By Howard Thurman
It was a time of discord, dissention, fracture and violence. Politics were brutal. Governing the land meant deals with the powerful; incompetent appointments of the well connected; and threats against the most vulnerable. Loyalty to an ideology meant more than seeking the common good. And at the center was one man.
Sounds recognizable doesn’t it? Yes, that was the Roman Empire just before and during the time of Jesus. Israel was under Roman control. Land taken from the people had been given to the powerful interests of the day. The Emperor ruled, appointed, directed and set the tone for the Empire.
The masses of people were steadily sinking deeper into poverty and the elites were getting more and more wealth. The populace was restless, discouraged, and sought someone who could save them. They looked for a Messiah – whom they wanted to be a political leader who could overturn the power of Rome.
It was into this context that angels appeared to shepherds out at work in a field. Now shepherds were not bad people… but it was a hard and nomadic job, one that did not allow much time off. It did not pay well and most people did not want to do it. It might be vaguely equivalent to migrant farm workers in our present day. Shepherds were marginalized, exploited, vilified, and yet were necessary to the economy.
So here is the first scandal of the Gospel story. God sends messengers to THOSE people… those shepherds, to announce good news. Not to the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem, or the local chapter of the Pharisees, nor the Levites – the priests. So WHY them? They were not good faithful Jews. They did not follow the dietary laws, and observe the Sabbath, holy days or the fine details of the torah and the Biblical laws. They were not considered totally respectable… Yet the messengers of God come to them!
If we read through the scriptures it becomes obvious to most of us that God has special regard for the marginalized, the poor, the refugee in the land, the widowed, the orphan, the disabled, the despised… Again and again we hear God’s prophets from centuries BC to the present telling God’s people to care for the poor, the orphan, aliens and widow.
These messengers of God appear and tells the shepherds ”I bring glad tidings of a great joy for all the people; to you is born this day…a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This special delivery message – a message of joy… is stated “to you…a Savior, the messiah was born.” Born for these shepherds… “and for all people…” Obviously God simply does not recognize the boundaries we humans put on our religion and our religious institutions.
God does things God’s way not ours. God does not operate a patronage system, doling out favors to those who have paid their tithes and followed the institutional rules. This joyous news of the angels is for all people – delivered to the shepherds who best symbolized the marginalized who needed good news then and now.
In every age and time there are many who need Good News; as well as those who need to be reminded that it is not our agenda or ideology that will lead us to the world as it was meant to be – for our world and society to be as they were created to be we must subscribe to God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s creation.
The birth of a baby is usually an occasion of joy. A new life is celebrated. The announcement of the birth in Bethlehem is called by the theological term Incarnation – meaning putting on flesh…
This announcement to shepherds allowed them to see this promised Good News embodied in this child. What allowed them to believe it because they could see it. Good News needs to be somehow embodied for most people to believe it is real.
The promise of the angels, the promise of Christmas – the promise of Jesus’ teachings, the cross and resurrection is a promise of Emmanuel – God With Us in whatever we are facing. A recent movie has one character saying “Everything works out well in the end. If it has not worked out well then it is not the end.” That is very much like the promise we have as those who follow Jesus.
The shepherds went to Bethlehem and saw what had been promised – the birth of Jesus. Yet on that night the promise did not come to its fulfillment. By the time of his death, Jesus has gathered a community of people, and started a movement. It consisted of people who pledged to continue to work towards Jesus’ shared vision of God’s intention for humanity and for creation. We gather tonight as part of the Episcopal branch of that Jesus Movement – deeply craving that Jesus vision might become a reality.
We who need good news have heard the proclamation of angels.
Will we, like the shepherds, go in heart and mind to Bethlehem to be reminded and inspired?
Will we renew our commitment to be the people of God and followers of the who we call the Prince of Peace.
Will we choose to embody and personally live out the Good News so we become the sign for others that the message of hope and compassion is real?
Will live in a way that resists the culture of empire and oppression of others?
Will we work and pray for the end of militarism, so that as Isaiah wrote “the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments soaked in blood may finally become fuel for the fire” as we live God’s new creation into being?
And the angel said – Do not be afraid;
For see – I am bringing you good news of a great joy
For all the people
to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior,
who is the messiah, the Lord…
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, good will
to all God’s creatures and creation.
