Archive for May, 2009

Pentecost 2009 Acts 2:1-11

May 31, 2009

Acts 2:1-11

If you have been looking for a good Pentecost movie lately, you might consider “The Soloist.”  Both stories – “The Soloist” and Pentecost –  speak to desperate times and point to a way through.  This Way does call for courage; yet those who step out on it will find a surprising spring in their steps, as if they already touched the goal. (more…)

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John 17:6-19

May 24, 2009

Some of you may be saying to yourselves: what was that about?  I confess that I found this Gospel reading a bit theoretical at first.  It becomes clearer if we put it in its overall context.  It becomes clearer still by means of an image.  With the help of context and image, I hope this prayer – for this reading spells out Jesus’ prayer for us –  I hope this prayer will inspire us to new and greater life. (more…)

John 15:9-17

May 17, 2009

During World War II, under threat of a German invasion, people in the English countryside proposed to sow confusion among the invaders by mixing up their road signs.  They were wrong about the invasion, thank God, but they were right about a need for clear directions.  Their tactic springs to mind when I ask myself, “What mission did Jesus pass on to us?  Signs point in seemingly opposite directions.  We might easily be confused.  According to today’s readings, the mission is all about love.  Yet at other times Jesus proclaimed that it was about repenting.  “Repent and believe in the good news,” he says in the first chapter of Mark.  In Luke’s Gospel, just before Jesus ascended into heaven he charged his disciples with similar words, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations.”  So which is it?  “Love one another as I have loved you,” or “Repent and believe in the good news”?  (more…)

Mother’s Day John 15:1-8

May 10, 2009

Orthodox churches value icons to an extent that may be hard for us to understand.  Icons take dull theology and convert it to living color.  By means of icons, Orthodox churches turn stories from the Bible into symbols of shimmering beauty.  Icons bring to the surface in us emotions we may not be able to touch otherwise, emotions that might transform our faith.  For example, most of us can call to mind an icon of the Madonna and child.  Typically, the Madonna’s head appears in the shape of a dome, often nearly filling the whole space.  In her arms she holds the tiny infant.  Some icons show the infant the size of her heart.  What do we make of such art?

Let’s turn to John’s Gospel.  John’s Gospel pays homage to Jesus’ mother in a way that none of the other Gospels do.  You remember the scene on Calvary.  John describes it this way, “…  standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’  Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”  Then Jesus said, “It is finished.”  In other words, the last loose end has now been woven in.

Many scholars of the Bible read this symbolically.  Jesus, according to this reading, finishes his earthly ministry by making provision for the future, for continuity.  The mother symbolizes the church.  The beloved disciple symbolizes all of us down through the ages who have elected to follow Jesus.  The church will be to each of us as Mary was to Jesus – nurturing, protecting, training, loving, forgiving, sustaining….  The Orthodox iconographers capture this truth by making the shape of the Madonna’s head resemble the dome of a church.  At the same time they shrank the size of the infant to represent our dependence and vulnerability.

If we gaze at these icons as the Orthodox traditions intend us to do, we gaze, not at them as objects, but through them, as if they were windows into heaven, into spiritual truth.  Their beauty, simply in itself, gives rise to a power that draws us in and holds us.  Then, too, the figures in the composition arouse our feelings.  For instance, the sheltering Madonna quickens a sense of infinite tenderness; so that gazing through it, so to speak, we actually feel that quality of tenderness in God’s love, as mediated through the church.  Her knowing eyes nearly always open into depths of sorrow and love, as if to say, “I know you suffer and have caused great suffering; I suffer with you, for my love is with you always.”

Whether Jesus actually intended to speak in this symbolic way or not, it does carry truth.  The church, like an actual building, carries on generation after generation.  Through liturgy, prayers, fellowship, sacraments, hymns, art and architecture, healing, preaching, doctrines and disciplines, the communion of saints – in countless ways the church, like a mother, guides and strengthens, protects and challenges our faith.  Literally, our faith could not live without her.  So this picture of mother church comforts us, as it should; yet motherhood can have another side.

