Monday, January 8, 2018

The Tree of Good and Evil

             
            How did we all get here?  Well, we know that we were born.  Most of us have birth certificates that spell it all out for us.  In this world, though there are countless people who have no idea where or when they were born, who their parents were, and any of the particulars.  They are simply here.  Agencies try to fill in some of the details; they are often counselled and given hope that somehow they will discover their roots.  But for most of them, they will lack the hoped for news of their birth and their parents and simply live their lives.  That isn’t easy.  Understanding our heritage gives us some clues about who we are and what we are doing here.  Without knowing any of this, we are often left to just get on with our lives without any inkling of how we got here.

            The lessons in the first week of Epiphany try to offer some help for all of us to understand our parentage and our beginnings, who we are and why we are here.  Genesis begins with the magnificent words: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form or void; and darkness covered the face of the deep.  Here, we are given the basics of how this world was formed.  We are wedded to this world, which was created by God to provide a place where his will could be worked out.  After creating the world, God created humankind in his own image.  Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to be the earthly supervisors of God’s kingdom.   God’s plan was to have a place where heaven was replicated with its goodness intact.

            To create all things, God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden and told both Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of this tree.  Also in the garden was the serpent; the snake that worked on Eve and told her that it would be perfectly all right for her to eat that fruit and to offer it to Adam.  The result of this was that these two first beings immediately knew that they were naked and that naked was bad and then did everything that they could to hide themselves from God’s sight.

            The knowledge of good and evil has been the basis for our legal system, our political system and all of the ways that we interact with each other.  I think that even if God wishes that we didn’t know about it, we would not exist without having a knowledge of good and evil.  I think that Jonathan Edwards great sermon in Northampton, Massachusetts called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sets the tone for God’s interaction with a world full of argument about who is right and who is wrong.  Edwards thundered to his congregation about how we are being held over the burning fires of hell by a thin, fragile strand held in God’s hand.  That strand Edwards called Grace, that wonderful characteristic of God that expresses the divine love for all of humankind.  When the people in that congregation heard that sermon, many of them got up and ran out of the church in terror.  Edwards was one of the heralds of what we call the Great Awakening, a largely Puritan evangelical movement in the eighteenth century that re-established protestant theology in this country that included other great preachers such as George White, a largely Methodist theologian from Georgia. 

            The notion of God’s grace spelling out his incredible Love has helped many people come to an understanding of the authority of God in this world.  We are a country founded on Puritan values from the time of their landing in Massachusetts and William Bradford’s governance.  These Puritans has escaped religious persecution in England only to re-establish it in their new homeland.  Roger Williams was chased out of the Massachusetts Bay colony to establish his own theological area in Rhode Island.  We are continually eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil.  What is important in this world is that God’s love continues to keep us safe and bring us back into the reality of goodness.  May God continue to bless us in this Epiphany season.
           
           

           

           

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Peace of Jerusalem

            When we made a trip to the Holy Land in 1983, it was fascinating to see what Israel had done to the Palestinians who were in the West Bank, which included part of Jerusalem.  Palestinians and Jews had different license plates.  It was easy to tell one from another.  There were numerous check points where Israeli cars were waved through and the Palestinians were all stopped.  Israeli troops were everywhere.  In those days, in the eighties, there was not much open fighting, not much outward turmoil; but in the hearts of the Palestinian people, there was a great feeling of being ostracized and left out. 

            Of course, the Israelis claimed all of the West Bank as their own and were just beginning to open “settlements” in that area, which have surged in the years since until at the present time they occupy a great deal of the territory.  In Jerusalem itself, Israelis are occupying much of East Jerusalem, where Palestinians have long been the chief residents.  Jerusalem is not a peaceful place at all, nor has it ever been.

            Pray for the peace of Jerusalem has long been a standard prayer in most churches.  It signifies the longing that the world has to see peace and harmony in that place.  We have been aware of the turmoil in the Middle East for a long time.  The movie Exodus with Paul Newman was an excellent story of the beginning of the struggle.  Finding a common solution to the division that exists in what we call the Holy Land seems to be farther and farther from what is possible.  There have been a number of attempts to bridge the gap, but they have all ultimately failed.  We need to keep Jerusalem and all of the Middle East in our prayers that somehow God will intervene to help us to calm the chaos.

            Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which is now in the West Bank; lived his early life in Nazareth in Galilee and spent his ministry helping the people in all of Israel to find healing, comfort and peace in their lives.  When finally, he entered the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday it was on the back of a donkey while the Roman military entered the city with horses and troops.  Jesus came to Jerusalem to live the last days of his life that ended with his betrayal and crucifixion and finally his resurrection and eventually his ascension.  Christianity was born in Jerusalem.  His followers began small churches that spread the word of the risen Christ throughout the known world. 