Don & Nancy
Sunday (Nov. 20) is the last Sunday of the church year. Unlike the societal calendar the church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent which in 2016 is Sunday November 27. We end the current church year with the focus on the completing of Jesus’ work among us. We see the work begun in Jesus throughout the New Testament and continued (often in fits and starts) by God’s people across the centuries since. There has been progress made but we are also painfully aware of the great gaps between what Jesus taught and what humanity has been able to accomplish in making it “on earth as it is in heaven…”
In the Anglican world this Sunday is often known as Christ the King – using the metaphor of Jesus as the king indicating that God’s will would be done on earth… Yet Nancy and I much prefer the Lutheran name – Sunday of the Fulfillment – the Sunday on which we look forward to the time when all will be as God created it to be.
The difference is significant. With Christ the King we seem to be handing the work back to Jesus saying “Here YOU do it!” The Sunday of the Fulfillment seems more like the Gospel in that Jesus’ followers are to finish the work that Jesus began.
The world has been rocked by the recent election. Our children as young adults give us a window into the shock and horror many of them feel at the results. The unexpected support for actions, policies and attitudes that seem so very much at odds with the Gospel we proclaim, has left many wondering. And one of the wonderments that has been voiced is “what do we do now?”
On this Sunday of the Fulfillment we are given an answer. If we want the world to be like God created it be, we need to get back to work. Our work is to proclaim and live out the Gospel values we find in Jesus life, ministry and teaching. If we want care for the vulnerable we need to find ways to care for and/or help support the very people scripture tells us are close to God’s heart: The sick, the poor, the marginalized, the widowed and orphans, and the alien in the land
We have been given the message – “Get back to work. It is not over and our work in the world is not done.” As individuals and as a community of faith our work continues. We can see clearly how important our work is if we take seriously what we pray in the prayer Jesus taught – that God’s will be followed by God’s values being lived out as our reality on earth.
This then leads to a question of discernment. Led by Jesus teachings, as we understand them, we might ask, “Of all the things that could be done, what task or piece of a task of care for God’s creatures and God’s creation, are we as individuals – and we as a parish uniquely – able or called to work on? What can we do to make this small corner of creation more as God created it to be? How can each of us – you and I, and our faith communities – be agents of change for God’s stated agenda – “on earth as it is heaven”?
We sat watching the presidential debate on a recent Sunday evening with our youngest son & his girlfriend. It was a strange experience even though good questions were asked by capable journalists and concerned citizens. The strangeness for me was the number of times the content of the question was ignored and answers not given… But these moderators kept emphasizing and asking questions again and again. Eventually some answers eventually came forth… and less frequently small bits of clarity were gained. Their persistence paid off over the long run of that arduous process over the hour and a half.
In looking at the lectionary readings for October 16th I could not help but be reminded of the debate, and of political campaigns at all levels. Especially when we read the portion of the second letter to Timothy where Paul writes about people “with itching ears” looking to find people who” will turn them away from listening to the truth and help them wander into fantasy”. That sounds like the current political climate where for many candidates and their supporters opinions and innuendo replace facts. It is evidenced in so much so fact checking now being an important element in the political commentary. Facts, and especially scientific facts, don’t seem to matter as much. It is as if one doesn’t have to be bothered by facts, especially if one doesn’t happen to like the facts. Ignore the facts or deny them and one does not have to face questions one doesn’t like.
We keep hearing from people who are discouraged about the political process. They talk about their fears, their disappointments, and some even predict the destruction of parties, and a few fear for the nation. More than one person has threatened to go into exile if the person they support is not elected. And the thought has occurred more than once to us as well.
The reading from Jeremiah this week was written in a time there has been fear, destruction and exile. A time in which the people of God felt forsaken – even though God was with them. But rather than allow them to marinate in their misery the prophet Jeremiah shares a word of the Lord with these same people. It is time, he declares, to build and to plant. It is time for action, a time for renewal of life and rebuilding. God has made a new covenant with us all which is not written on tablets, or parchment. It is a covenant written within us, written on the hearts. A covenant with God’s people based in the life and on the values of God. And for we who follow Jesus this is especially revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Reading the Gospel of Luke I again recalled the debate. Luke writes of Jesus telling about a judge who “neither feared God, nor had respect for the people”. This is another way of describing a person whose center is totally self. Someone who is entrapped in needing affirmation and whose ego pushes aside all other concerns. This judge is approached by a widow. In that culture a widow was one without wealth, power or influence. She demands justice but does not get it. Usually a person without wealth and power would just accept their fate from such an unjust judge. But this woman keeps demanding justice… again and again and again. After a while the judge grants justice simply so as not to be bothered.
Jesus uses this image, which was probably a familiar example of how the poor of his day and many of the poor and marginalized today experience the judicial system.
