Archive for the ‘Epistles’ Category

Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

August 7, 2016

“Faith,” said Mark Twain, “is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  He’s mixing up belief and faith to make us laugh; but I wonder if he realized how important it is not to confuse the two.  The writer to the Hebrews does not make that mistake: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is conviction, not belief.

This morning I’d like us to think about the difference between faith and belief.  Sometimes they mean the same thing, but often they don’t.

Let me give you a sad example of what can happen when faith and belief are taken to be the same.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by teachings and creeds; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also that the church stands as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the church, because they think it is all about beliefs, which they, “know ain’t so.”

This is an example of how wrong beliefs can keep many bright young people away, which harms the church.  Now I’ll give you an example of how wrong beliefs can harm all of us.  Often these wrong beliefs were instilled in childhood.  For instance, in my family, my parents came of age when the great depression hit.  By the time I was born, in 1938, they had taken on the belief that poverty was always just around the corner.  We never lacked for anything; nevertheless I grew up believing that we were about to become poor and as a consequence, my family never spent money easily or joyfully.

Others may grow up believing that the natural human state is to be ill.  No matter how healthy they are, they fear that, unless they are taking some medication, a sickness will overcome them.  You can add to the list.  It may be that a person believes themself to be unlikeable, and goes through life fearing rejection.  Or I might believe that I am unlucky, and go through my days fearing loss or failure.  It’s common to believe the world is basically dangerous.  Wrong beliefs are legion.

These examples show how wrong beliefs can keep us from engaging with life.  They engender mistrust or fear.  So we shrink back from exploring what the world has to offer in all of its fullness and beauty.

The antidote to wrong belief is faith.  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but we can distinguish between them.  You noticed the letter to the Hebrews did not link faith to belief, but to “things hoped for.”  Faith is not hope about things in this world, but about things spiritual.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us like a sponge in water.  That at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

How does all of this relate to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel?  It relates directly.  Speaking of that eternal reality — the “kingdom” — he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  “Do not be afraid.”  Our take-away from this reading is that faith will free us from fear.

Jesus drives this point home with his next words.  “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Clearly he is not speaking literally.  If we sold our possessions it would not free us from fear; just the opposite.

Metaphors speak with more force than explanations.  Jesus is pressing us to ask, “Am I clinging to my possessions for my security?  Do I fear losing them?  Does my identity depend on them?”  Jesus says, “sell.”  He means: make a mental shift — from belief that my life depends on what I possess, to faith that, as the letter to the Colossians says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Sell means shift from fear and distrust to assurance and conviction, from threats to hope.

Faith is not like a room: either you are in it or you are not.  Faith is a journey.  We progress toward faith, toward when we can ‘sell’ our possessions and give alms.  Gradually and increasingly we inhabit Jesus’ kingdom, even as we continue to walk in this world.  Progressively we live — less and less by beliefs, and more and more by faith.  Bit by bit our treasure builds up in heaven, side by side with our hearts.  And the farther we progress the more we leave fear behind.  Let’s close with this from today’s reading, it’s both a true belief and a true faith: “God is not ashamed to be called [our] God; indeed he has prepared a city for [us].”

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Luke 9:28 – 36

May 3, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, Luke 9:28 – 36

THE TRANSFIGURATION

Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an object.  God can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.

 

Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.

Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

February 8, 2016

TRANSFIGURATION

Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an objectGod can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.

Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

 

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

August 31, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Collect of the Day Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

When I hear the story of Jesus’ hygiene critics, I think back to 1985. I was a new priest in the Diocese of California, serving as assistant rector to a stickler of a priest. The poor altar guild came in for his special attention. God forbid there should be a finger print on the chalice or a wrinkle in the altar cloth! One Sunday during worship he actually chastised a member of the altar guild from the pulpit. Why? He detected a faint lipstick stain on the purificator.

He had another characteristic. He had a few favorites in the congregation and the rest of the people he scarcely spoke to. What did it take to become a favorite? Wealth. He gave occasional dinner parties for those few, but the others would knock on the door of the rectory in vain.

Jesus was not saying in response to his challengers that washing hands, food, and cooking vessels was not important. It was; but those are externals, and God does not measure us by externals; God looks into our hearts. In other words, I could scrub my hands and food and vessels, and as I did so I could be planning a bank robbery; I could be working out the lie I would tell my spouse in order to see my lover. Religion would be very easy if washing is what religion consisted of. Jesus was simply saying that true religion (as the Collect puts it) is about inner scrubbing.

There is more to be said about what is inner. Let’s turn now to Jesus’ difficult words at the end of the reading. He speaks of what defiles us and lists “evil intentions”. It’s a daunting list, and I doubt any of us can say: none of that applies to me.

Here is one of our biggest challenges. On the one hand we know that what the Gospel calls “evil intentions” lie within us. On the other hand, as the reading from the Song of Solomon tells us, God calls us “my love, my fair one.” Hasn’t God noticed those evil intentions? Is it possible that God only sees what is external after all?