            Today, Jerusalem is divided into three divisions:  Christian, Jewish and Muslim.  All of these religions are present and in places of worship.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a Christian church where Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox worship. This Church is the place where the story of the last days of Jesus’ life are told, with his sepulcher in the middle of the church.  The Western Wall is the remains of the last Jewish temple where faithful Jews gather every day to pray, and the old Temple Mount is the home to Al Aksa mosque and the highly visible Dome of the Rock where supposedly Abraham offered Isaac to God and also where Mohammed on his horse leapt into heaven.  This is a powerful city to visit and I can see little hope that one religion will finally occupy it alone.

            It also seems to me that Jerusalem is a powerful symbol of what God has in mind for all of humanity.  Living together with different religions and different views of the world is God’s plan for all of us.  If we can learn to put our differences aside and respect one another, we will eventually find the peace that passes understanding.  That isn’t easy.  Money and politics sometimes dictate our beliefs.  None of us die rich.  Eventually, we all stand before God as who we are and who we have become.  Who has the most money or the most powerful political standing doesn’t mean a thing in God’s sight.  It is only how much we have loved and cared for those around us that matter as we stand before our God.   May God bless us in this new year as we try to look past our differences to a world of peace and harmony.



           

           
           

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mary, the Mother of God,

  
            For far too long, women have been excluded from all or part of public life.  It wasn’t until 1920 that they were allowed to vote.  Hillary Clinton was the first woman nominated to run for the Presidency and that wasn’t until 2016.  It has been a long time for these people to wait to have access to the power that runs this country.  Yes, we have some representatives and senators from the female gender and even a few governors; but largely, it is men who run the country, make the laws and determine our course in the international world.

            Even in the world of religion there have been some profound changes.  The woman deacon who read the gospel at my ordination to the priesthood told me that it was the last time that she would do that.  I believe that it probably was because she was ordained to the priesthood in 1976, the first year that women were allowed to be priests in the Episcopal church.

            I have a sense that much is changing.  The #metoo movement has sparked commentary and argument across the spectrum of politics and it is obvious that women are not going to simply retire into the background and be quiet.  It is necessary to have conversation about the things that are troubling this country and all that crosses the lines of gender.  Things are never going to be the same as they always have been.  That is a positive outcome of all of this turmoil. 

            Mary, the mother of Jesus was a remarkable woman.  She endured the pain and the ostracism that carrying Jesus to term entailed.  She had Joseph as a companion on this journey, but it was a difficult trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where her baby was born in a stable because as the story is told, there was no room for them in the inn. 

            When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Lord, she didn’t argue with him.  Instead, she replied with the Magnificat, a glorious song that proclaimed the greatness of God and spoke of the favor that she knew had been given to her.  Her song offers the mission of Jesus even before his birth.  In this beautiful song, she says about God:  He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.  He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.

            Mary’s greatness is also told to us in the second stanza of the Rosary, when it is said: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.  Mother of God indeed.  Certainly that is true because we know that Jesus was God incarnate on this earth.  It is because of Jesus that we know that God understands what it means to be human and to know all of the limitations and difficulty that human being entails. 

            Thank God for Mary.  Thank God for all of our mothers and the women who have helped to create a world where goodness happens every day.  I hope that out of all of this trouble and difficulty that is being experienced in the present time, that their strength will be allowed to serve this world in more leadership roles and to help us to be the people that God intended us to be from the moment of creation. May God bless you and may you have a very merry Christmas! 

            

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Ministry in a Changing World

                         Time marches on.  I have noticed that all of the World War II veterans are now in their nineties.  That should not be surprising, but I remember that war.  I heard the notice of the attack on Pearl Harbor on our radio in our living room when I was eight years old.  I have grown up with those memories.  We have moved into another era as things have changed in this country.  That isn’t a bad thing, it is just different.  We need to constantly look at what our work must be in a changing time. 

            Jesus came into our world as a newborn in Bethlehem and lived for thirty some years.  His ministry from the time that he was baptized by John in the Jordan until his crucifixion lasted about three years.  In that time, he offered healing, comfort and care to the people whom he met throughout Israel and even into some of the surrounding territories.  After his death and subsequent resurrection and his ascension into heaven, his apostles created small house churches that met constantly to celebrate their common ministry that they inherited from their Lord and to create communities that acted in concert to keep these ministries working.  Those house churches became the model for later Christians as they worked to carry on the ministry that Jesus taught to all of us by his life.

            The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s purpose for humankind in the 61st chapter of his prophecy when he said: He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed; to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to comfort all who mourn. That is the ministry that Jesus took for his own during his life and has passed on to what has become the Christian church afterwards.  Christianity is composed of a number of denominations, each with their own view of what their worship and ministry means.  We ought not to confuse ministry with our prayer books.  We can cooperate in our ministry while we worship in our own singular ways. 