Here Jesus is saying if this judge who neither feared God nor respected people can provide relief will not a God who advocates for the poor listen, support and help those who ask?
But for me there is a further message. This widow gives us an example of Continual Prayer. Prayer that is focused and persistent.
Jesus, through the character of the widow, gives us a model of continual prayer. Continual prayer starts, stops, and starts again. It is the practice of returning to God day after day in prayer. Prayer that persists… Prayer that is not limited to words, nor does it bear the expectation that God will fix things.
So what changes when we pray? If we pray for the poor, for the sick, for those in need…do we expect that our words are like an order to a celestial Sears and Roebuck? We put in the order and eventually it gets delivered? That is not a good image of prayer. What changes the most in prayer is the one who is praying!
When any of us lift up the hungry in prayer, for example, it should make me aware of what I am or am not doing to help, or my prayer may show me what I could do. It may give me insight into how we might approach the causes of hunger and poverty in our town, our country and the world.
The widow shows us Continual Prayer is action that comes out of what we know that God values. One aspect of that action is continuing to be in conversation and reflection with God about the issues or concerns. The second aspect is discerning what we need to be doing to see changes that represent the scriptural values of radical hospitality, radical acceptance, forgiveness and boundless love for all God’s people – and most especially for the marginalized, the poor and the powerless.( Specifically in scriptural language: the widow, the alien in our land, the poor, the dispossessed and others who are different from us.)
Prayer is not just words to make us feel good or feel that we have done something… One of our favorite slogans about prayer is on the tee shirts worn by Exit 0 volunteers. “Don’t talk about it – BE about it.” That is continual and persistent prayer.
Driving to church on Sunday a breaking news story was of men arrested for plotting the bombing of a Muslin Somali Community on the day after the election, in the heartland of America. A planned attack on immigrants who moved to America get away from violence in their homeland is deeply disturbing and of itself invalidates the idea of Muslims as the source and threat of extremist views and tactics. Here we have our neighbors, (using Jesus definition of neighbor) who are being threatened by fellow citizens. What do we prayerfully plan to do about that?
In this election season, in any and every season, remember the new covenant written on our hearts. Do not succumb to discouragement and give up – do not give in to exile; or hopelessness. There ARE things we can do to create the justice we seek for ALL God people. But the widow did not get it on her first approach. And we must continue to caringly demand these things first of ourselves, and then of our courts, our political leaders, our police, our government and our citizens – for only then shall we see God’s will “done, on earth as in heaven.
Nancy & Don
The opening of the letter from Paul to his young protégé Timothy is instructive. Paul leaves no doubt in Timothy’s mind that Paul has a high regard & affection for him. This can be a reminder that each of us and all of us needs to receive affirmation – especially within this body of faith we call the church. Far too often we neglect to affirm the work and ministry of others and primarily speak to share concerns & criticism.
Paul too had his concerns and he reminds Timothy to reach for the resources of God’s grace that is already within him, though not of his creation or of his own doing. That grace is a gift from God. Paul speaks to his timidity (and to ours) when he next says God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power, of love and self discipline. We contemporary Christians seem to be timid in seizing the gifts we have been given in order to make a difference in the world and community around us. We are also quite timid in sharing our story of faith with others. Paul speaks through the centuries to remind us that we have been imbued with power to make a difference in the live of others. To do that we need to be disciplined in our use of that power in order to make certain we use it as intended for the common good.
Paul also speaks of the treasure we have been given thru the Christian faith. We have to recognize and to correctly utilize this treasure that has been entrusted to us. In truth Paul knows we cannot hope to do this all by ourselves – we need to rely on the Holy Spirit and receive support from the faith community.
In the Gospel of Luke someone has asked Jesus to increase the size/amount of their faith. The implication of this question is that size matters. If you have 8oz of faith you can only do a fraction of what you can do if you had the quart or gallon size faith. JESUS PUTS THAT NOTION TO REST.
My temptation in answering may well have been to suggest a few books to read, perhaps some spiritual practices to engage in or allocating time for meditation, prayer or scripture reading. These are not bad suggestions but advocating them in response to this particular request is buying into the stereotype that our goal as a Christian is to do faith body-building exercises to get our faith into shape for some sort of measurable faith competition. According to Jesus our primary goals are a right relationship with God, and to reach out to others – sharing the faith and the gifts we have right now.
Jesus sounds exasperated by this question. He responds – If you only have a small dot of faith you can do great things.