Some years ago I was on a one-week silent retreat. Not only was there to be no speaking, we were to keep our eyes lowered at all times — no eye contact, no awareness even of who we were passing. The silence and forced inactivity made it impossible to ignore what was going on in my mind. I heard such thoughts as this. How rude she is! How self-important he acts! How pushy. Look how much food he’s taking! I discovered a zoo full of ugly, judgmental thoughts! Is God calling that “my love, my fair one”?

How do we get past the contradiction? Are we God’s love, God’s fair one? Or are we full of “the rank growth of wickedness” as the letter of James says? It depends on who we mean by “I”. Yes, my mind was full of ugly, judgmental thoughts; but there was also the one who was noticing those thoughts and who was saddened by what she saw. That one who noticed, the witness, that is “I”.

I cannot disavow those ugly thoughts, but I do not need to define myself by them. “I” am not my “evil intentions,” though I do have them. “I” am the one who notices them and notices the pain they cause.

I also notice this: as long as I identify with “the rank growth of wickedness”, I am not free; my “evil intentions” hold me in thrall; I’ll be locked in mortal combat with them as long as I live.

Yet if I define myself as the one who notices, I am free. I can look at those thoughts, I can see what a source of unhappiness they are, and I can choose how to respond. I can choose self-contempt; or I can choose compassion; I can choose love; I can choose to see them as the products of ignorance, fear, self-doubt, and treat them as I would a toddler who is up to no good. In short, I can see myself as God does, as “my love, my fair one.”

Think of it this way. When God says, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away,” God is calling us to come away from identifying with the rank growth of wickedness. It’s as if God is saying, You are not the “rank growth of wickedness.” It is there, but it is not you. You are the one who notices. You are the one who is free to choose how to respond. You are the one onto whom I have “grafted” my love. You are the one who lives eternally in the kingdom of God.

Is this denial? Like Holocaust denial, all those “evil intentions” never happened? No. It is simply self-clarification. If I act out my evil intentions I will suffer the consequences. No denial there. If I hurt other people I will feel pain and grief. No denial there. Self-clarification puts me into the only possible position from which I can deal with those “evil intentions” and make a change. Let me put it this way: the only effective weed-killer for that “rank growth of wickedness” is compassionate understanding on the part of the one who notices.

This is what true religion is about. I invite you to accept God’s invitation to, “Arise, my love my fair one, and come away.” This is a valid, tender form of prayer, just to spend time being the one who notices. Notice the “evil intentions,” the “rank growth of wickedness.” Surround them with your compassion as you would someone struggling under a needless burden. This is inner scrubbing and Jesus would approve.

Ephesians 3:14-21

July 28, 2015

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the Epistle runs over me like a sluice of words.  I do sense the writer’s passion, and I jump to attention at the thought of being “filled with all the fullness of God.”  What I do not fathom is how to tie all those wonderful words to my actual life.  What would it feel like to be “filled with the fulness of God”?

Suppose we asked Jesus to interpret this Epistle reading.  I imagine he would say that the writer was describing what he, Jesus, called the kingdom of God.  Since that was Jesus’ main teaching, I’d like to explore what he meant by kingdom of God; and in the process it might give us an idea of what the Epistle writer meant by being “filled with the fulness of God.”

Here’s my approach to understanding the kingdom of God.  In 1985 Stuart and I were living in California, within a five mile radius of Stanford Hospital.  A family from Boston had been accepted into the Hospital’s heart-lung transplant program, provided they could find housing within a five mile radius of the hospital.  We volunteered.

Laura was in her 30’s and had had a weak heart from birth.  Now it was showing signs of giving out.  She and her mother and father came to live with us in the spring, and it was not until summer a year later that a heart-lung became available — donated by a young motorcycle rider.  Those were 14 heart-wringing months.  Laura’s finger nails became blue, and then more and more blue.  She came to the table for meals, but as the months went by she had to lie down and rest more and more frequently between bites.

The call came from the hospital just in time, as it seemed to me.  The day after the surgery I went to visit Laura.  She was still in bed, but her fingernails were pink, her eyes sparkled, and her voice was full of inflection.  I witnessed a nearly instant transformation.

Laura’s experience helps me understand Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God.  Judaism in Jesus’ day centered around the sacrificial system in the temple.  People brought an animal to the temple; a priest would slay it; and drain out all of the blood.  This draining was the crucial thing.  The people could take the carcass and they might make a feast with it; but the blood belonged to God.  The blood stood for life.  The blood was sacred.  I like to think that if you brought an animal to the priest you stood by as it was slaughtered with your hand on its head, signifying that this animal was standing in for you.  Symbolically, you were giving your life to God.

