Sunday, May 29, 2011

Religious Studies exam

In the name of God, merciful Father, compassionate Son, Spirit of wisdom. Amen.

Recently I had a Facebook exchange with a cousin, who has been taking exams in religious studies. I always wondered, what kind of questions you would put on a multiple-choice exam in this subject. “How many gods are there?”

A. One
B. An infinite number.
C. …?

What would you say?

The Athenians played it safe: “I’m thinking of a number between zero and infinity.”

This is the town Paul walked into, that day he stood in front of the public meeting place called the Areopagus – Mars Hill.

“Men of Athens,” Paul said, addressing the crowd in front of Mars Hill, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He had gone about the city observing the many shrines and the deities worshipped – and, just to be on the safe side, or perhaps exhibiting an excess of piety or zeal, the altar inscribed “to an unknown god.”

What kind of town is this? A town full of philosophers, where they were as common as sports fans in a brewpub, a town of seekers, who covered every base and then an extra for good measure.

So Paul played to their strengths – and greeted them with congratulations on their perspicacity. Then he went on:

“What you have worshipped as unknown, I now reveal to you. My name is Paul, and I worship the true and living God who created all things.” - or words to that effect. (In fact these particular words are the confession of St Alban, patron saint of our parish church.)

God the Creator of all things does not need you to make him a shrine with your hands; he will not live in it. God the Source of all being does not need you to provide him with anything, for all things that exist come to be through him. Life and breath and all good things, we praise him for and we bless him; he does not need us to give them to him.

All human beings are one in origin, too, and he has set the borders of our world. He did this indeed so that we might seek after him, and, groping, perhaps find him. In him we live and move and have our being.

Then Paul takes things a bit farther:

Now, however, says Paul, he has done more than this, done more than show his hand in the making of our world. He has sent into the world a man whom he has appointed, to judge all in righteousness, and he assures of this by raising that man from the dead.

God has called us into being by making room for us. In himself he was perfect, his life was complete; but he created a dwelling-place for us, in which we may enjoy life and creation, and even more. In Christ God has called us into relationship with himself.

How does God make room for us to exist, to abide in him, in Christ?

How does Jesus make a dwelling place ready for us to dwell with him?

How do we make room for Jesus to abide in us, to dwell in us?

Abide in me, says Jesus to us; take up residence in this dwelling-place God has made for you in the world, and in his heart. Live there – live in your place in his kingdom.

Keep my commandments, and my commandments are love.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

Love one another. Love God; love your neighbor.

These are his commandments – to love.

Jesus our advocate, comforter, guide, Jesus the presence of God with us in the world, was leaving the disciples. But he did not leave them comfortless, for he promised them another advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit who is the presence of God as we experience him now.

How do we experience God? In loving God, one another, neighbor.

What Jesus commands us to do is to love. The law of God is a law of love.

It is not like ‘housekeeping rules’ – if it’s messy eat it over the sink, remember to run the disposal before you set the dishwasher, eat your vegetables.

It is not like the ‘pirate code’ – which after all, is really more like guidelines.

The law of God is an invitation into relationship: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Love one another as I have loved you.

Make room for one another in your hearts – and make room for the stranger, the sojourner, the newcomer in your midst.

Go tell the world the good news – proclaim the coming of the reign of God in the world; in him all things will be brought into harmony.

For the law of love – in reality – is a harsh and dreadful thing. It leads to the Cross – and only then and thereafter to the Resurrection.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

If you love me, you will abide in my love.

My love will become a dwelling-place for you; your true home will be hidden in me.

All other habitations will be temporary residences; you will find your rest in my love.

All other allegiances will be contingent; our ultimate faith and hope will be in God.

If we abide in God and God is in us, we are already in the fullness of that life which is eternal. (David Adam)

When God made the world he made room – he created space in which relationships could occur between himself and the creatures of his making. We are those creatures and he invites us into a living relationship with him.

In the Father’s house are many dwelling places, places where we can find our true home; but our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.

What does it mean? How do we live this out?

We live it out – and we learn what it means – as we seek to live the law of love.

Objectives and techniques will serve us, on one level; but truly to know and serve the Lord will require more than technical fixes or strategic planning. It will require prayer and spiritual nurture and growth. Our welcome of one another and of the new comer to our fellowship will be tested in its genuineness by one criterion: showing the love of God.

We think of the gifts people give us as memorials – things to remember them by: a watch, a ring, a plaque or a book. They leave behind photographs or letters, memorabilia. Or they leave us a legacy – or perhaps some good advice, or a sharp, piercing memory.