Part of our confusion is that we think of faith as belief. An intellectual assent to the tenets of belief. Perhaps even of being able to pass a theological quiz or religious test of some sort. Faith as Jesus presents it was trust and confidence in God and God’s promises. So Jesus is saying if we have even a minuscule amount of trust and confidence in God and the promises of God, we will be able to do great & wonderful things for other people. This is because we are not depending on ourselves, but trusting and depending on the power of God to work through us. If we have a small bit of trust that God can and will work through us we will be amazed at what can happen.
In the 1980’s I was in a parish in Buffalo. The parish had discerned the need for housing for disabled elders. There was a Federal Program – HUD 202 Housing. A competitive application process requiring the approval and support of the Senator. Our senior Senator was D’Amato – republican senator. Ours was a Democratic district of Buffalo. We prepared an over 200 page application each year for 4 years. Those in the know KNEW we would never get the funding. We only knew it was a needed facility and being too ignorant to give up, we kept at it – and we got the funding. We later found out it was through the request of a member of the Senator’s local staff who was impressed by our yearly efforts and who wanted to get this done… and the facility has celebrated more than 25 years of providing safe & affordable housing for the disabled.
We trusted in the leadings of a power beyond ourselves, If we had trusted in the local political pundits we would have never attempted it, or would have quit after 1 or 2 applications. If we had relied on our power to persuade a senator of the opposite political party as the district – those apartments still would not have been built.
When we put our trust in God’s leading and trustingly try to tap into the resources God gives us – we do things greater than we can imagine. When we encourage one another as members of the body of Christ and work together to make our communities more as God would have them to be important things begin to happen.
St. Paul’s is a smaller congregation. Since 2011 St Paul’s has been focused on doing what we can, for as many as we are able. The results may be seen in our continuing support of the CLM Food Pantry, Haven House and Exit 0. It is seen in the development of CLARK COUNTY CARES as a grassroots organization working to support those in recovery and those dealing with addiction. Through our members and clergy we provide leadership for Clark County CARES, CLM, and Haven House. Our benefit concerts support the work of essential community service organizations. As a small congregation, through our partnerships, we help get a lot done. More than we could have imagined 5 years ago.
Like Timothy, we may, at times get discouraged and need to encourage one another to persevere; and to value and share treasure we have been given.
We need to nurture our faith – our trust in God. To trust that the Holy Spirit is with us and will enable us to do even more things that God would have us do in this part of God’s world where we are called to be Christ’s hands and voice and heart serving God’s people.
Note also that we should not be overly prideful in doing what the Gospel commends and commands – since that is what God asks of us to do in response for the gift of love, and life, of grace and forgiveness. And in gratitude for the indwelling of the Spirit that upholds and guides us into newness of life.
It’s been a challenging week. To be honest, I’ve lost track of how many inappropriate instances of police brutality and other violence have happened in this country; I’ve not been too successful at stepping away from the day to day media circus that our presidential election has become; I’m getting tired of telling individuals that St Paul’s food pantry closed six years ago (there are several calls each week) – personally I’d rather have churches as a place for spiritual development and not expected social relief agencies; and I’m spending too much energy worrying about where I need to put my energy (I heard the statement the other day that “all churches should get involved with providing addiction recovery services” – that pastor’s hobby horse, which is not what I am called to do). On top of these, I had agreed to preach this Sunday and when I read the Gospel on Monday, I came close to telling Don I was going to run away!
It was mid-week when I realized that at the center of my problem was me, literally and figuratively – and that the lessons had four critical pieces of wisdom for me.
The first piece of wisdom comes from Jeremiah. His act of buying a piece of property is an extreme act of hope. The Babylonian army, the strongest one in that part of the world at that time, is literally at the gates of Jerusalem. And Jeremiah dares to trust the word of the Lord, and purchases a piece of land. It would be like telling a person in Syria to go ahead and spend their life savings on a piece of property – assuming that they will be able to return and that the future government would honor the deed. In a world where so much is uncontrollable, and chaotic, and separated from what God desires, such hope is a precious gift.
The second voice of wisdom comes from the Psalm. Psalms are amazing; these ancient poems capture the entire range of human emotion as well as the range of human relationship with God. At the beginning of the week I was in a raise-the-fist-and-shake-it-at-God kind of relationship, but this psalm asked me to move elsewhere. The imagery is beautiful, inviting me to “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” which is imaged like a bird covering me with its wings in a way that embraces us. God only requires that we acknowledge God’s Presence.