Laura’s experience helped me actually feel why Judaism attached such awe to blood.  Through it God gave life and God took away life.  Given all that I’ve just said, imagine the shock Jesus’ disciples felt at the last supper.  Jesus told them to drink blood — to imbibe what was sacred, what must not be touched.  He was giving them more than a tame metaphor.  When they drank that wine they would be taking into themselves Jesus’ own life.  Their hands and arms must have trembled and shook as they passed the cup, one to another.

Jesus knew — so to speak — that after he was gone the spiritual fingernails of his disciples would begin to turn blue.  It wouldn’t be enough for them to repeat what he had taught them; though that was essential too.  He needed them to have access to the same spiritual life that he had.  That is, they needed to have access to the kingdom of God.  You could say that his blood needed to flow in their veins.

In fact, during his whole ministry Jesus had seen people going about with blue fingernails, as it were.  He sees people in our day in that condition, too.  We take religion to be a matter of concepts, of right beliefs and of correct practices.  All of Jesus’ teaching aimed at a spiritual heart-lung transplant.  That is what he had in mind when he spoke about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God was not just another concept, like truth or justice or salvation.  The kingdom of God was an experience of the whole body, of being immersed in love.  St. Paul put it this way, “In [the kingdom of God] we live and move and have our being.”  Or as Jesus said to his disciples, “….[Y]ou will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

There is a level of reality — the kingdom of God — that is deeper than concepts and practices.  Jesus could not define or explain the kingdom of God in his teaching, because it is not a concept; it is an experience, like waking up from surgery pulsing with energy.

The kingdom of God takes us out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies.  It takes us out of our ideas and into a felt sense of our common life — a felt sense of the same blood flowing in you as flows in me.

Perhaps you are asking yourself this.  Why is what I am saying not just one more concept?  How does it become a living part of us?  How does the wine we receive at communion cease to be a nice ritual and become an actual transfusion — bringing forth pink fingernails, sparkling eyes, and a voice full of inflection?

Let’s go back to Laura.  Laura was dying; she had blood, but she needed more than blood.  She needed a heart and lungs to make it red.  What is the spiritual equivalent of that pair of organs?  Isn’t it prayer?

Prayer is not necessarily, or even primarily a matter of words.  Prayer is simple, grateful attention.  It can be practiced in the garden, at the easel, or in quiet repose with a loving, listening, divine presence.  Simple, grateful attention can be practiced in good health and in bad, in carefree times and times of worry.  Prayer, however we practice it, pumps the blood of Christ into every cell of our being, bringing love and eternal life.  Or as the writer to the Ephesians put it, through prayer ,“we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

November 12, 2012

These readings were on my mind when Hurricane Sandy hit.  Often people see in a devastating event, such as Sandy, a punishment for sin.  “Why, among all the houses in my neighborhood, did a tree crush my house?  Why was I singled out?”  And then… this may follow: “God must be punishing me.”  Since the reading from Hebrews invites us to think about sin, I want to address this issue of sin and punishment. (more…)

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

September 23, 2012

“The quest of the human heart for meaning is the heartbeat of every religion.” This insight comes from a spiritual leader of our own day, David Steindl-Rast.  “The quest of the human heart for meaning is the heartbeat of every religion.”

The reading from James invites us to pursue our quest for meaning; because once again he writes of works.  In the previous chapter he wrote, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”  The implication is: no it cannot. (more…)

Mark 6:1-13, II Corinthians 12:2-10

July 8, 2012

Does prayer have the power to heal?  I believe it does; but I have questions.  For instance, did Jesus heal every person, every condition, that came to him – I mean apart from this group of skeptics in his home town?  Did no one have Type I diabetes in his day?  Or pancreatic cancer?  Or clinical depression?  In his home town, where everyone thought they knew him, he could not overcome the power of their negative expectations.  In every other case, however, the Gospels report uniform success.  Are we meant to take that at face value?  Uniform success?  This sermon addresses that question. (more…)

Mark 4:26-34, June 17, 2012

June 18, 2012

“Jesus did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”  We are his disciples.  What do you suppose Jesus would have explained to us in private?

His topic was the kingdom of heaven.  Few people hearing these two parables would conclude that the kingdom of heaven is a seed and we should search for it in the soil.  Some might hear the parables and rightly conclude that the kingdom of heaven is a process.  But where does this process take place?  In the sky?  In a place we go to when we die?  Until this question is answered, it doesn’t really help us to know that the kingdom of heaven is a process.  (more…)

Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

July 8, 2011

The Fourth of July celebrates ambiguity. On the one hand we thrill to the beauty of fireworks; yet on the other hand they stand for bombs bursting in air, and all the suffering they cause. What is it then? A day of celebration or a day of mourning? Can it be both?

Many people, including Christians reason as follows. You cannot stop violence by practicing violence. Slaughtering people is not the way to peace. War never solves problems; it only leads to further crises down the road. And today’s readings support this point of view. (more…)