            What we share with those original disciples of Jesus is our common community that we call our churches.  They are the means by which ministry can be moved into our neighborhoods.  There are many homeless, people in poverty and those who have lost friends or members of their families to death, or are suffering in many other ways around us.  Our job is to make their worlds brighter by our presence and our caring.  When we do this, we are doing God’s will as expressed by Isaiah in his insightful prophecy. 

            We are living in a turbulent world with changing politics all around us.  In this unsettled time, our ministry is more and more important.  When we can lift up those who are hurting and give hope to those who are fearful, we are making a profound difference in this world.  That is why ministry is so important.  God will bless us richly as we do this work. 

           
           

Monday, December 11, 2017

Avoiding Retirement

           I’ve retired four times.  That may sound silly or ridiculous, but it is certainly true.  In 1972, I retired from the television station that I had been working for because they ran out of money and they couldn’t pay me anymore.  I then went to seminary, became an Episcopal priest and started another career entirely.  I was the rector of two churches in Pittsburgh and loved every minute of it.  When I reached the age of 65 in 1999, I retired from my parish and went to live at a little resort community in West Virginia with my beautiful wife.  After two years of playing golf and reading, I got bored, called the West Virginia bishop and asked him if he had any work.  He told me that there were some parishes that were in need of an interim rector, but they were all in the southern part of the state.  I was eager to get back to work, so I agreed to consider these places.  Over the next several years, I served three parishes near Charleston as their interim rector, having a good time at each one and paving the way for each of them to do something with their future. 

After recovering from a menengioma while I continued to work, in 2010, our kids called and said that it was a four-hour trip to Charleston and they wondered when we were going to think about coming home.  We heard that plea from them, I again retired from the parish that I was working at, we sold our Charleston house and moved back to Pittsburgh. 

I still wasn’t done.  The bishop of Pittsburgh told me that there was a parish in need of someone to be a permanent supply priest for them.  I agreed to do this and spent the next year and a half serving that parish each Sunday and getting to know a parish full of excellent people.  The time came when I finally decided that retirement from this work was the thing for me to do, so for the fourth time, I retired.  I am probably still not done.  There is a shortage of clergy in this diocese and I am sure that there will be times that I will be asked to take a Sunday or two somewhere.  I will be happy to do that, and I will continue to write my blog every week.

Retirement is something that many people look forward to; they sometimes go to Florida or someplace else with a warm climate and they relax, do some of the things that they never had time for while they were working.  Pensions and Social Security help them pay the bills.  I tried this when we went to the West Virginia resort community.  We enjoyed it, but it still left a hole in my life, a hole that I needed to fill with the work that I had been doing.  Retiring is also something that has emerged in this generation as a stage of life that we can aspire to.  I think that if that is so, we need to discover some things that we can do that benefit those around us in our time to ourselves. 

When I look at the biblical people who speak to us in the lessons that we hear each week in church, retirement doesn’t seem to be a condition that many of them take up.  I think of Isaiah, who offered his prophecy to the people of Israel as a statement of life. His intention was to warn and to comfort his people as they lived lives that sometimes included a lot of misery. I have always loved the words that begin the second part of the book of the prophet Isaiah, the words that also make up one of the most moving arias in the Messiah.  Isaiah is getting us ready for the coming of God into the world.  He speaks to the people of Israel to give them comfort and hope:
                                      Comfort, O comfort my people,
                                                              says your God.
                                                          Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
                                                              and cry to her
                                                          that she has served her term,
                                                              that her penalty is paid,
                                                          that she has received from                                                                                                                   the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
        What beautiful words the prophet has for all of the people who are listening to him.
  These words come from a deep faith and a commitment to the work that Isaiah has been given
 to do.  His work offered promise and the blessing of God to all of the people and are the 
foundation of our season of Advent where we wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus into the 
world.

       I’m glad that I am still working and managing to avoid complete retirement.  I know that 
theLord still has work for me to do in this world and I am eager to do it.  I thank God for all of 
the things that I have been able to do and thepeople whom I have worked with.  This has been
 a blessing to me beyond any expectation. 
       


            

Monday, December 4, 2017

Listening and Learning

             
            I’ve always wondered about the argument about Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays as a greeting at this time of the year.  I know that Christians want to celebrate the birth of Jesus in this season, but it seems to me that Happy Holidays is really an inclusive term to offer good wishes to people who don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas.  It certainly isn’t an attempt to create a “war on Christmas” as some political people try to say. 