The third thread of wisdom comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Paul is talking about paying attention to our choices so that our values are aligned with God. He notes that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that the better choice is to shun the paths that take us away from God. The real treasure is a good foundation: godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. I am reminded of one author’s discussion of how to know that one’s spiritual exercises are bearing fruit: deepen your compassion; increase your patience, lessen your judgments, find your purpose in life and share it with the world. It is with this kind of growth in mind that I can “take hold of the life that really is life.”
The fourth expression of wisdom comes from the Gospel. Before getting directly to the point, I’d like to explore some details in this story.
•The rich man is very rich indeed. Only the top 1% had clothing dyed purple and fine linen( which required the harvesting of young plants) and daily sumptuous feasting. A person like this would, by culture and religion, be expected to give the leftovers to the poor. But, he did not.
• The poor man, Lazarus, is in dire straits. Importantly, he is not depicted as begging.
• There is a reversal of fortune after they die: the poor man is with Abraham (which is like saying the unwanted refugees who drowned are in heaven with Jesus); the rich man is in Hades, an unpleasant situation to say the least.
• Yet even here, in Hades, the rich man still doesn’t get it – he tries to bargain with, Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that he might have some water. He’s still not speaking to Lazarus. He doesn’t recognize, let alone acknowledge, his failure to treat Lazarus as a person such as by sharing leftovers from the table. So, of course he doesn’t repent or say “woe is me.” He does want to spare his brothers from the same fate – yet is reminded that the voices of Moses and the prophets were familiar and, just as he had heard these voices, they still could be heard by his brothers.
This is a hard story to hear. We may not think of ourselves as rich – as there are those in our culture who are far more wealthy – yet we are far more wealthy than most of the world’s population. The rich man’s failure was that he didn’t live responsibly – he didn’t live as expected. That the parable is told by a rabbi indicates that he didn’t live into or practice the values inherent in his faith. Even in death, even in hell, he was still trying to throw his weight around, the kind of weight that comes from having great wealth and privilege.
In these readings I heard four pieces of wisdom:
1) be hope-filled,
2) take shelter beneath God’s wings,
3) value and build a good foundation for the future, and
4) live responsibly.
Live into the gospel values of generosity, compassion, acceptance, and cooperation.
I needed to see the bigger picture – one painted with a hopeful brush, one where I can place myself beneath God’s wings, one where I spend time contemplating the kind of foundation my faith values, one that is done with integrity. In so doing I regained my focus and balance.
How we live our lives matters not only to us now, but to our neighbors and to God both now and into the future. Life is not essentially about getting into heaven – it’s about living responsibly in the present and contributing through our time, our skills and abilities, and out of our resources to the formation of a viable and joyful future for all God’s people, for all God’s creatures and for God’s Creation.
We have another week of a strange assortment of readings this week. Jeremiah is looking at a society on the brink of disaster and expresses his distress. Paul warns Timothy that society and its leaders are constantly in need of prayer. And the Gospel of Luke seems to commend dishonest behavior. To quote my former Jewish neighbor “OUI VEY! WHAT A MESS!”
The Gospel is especially off-putting, seeing Jesus commending dishonesty. In a bible study a few years ago I was talking about several ways to interpret this parable. After explaining a second alternative interpretation one member of the group interrupted saying “That’s all bull! That manager should get his butt put in jail!”
I can’t disagree with her. It all seems so dishonest – after being fired for dishonesty the manager wipes out up to half the debt these people owe to someone else, in order to curry favor in the future os the manager can land on his feet in a new position.
But when we stop to think about it this is not the first time that in his teachings Jesus has highlighted a positive feature about questionable behavior. Recall that a few weeks ago in Luke Chapter 11 Jesus tells of a neighbor who late at night wakes up a neighbor asking for bread to feed unexpected visitors. Persistent knocking woke up a grouchy neighbor and the asker does not take the initial “no” for an answer. Jesus ends the parable with the phrase “How much more will the heavenly father give to those who ask him”
In Luke 18 Jesus speaks of an unjust judge who neither feared God nor had respect for the people and closes again with the phrase “How much more…” So we have the phrase again in this reading from Luke. This questionable manager, according to Jesus, understood something the children of light (presumably you and I) have difficulty grasping. Dishonest or not this man understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal in the future.
How much more should the children of God understand how to use what has been entrusted to our care?
This manager becomes an example to learn from only in the sense that he understood that in order to be where he wanted to be in the future, how he handled today mattered greatly. He was intentional in his actions and used the resources at his disposal to move in the direction he wanted for the future.
In the book of proverbs it says “without a vision the people perish.” The problem we Christians seem to be having in the 21st century is a lack of a positive vision for the future. Too many are either focusing on what they are against; others seem to be driving into the future looking squarely into the rear view mirror trying to get back to the remembered glory days of the past.