Mothers can also smother.  They can keep their children dependent by holding back their natural growth to independence.  Through fear, threats, or other strategies of control, mothers may prevent a child from striking out on its own.  Mothers, who can be so averse to risk, may resist when a child is ready to begin her or his life journey.  We have seen this in the church, too.  Rather than aiding us in opening up to life, some churches would keep us forever in the bud stage, ever obedient, ever rule bound – little clones, ever in dread of erring.  What is to prevent this?

We need to remember that little-noted ending to the scene on Calvary.  The Gospel adds: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”  So the Madonna would be caring for the disciple as Mary had cared for Jesus; and the disciple would be caring for Mary as Jesus had cared for his mother… but note this: under the disciple’s roof ! The disciple is not to be dependent, not to be infantilized.  There is to be a relationship of mutual caring, yes; but on the disciple’s terms.  This is meant to prevent mother church from forsaking her true self.

Most of us can call to mind instances of abuse, where mother church ceases to be authoritative and instead becomes authoritarian.  It can happen in any generation.  She all but looses sight of our needful claims on her; but presses her claims on us to the full – financial demands, for instance, or political ones.  It’s as if the Gospel foresaw this possibility and cautioned us against becoming the victim of our own mother church.  And so it added these all-important and empowering words, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”

On what basis would the Gospel do this – put the trump card, so to speak, in the disciple’s hands – in our hands?  Where is the wisdom in that?  Think of today’s image of the vine and the branches.  Jesus speaks of us as branches, that is, as individuals, not as a collective.  We do unite with one another, but not like a gelatinous mass of frogs’ eggs, but through a stem, distinctive to each of us, that links us to the flow of Christ’s life.  Call it the flow of the Holy Spirit.  This is not all, though; this is only passive.  Then comes the active process, the pruning.  It’s as if God’s hands run over the vine, day in day out, shaping it for health and vitality.  The whole vine becomes healthy and vital, but only through the shaping of the individual branches.

In actual practice this means that collectives, including mother church, depend on their members in order to learn, to develop a conscience, to evolve a mission.  Mother church will thrive and create new growth only to the extent that we do; and we can only thrive and create new growth to the extent that we stay connected to the Spirit of Christ.  That is why it was so important for the Gospel to specify that the disciple took the mother to his house, and not the reverse.  You can feel the mutual dependence here: the disciple caring for the mother and the mother caring for the disciple.  Only one thing keeps the system from becoming static or stagnant.  The Holy Spirit.  New energy enters the system through the disciples, creative energy seeking ever new forms of life.

To bring all this down to earth, let us ask a practical question.  How are God’s hands running over me this morning?  What shaping is taking place in me?  What pruning?  How are God’s hands running over you?  What pruning, what shaping are you experiencing?  We are connected to the same vine, yet each of us shapes up differently, uniquely.  Ultimately, taken all together, our forms will add to the form and character of mother church.

Specifically, today, the Holy Spirit asks us to make a decision about the Carpenter’s Kids – children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika.  Each of us, as today’s Gospel puts it, is connected to the vine.  As individuals, how shall we respond?  Renew our commitments?  Add a bit for socks and soap?  Adopt an orphan if we have not done so before?  Add one more child?  Those decisions, made one by one, in the aggregate will add to the form and character of mother church here at St. Gregory’s.

In my experience we enjoy a healthy, happy mother church we can look to with pride, and trust with our confidence.  She stands here in Woodstock, not only outwardly beautiful, but possessed of even greater inward beauty.  She cares for us in those many ways that Jesus intended, and why?  Because we care for her.  And by caring for her we enable her to be gracious and compassionate, even to children she has never seen.  If icons were a part of our spirituality, serving as windows into heaven, a picture of St. Gregory’s would make a beautiful alternative to the traditional Madonna.

John 10:11-18, Acts 4:5-12

May 4, 2009

What two words have we heard most often in the media this week? Swine flu. Could the media be creating hysteria, or have we something really to fear? Though we cannot tell yet how serious this flu may turn out to be, we can prepare. Medical advice tells us that early attention to flu-like symptoms can make a difference. What about spiritual preparation? What would that look like? How might it help? (more…)