is an exercise in humility and gratitude, acknowledging that what we have was made possible only through God’s grace.  We give away ten percent not because we’re altruistic but because we are acknowledging that at least ten percent of what we have properly belongs to God in the first place and should be used for the benefit of others.  St. Augustine had a beautiful way of expressing this:  “Find out how much God has given you,” Augustine writes, “and from it take what you need; always remembering that the remainder is needed by others.”
         These biblical practices of good stewardship, responsible ownership, and generous giving are, I am sad to say, increasingly at odds with the American spirit of private enterprise, self-reliance, and maximizing shareholder value.  But it needn’t be so.  I don’t have time here to summarize all of Joe Singer’s argument as to how America property law might be transformed to more humanely reflect the compassionate spirit of Leviticus 19.  But I will leave you with this observation of his: “Contrary to what some believe and others fear, the protection of property rights does not commit us to the view that gross inequality is a necessary fact of life or that individuals have no legitimate claim to lean on other people. Property is not merely an individual right, and it is not based solely on the notion of self-interest or self-reliance.  It is, in fact, an intensely social institution. And ownership, far from being an absolute right, is a curious blend of security and vulnerability between owner and non-owner.  The manner in which property shapes social relations of power is as important as ownership rights.”
         We Christians have a lot to learn from the Aaron Feuersteins of the world about what responsible and generous ownership looks like.  Faithful Christians and Jews, it seems to me, can work together to re-orient our perspectives on property and how we relate to it based on a prayerful appreciation for our shared sacred texts. 
         As you think about what you have, and what you may do with your talents and treasure in the future, I’d invite you to remember that all of these things are gifts that ultimately belong to God.  God is counting on you to use these gifts wisely and generously to care not just for yourself, but for all of God’s creatures and all of His wonderful creation.  Listen again to the words of St. Augustine:  “Find out how much God has given you, and from it take what you need; yet always remember that the remainder is needed by others.”
         Amen.



            [1] Joseph William Singer, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership, Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Law of Life, the Law of Love

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
6A Epiphany – February 12, 2017