Many of us forget that we will spend the rest of our life in the future. Yet the future does not come to us fully formed – we must pursue it and create it. We must be in touch with the larger picture of who we are as the people of God, what it is that we have been given, and what we are called to do.
When we have no vision of where and what is our desired future, the treasures we have been given hardly seem treasures at all They become simply things; things that have value only as they address my needs, my wants. They become objects to be used, manipulated and distorted.
One can paraphrase Jesus in verse 13 to be saying – “You can either serve this present age and it’s love of riches, or you can love God and serve him in this present age. But you cannot do both.” The first leads to death the second leads to new and abundant life.
This is the crisis that Jesus addresses here in this parable. He is not commending dishonesty – he is commending those of the world that understand the need to use present opportunities to create the future. The children of light he indicates, do not understand that. It is easy to grow complacent, confused, or self absorbed when we don’t have a compelling vision of a future. A vision that is larger than we are, a vision that inspires us. A vision which has value for us and into which we are willing to invest ourselves, our energy and our resources.
We need to renew a vision for ourselves as followers of Jesus and a vision for our congregation as children of light, children of God.
The question we need to ask is not how do we get back to the good old days when…” But rather we need to ask “What gifts, abilities and resources have I/we been given (is it time, abilities, a specific talent that can be used to help others?) What are the specific needs of the larger community in which we find ourselves. And finally ask how can we use gifts, passions and abilities entrusted to us by God to meet the deep needs of the world tand through that build a future that is life-giving.
Most of us believe that our life is a gift from God. So how do we use that gift – how do we intentionally choose to live in order to do good, rather than focus on doing well?
For if our life is a gift FROM God what we do with our life day to day is our gift TO God.
This parable in Luke is a wake-up call to intentionally reclaim who we are; to renew our vision of what it means to be followers of Jesus in very practical ways,
We must craft a vision for the future which includes what we value from the past, but which brings those values forward in response to the world, and our community as it exists, so we can help it become it and us become as God would have us live.
Today we mark the 15th anniversary of the day four airplanes were hijacked and three used as weapons against buildings which represent the economic, military, and political power structures of our country. This day in 2001 is a difficult one to forget. The effects were devastating, and the ripples of fear they engendered continue to flow outward in ever-widening circles. It has profoundly affected how we travel by air, federal law, local law enforcement, attitudes in this country, as well as who we regard as “heroes” and “villains.” The challenge is found in how we choose to remember these events.
The word, remember, is an interesting one. In English, it is composed of two parts: re + member, literally ‘again + be mindful of.’ The act of remembering contains some sense of reliving an experience. It can take a whiff of an aroma, a glimpse of something familiar, a sound, a taste, or a touch to unlock a memory. And we are in another place and time. The fragrance of roasting corn brings me to my great uncle’s home, certain musical pieces trigger my own muscle memory of playing them, the sound of rushing water takes me to pleasant childhood picnics at Niagara Falls. There are unpleasant memories, too. Of hearing tires screech and a neck that is in pain, of seeing various news photos depict violence and a heart that breaks. Remembering sustains both joy and sorrow.
Remembering is also an important theological word. The Hebrew word,???, when it is used to describe an activity of God’s also contains the sense that God will act. Thus, after Noah has been shut up in the ark for a year, scripture tells us that “God remembered Noah…” God hasn’t forgotten Noah – God’s “remembering” is integral to the flood waters subsiding.
Jeremiah spent much of his 40 years as a prophet trying to get the people of Israel return to the Mosaic Covenant – the ways of living faithfully that are given in the first five books of the bible. These are heavily focused on land – the Promised Land, ritual – described in the book of Leviticus, and the laws – especially as described in Deuteronomy. Jeremiah’s sense was that by having the nation follow these principles, they would “remember” God and God would “remember” them and act against their enemies.
But when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians Jeremiah found himself rethinking the situation. He came to understand there was a new covenant to create with God. Jeremiah’s words describing this are among my favorites from scripture: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, … for they shall all know me…”
One of the reasons I love this understanding is that with this covenant – which is a formalized relationship – we will all know and remember God just as God will know and remember us. This mutual remembering will be life-giving.
In the fifteen years since 9/11 there has been very little that is life-giving which has come from the event, or our reaction to the event. (Here I am distinguishing a reaction which comes from the gut, and a response which comes from deep contemplative wholeness). The war dead are still mounting, as are the civilian deaths in “far away countries.” Despite spending trillions of dollars, I, personally do not feel any safer.