            If there was a war on Christians it was certainly waged during the days of the Inquisition, when proper belief was demanded and those who deviated were severely punished.  It was also waged when the Puritans came to America to avoid persecution in England and then began persecuting everyone when they got to this continent.  I’m not surprised by some of these “wars”, they come from the idea that somebody’s ideas are the only correct ones and that those who deviate from them just have to be wrong.  This has been the basis for discrimination since the world was founded. 

            The cure for this, it seems to me, is that we need to listen more and talk less.  When we listen, we learn.  That is increasingly important in a time when certainty seems to be in vogue and those who don’t agree with the prevailing ideas are told that they are wrong.  Certainty is very common in our politically charged world.  It has been made more so since our political parties have drawn away from each other in an attempt to gather power.  The keeping of gathered power seems to account for more and more outrageous claims of whatever they project “truth” to be.  There is less and less listening going on in the halls of power these days and an excess of talking.  Finding solutions requires people listening to each other to find compromises that really help people in their lives.  The final stage of not listening is an autocracy that simply dictates what will happen and fails to take into account the negative effects that their proposed actions will create. 

        In the Old Testament, Isaiah is talking about a time of crisis, when the people have gone on their own way and have become lost in this world.

                      Isaiah says:
                                               We have all become like one who is unclean,
                                                  and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
                                              We all fade like a leaf,
                                                  and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
                                              There is no one who calls on your name,
                                                  or attempts to take hold of you;
                                               For you have hidden your face from us,
                                                  and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity

             The prophet calls upon God to come down, to make the mountains quake and to make the world new again so that the people who have strayed can again be happy.  This is a great cry here at the beginning of the Advent season as we wait for the coming of Jesus again with our own hopes that our Lord will help us to make the world right again after all of our certainty has faded and our sins that have erupted because of it have overwhelmed us.  Isaiah’s cry to God can mirror our own yearning for justice and hope in this world where so much seems to have gone astray. 

            That, for me, is the power of this wonderful season leading up to Christmas.  Our desire is for God’s hope for humankind to be restored and for us all to live together in the harmony that our Lord wants for us all.  As we once again wait for the birth of our Lord Jesus at the great moment of Christmas, let us try to listen better to each other and to learn rather than dictate our certainty in this world.  God bless us as we work together on helping our God to renew our culture and our lives.




Monday, November 27, 2017

Finding Our True Religion

   
            We live in a time of great turmoil.  There are arguments going on all around us.  These are not only political arguments that separate us, even our religious organizations are having trouble staying together.  This is a time when churches are losing members, small churches are foundering and some of them are closing.  There is an obvious struggle in many churches to stay viable.  I’ve been almost astounded to watch the Roman Catholic church merging parishes and closing others.  This has created agony among many people of faith who have looked to their churches as places of community where they knew their neighbors and found their friends. 

            It is necessary that we get all of this sorted out.  To help people of faith gather together in places where they can feel secure and practice their faith with some certainty that the institution in which they worship and know their neighbors will continue to flourish and be able to support them in their work and the ministry that they are anxious to continue to work.

            After Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles founded small churches in their homes.  These congregations were composed of 40-50 people all of whom wanted to celebrate the new life that had been given to them by their Lord.  These were joyful communities who did a lot of good in the world around them.  Care for the poor and the outcast was primary in the life of these newly created Christians.  This was probably the primary command of Jesus during his ministry: to love one another as we have been loved by our God and to take care of the need that we find around us with all of our resources.  I can’t imagine a better cure for the turmoil that I see in our society than this: to keep our eyes open for those in need and to do what we can to make them comfortable.  This is the mission that our God has set before us. 

            Look at Jesus ministry.  He constantly went out of his way to cure, to lift up and to help those who were in terrible need.  He even learned to go outside the bounds of belief to do this.  I think of the woman that he met on the road to Tyre and Sidon who had a sick daughter who asked him for a cure.  He told her that it wasn’t right to give the food on the table to the dogs.  She answered him by saying that the dogs eat the crumbs that fall to the ground.  Jesus immediately knew what he had to do and told her that her belief was remarkable and that her daughter was immediately healed.  Jesus was here for all of us.  His love and concern for our welfare extended to the whole world.  We are the inheritors of this mission.  What is necessary for all of us is to look around us to find those who are in need and to care for them.  When we do that, we follow our Lord’s instructions and create the kind of world that God intended from the beginning.

            It isn’t easy to do this.  We have to keep our faith and our religious life intact and to continue to follow our Lord’s teaching, wherever it leads.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that they enter into his Kingdom when they fed him when he was hungry, gave him water when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, gave him clothing when he was naked and visited him when he was in prison.  They asked him when they had done any of these things and he told them the wonderful truth: When you did this for the least of those who are members of my family, you did it for me.  As we know, the members of his family are all of the people on this earth.  When we care for each other, we care for our Lord.  I can’t imagine a more perfect religion.