         An engineer, a physicist, and a lawyer all die on the same day, and find themselves in line outside the Pearly Gates.  As they approach the entrance to heaven, they are greeted by St. Peter.  Peter says to them, “We just have one very simple question for you to gain entrance to heaven.”  The question is this: “How much is two plus two?”
         The engineer is first in line.  She leans over to St. Peter and whispers confidently in his ear, “four.”  And, as she does, St. Peter waves her in to Paradise.  The physicist then approaches, and gives the same answer.  “Please, come on in,” replies St. Peter.  The lawyer is last in line, and is asked the same question by Peter.  “How much is two plus two?” The lawyer looks over one shoulder, and then the other, and leans forward to whisper into St. Peter’s ear:  “How much do you want it to be?”
         As a recovering lawyer myself, I feel I have permission to share this laugh at the expense of my former profession.  I do so today because our lessons are very much about the “law” and our relationship to it, and this joke, while corny to be sure, has a kernel of truth to it:  human beings have a deep-rooted tendency to try to work around the requirements of the law and to take matters into our own hands.  We see the law as something that is imposed upon us from the outside that prevents us from doing what we’d like to do, or want to do, or think we need to do. 
         Moses’ prophetic career, which is the subject of our first lesson from Deuteronomy, is a classic illustration.  Having received the Torah from God’s hands, and being commissioned to lead God’s people through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land, Moses spends most of his time and energy watching the people rebel against God’s law.  Every time, it seems, that the people get hungry, or thirsty, or weary, they set aside what God has told them, believing they know better.  All of this comes to a climax in our first reading, which comes near the end of Moses’ life. Knowing that his time is almost up, in this farewell discourse Moses gives an impassioned plea on behalf of Torah.    
         Living in accordance with God’s law, Moses says, is a matter of life and death. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live . . . but if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish . . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
         At the core of Moses’ message are three deep theological convictions:
         First is the insistence that human flourishing requires turning toward God alone, depending upon His loving care, and trusting in nothing else.  Time and again, human beings are tempted to rely on their own counsel, their own desires, their own sense of what is right, but that way lies folly.  God is our only guide.  As the Psalmist says, “Happy are they who walk in the law of the Lord . . . who seek him with all their heart.”
         Second is the conviction that Torah, far from being a set of restrictions on our freedom, is in fact a life-giving framework that allows our freedom to find its healthiest expression.  Law is blessing, not curse.  By loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength; by loving our neighbors as ourselves; and by otherwise aligning our lives with God’s law; we find our truest identities as God’s children.
         Third is the conviction that the law is not primarily a rulebook for individuals, but rather a constitution for a people.  Ever since the Enlightenment in the West – ever since Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am” – there has been a shift towards individualism as a basic philosophical orientation.  Yet the biblical perspective is very different:  it is a people with whom God covenants; a people to whom God gives the Law; a people whom God saves.  Our salvation lies in community, not in self-reliance or individual accomplishment.
         In short, says Moses, to “choose life” means:  to love and depend upon God alone; to view Torah as a life-giving blessing that allows human freedom to flourish; and to know that we are intended to live in community and not in isolation.
         As Christians, of course, Moses’ view of the law, as rich and right as it is, is not the last word.  And so we turn to our gospel, and another section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  That Jesus gives his sermon on a “mount,” reminiscent of the giving of the Law to Moses on another mount, is of course no accident.  Jesus is the new Moses, the new Law-giver.  Jesus comes, as he told us last week, not to “abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill [them].”
         And so, Jesus does not set aside what Moses has done and said, but instead Jesus takes us deeper:  into the very heart of the Law.  The specific examples Jesus takes up in our text were undoubtedly problems that confronted Matthew’s church:  problems of anger, adultery, divorce, breaking promises made under oath.  These challenges, of course, persist today.  Underlying Jesus’ treatment of each of these issues is the basic insight that what ultimately matters to God is right relationship to others, not merely complying with behavioral norms or legal externalities.  It’s not just that we should keep from murdering our neighbor when we disagree; we should learn affirmatively to love and be reconciled with her.  It’s not just that we should avoid adulterous behavior; we should learn to cherish all covenanted relationships and honor one another as God’s children.  It’s not just that we should avoid using God’s name in vain; we should treat all of our promises as if they are sacred commitments.
         In short, Jesus is inviting us to view God’s law not as an external code of conduct, but as something written on our hearts, something that is integral to our very being.
         Well, if you’re like me, your reaction to all this is fear and trembling.  On the surface, it seems like Jesus is asking the impossible of us.  It sounds like he wants us to be perfect.  And the truth is:  He does.
         But here is the saving grace:  We are not called to be perfect as individuals; for as individuals we will certainly miss the mark time and again.  Rather, we are called to be perfect within the Body of Christ, and it is through, and only through, our participation as a community in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, made possible in our baptisms, that we are able to become citizens of this heavenly realm where right relationship with God and neighbor is perfectly possible.  Whereas under the Mosaic law, God’s people endeavored to live out God’s law by adherence to the 613 commandments of Torah, for Christians, that very same Torah has been embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, and he has taken upon himself, for our benefit, the perfect fulfillment of holy living as God’s Chosen One.
         So, don’t be disheartened if in your individual lives you fall short of the holy life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount – because we all fall short on our own.  The good news to keep near your heart is this:  by prayerfully organizing our communal lives around Christ’s teaching, by encouraging and supporting one another in our common life, and by participating in Christ’s life through the sacrament of bread and wine we are about to share, we are able, through grace, to become the redeemed people and beloved community God desires us to be. 
         Many people are asking me in these troubled times, what can we do as Christians?  What ought we to do?  Our lessons today suggest one answer:  first, anytime we are confronted with human laws, policies, or practices that are inimical to the law of Christ, we are called peacefully yet boldly to resist such human distortions of God’s will for us.  And second, and perhaps even more importantly, as Jesus’ beloved community, we are called to model for the wider world as best we are able the alternative vision for humanity described by the Sermon on the Mount as it is perfectly embodied in Christ’s life.  This is our primary vocation:  to lift up the person of Jesus Christ himself — not Christianity; not the Episcopal Church; not a social agenda; not a political philosophy – but the person of Jesus Christ himself.
         Amen.