Today’s Gospel reading offers us the familiar parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It is a classic Jesus-story because it invites us, in the end, to see differently. As usual, the context is critical. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling” about Jesus’ eating with those folk. At that time the status of whom one ate with mattered a lot. A person in “right relationship with God” just didn’t eat with tax collectors & sinners. The story Jesus tells provides an answer to the murmurings of the Pharisees and Scribes, the religious elite.
These stories are usually presented as allegories – the shepherd and woman represent God, the lost sheep and coin is a sinner, and God drops everything to find the sinner. There is, however, another way to think about these stories, one that is, in my mind, far more thought-provoking, and far more pointed for the Religious elites. Let’s say the woman represents every woman. The coins are likely part of her headdress, which is part of her dowry. These coins cannot be taken from her as payment for a debt – they are just as much a part of her as are her hands. Using US Constitutional language, these coins are “inalienable.”
She has worn these coins for many years, and then, one day, she loses one. I don’t think she noticed it was gone the moment it broke away from her headdress because she does a thorough search of her space, lighting a lamp and sweeping the entire house. Likewise, there is one sheep which has slipped away. If you were watching, you’d have noticed. But the sheep is gone, and it’s necessary to trek into the wilderness to find it. Yet, upon finding these items, the people rejoice and invite others to rejoice.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that there is something worth finding, something that, when found, causes great rejoicing. Something that Jesus likely experiences when he eats with tax collectors and sinners that the religious elites miss. This “something” is, I believe, a relationship with God, which for Jesus is worth leaving everything else behind and concentrating on as a single-minded search. Those who have lost God – the sinners – are finding God in the person of Jesus. And, I suspect, Jesus is pointing out to the religious elites that they themselves aren’t aware that they, too, have lost something that has been prepared for them at their birth. They have forgotten what joy it is to be in relationship with God. They have forgotten to invite others to search, and they don’t know how to rejoice when someone else has found God. Forgetting is, in this context, not good.
I have come to understand certain kinds of remembering as sacred acts, because to forget them is to pave the way for evil to reenter one’s world. We don’t, for instance, want to forget 9/11 and the various threads that were woven into this event, and the threads that came from this event, lest we repeat them unawares.
It is how one remembers that is critical. We can remember “bad” events with great resentment, always stirring up our negative emotions and weighing ourselves down with these memories. This is a type of bondage – we figuratively tie ourselves to an awful memory.
Shaping how we remember, by laying aside the resentment for instance, can provide us with a freedom that is worth celebrating, much like the woman who has found her coin.
The task is to let go of the effects of an event, re-membering (again being mindful of) this event differently, perhaps with understanding that comes from looking through another’s eyes. Other words for this are repent and forgiveness. We do experience freedom when we turn towards God, seeking to see through God’s eyes, which means that we are also turning away from an evil. This enables us to move beyond the effects of the evil on our lives, or the lives of others, in order to choosing blessing and life. Repentance is not solely about sorrow, it is turning towards God.
Ideally forgiveness accompanies the action of repentance. Forgiveness is a spiritual discipline – it is about breaking chains that bind our souls. Forgiveness is NOT an absolution of someone else’s actions.
I was recently asked if I had forgiven Osama bin Laden, an interesting question, one that I hadn’t ever really thought about. I realized that there were ways in which I hadn’t: I resent greatly the morass of fear that shapes the Homeland Security Agency, but I have become a bit more understanding when asked to remove my shoes for an airline flight – the workers are acting from their training.
We as individuals and as a society need to forgive. Not for the perpetrator’s sake, but so that we may build on a foundation of the positive rather than on the rubble of resentment. It is helpful to add that Jesus demanded forgiveness, but not reconciliation.
We all have an invitation to journey in faith – to seek and find, to turn towards God, to choose how we will remember, to rejoice, to celebrate – and to share our stories. One day we will be asked about the events of 9/11 by those who were not yet born. What freedom it will be to be able to remember without resentment.
(A reflection from Nancy’s time with family in Japan)
Some questions seem to come from left field; others, though, emerge from somewhere much deeper, the soul. Granddaughter asked me one of those deeper questions today.
We had a gentle day at home, filled with chores (laundry and dishes), playing a game (Mice and Mystics – we didn’t get very far) and Lego blocks, swimming, making brownies, the almost daily trek to the grocery store (since we were getting heavy things we needed both adults to be able to carry them home), and watching a bit of the Olympics.
This was not exactly the kind of day on which to expect one of these soul-opening questions on the lips of an almost four year old child. We were sitting together (well, actually I was sitting and she was in constant motion on me) watching her favorite movie, Toy Story 2, for the third time. Out of the blue she looked at me and asked if I liked good girls. As a priest I continue to learn how to listen to people. Knowing that her parents talk to her about being a good girl I knew she was, in some way, talking about herself. I told her that I did, indeed, like good girls, and that she was my favorite good girl. She smiled and hugged me. Then she asked me if I liked bad girls. Ah, the deeper truth about human behavior. We cannot always be “good” people. We make mistakes, we take short cuts that don’t work as planned, we make poor decisions, we don’t live up to the expectations we have of ourselves. I heard Granddaughter asking about herself – was she worth still being liked when she failed to be good. I looked straight into her eyes and said, “Yes, I love you even when you are bad. You are my granddaughter, and I love you very much all of the time.”
My answer struck gold – she was stock still (having been a wiggle worm for at least the past 45 minutes) and she beamed, radiating in the warmth of full acceptance. I was the recipient of a major hug, one that lasted for quite some time. Something deep inside her – what I would call her soul – wanted to know that the labels “good” and “bad” weren’t the last word on defining herself. I confirmed this when I told her that when she is good AND when she is bad, I will still love her. And so it is with God.
While in Japan visiting our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter I have had various adventures going to playground, the zoo, and some of the cultural sites. This morning’s activity was to climb seven hundred ninety two steps up, and I mean up as like building stair cases, with only slight landings at the points where the stairs change directions. The goal was to visit Tachikikannon (a temple dedicated to the standing tree bodhisattva), a Buddhist temple fairly close to Granddaughter’s home. A bodhisattva, as I understand it, is a person who is able to enter nirvana, but chooses to remain behind to assist people in their life journeys – much like an angel.
It was a challenging climb for me – I’m not getting any younger. It was nice that the climb was shaded by trees. Even Granddaughter needed help, with her papa carrying her off and on the entire way. Finally, we were at the top.
The following is a description that is based on my very naive understandings – I don’t know the correct words, nor am I familiar with the exact rituals, or the names and uses of the buildings we encountered. We stopped first at a building, part of which had things for sale. I paid for an entry into my temple book – each temple has a set of stamps, which are overwritten with ink, which includes that date. It is interesting to watch this beautiful art form in practice.
My son purchased in Om-mamori, which is something like an amulet or charm or talisman of protection, for Granddaughter. He was given a piece of paper, and instructions to visit other parts of the complex (more stairs, I refused to count them!). We came upon a bell (at least a meter tall, covered in designs of deer – messengers of the gods) that is struck by pulling a rope attached to a log so that the log strikes the bell. We were given instructions to strike the bell three times. We let Granddaughter do this, helping her listen to the sound of the bell fade away before striking it again.
We walked a bit more, then returned a different way to our starting point, where the woman, wearing what to me looked like my communion kit stole, prayed a blessing over Granddaughter. Granddaughter stood stock still, hands in prayer pose (palms together), listening with care to the stream of words. I heard only her name and the word “Genki” (health, energy) amongst the stream of language. It was a solemn moment. The paper was then taken into another room (dedicated to the Bodhisattva?), Granddaughter waited with uncharacteristic patience, and then the woman returned with the paper. Again Granddaughter was prayed over, hands held together (papa’s and grandma’s, too). Then the paper was carefully rolled, put in an envelop, and handed to Granddaughter. She held it for a while, then gave it to her papa.
Something special had just happened, even though none of us really knew exactly what. I actually don’t think it matters too much because the “language” of ritual is built of gesture and movement and relationship and sound and color and posture – all richly engaged in this ritual. This “language” is read with the heart. It is also about something “bigger” than the three people who climbed 792 stairs. Standing still, hands together, listening to a prayer spoken in words I rarely understood, a handprint on a paper moved with great ceremony from one space to another and then back again, paper that was treated with great care, attention given and focused – these were all elements of a language that I suspect is as ancient as human life. Recognition of the sacred and the desire to engage that sacredness comes in many forms.
My son married a woman who identifies herself as Buddhist. (Granddaughter lives in a land where about 1% of the population is Christian.) I cannot believe that there is only one way to encounter, acknowledge and enter the sacredness that grounds and supports all that is, so I, too, will honor the reality of the Japanese religious traditions in my Granddaughter’s life. I have chosen and embraced a Christian tradition for myself, and in time I will share this with Granddaughter. For now, I am blessed – I receive life from – watching her encounter the sacred through the language of ritual.