We carry these things around with us long after the person is gone. They remind us.

If we are blessed, they empower us, make us able to be better people somehow, free us for more abundant living.

(If we are blessed. Sometimes they don’t.)

Jesus offers us simpler things, to remember him: a story to tell, a meal to share, water for baptism, bread and wine for communion.

Through these simple things, and accompanying them all, he leaves us two more gifts: each other – and the Holy Spirit.

He leaves us with what he left the first disciples with: he leaves us with the commissioning – go into the world – and he leaves us with the empowerment – his abiding presence with us in the Spirit – in order that we might keep his commandments, and complete his work in the world as members of his own body.

+ ("the true and living God who created all things")


Thursday, May 26, 2011

“What do we do now?”

You can imagine them saying it.

The disciples of Jesus have witnessed everything – he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he died and was buried, he was raised again on the third day, and, now, he has been raised to the right hand of power. Before their eyes, he was carried into heaven.

So – the question is before the disciples of Jesus: what do we do now?

And how? How are we going to accomplish that purpose, God-struck as it is? Is it possible?

We, his disciples today, find ourselves facing a daunting task – and a daunting series of questions.

How are we to carry on the work Christ has begun in his earthly ministry?

How are we to carry forward the work he has called us to? How shall we embody the hope of the resurrection and the joy of everlasting life?

How are we to stand in the world and witness to all we his people have seen in the life of Jesus, and all we have experienced of his presence in our own lives?

How are we to proclaim in his name to all nations the forgiveness of sins – and the coming of his kingdom?

In ourselves, it is not possible; in Christ and through the Spirit it is inevitable.

He promises, on the day of his Ascension, that he will not leave us comfortless. And so we call upon the Breath of Jesus, the Spirit of truth:

Come, Creator Spirit, Father of the poor. Come, light of our hearts. Come, source of all life. You are our only comforter. Come! Give us your peace.

Guide our steps with your light.

When in stress you support us, in trials you give us strength, consolation in the midst of grief.

Eternal light, visit the hearts you have created and fill our innermost being.

Heal our wounds and renew our strength, quench our deepest thirst. Fill us with your grace.

Come! Fill us with your gifts. Give us comfort. Give us life. Give us joy that never ends.

Come! Come! Come Holy Spirit! Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

(Veni Creator Spiritus, Taizé)


For the Gospel Grapevine, parish newsletter of Saint Alban's Episcopal Church, Edmonds, WA


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Last Days' Discount

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In the name of God, source of all being: the Life;
Eternal Word: the Truth;
and Holy Spirit: the Way.

When I worked for publishers I would sometimes represent them at conferences and trade exhibits. Once I was sent to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature joint annual meeting, in Chicago, with the reminder that on the last day of the show there would be a flood of people coming to the booth who would want a "Last Day's Discount". However I was given the authority to set discounts for the show, and announce them as they chose. So I set a fairly (by industry standards) generous discount at the beginning of the show, and (to the publisher's delight) when people would ask me what my "Last Day's Discount" would be, I'd reply, "These are The Last Days. This is the Last Days' Discount."

All is indeed moving toward completion, perfection, fulfillment, since the Resurrection.

Stephen bore witness to this – he was able because he had set aside malice and embraced the kingdom of God.

The crowd was still stuck in anger and deceit, slander and envy— all the tools of false security, the weapons for victory over perceived enemies—

At peace, Stephen was able to pray with confidence, drawing on a deep well of freedom, truth and faith. He knew he was in God’s hands.

Standing before the crowd in Jerusalem, Stephen testified to what he was seeing: the glory of God – and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.

Stephen saw beyond the skies what the crowd could not see – the faithful presence of God even in this eventuality.

Stephen witnessed to a new way of being in the world – not as victim or as hero – but as witness to the truth.

And so even in his death he pointed to Christ – commending his spirit to God, asking forgiveness for his killers – becoming a living stone set deep into the foundation of the spiritual house which is the Church.

With faith in Christ, and without regard to the consequences to his own body, Stephen proclaimed Jesus the way, the truth, the life – and came home to the Father rejoicing in the Spirit through that same Jesus Christ.

Just so we witness and pray, as we too cast aside the false armor of self-protection (the cheating tricks of soul’s cowardice). Confident in God’s care and love, we proclaim his kingdom and act to live into it.

Peter exhorts new Christians to grow in faith, to understand that Baptism is just the beginning of the path of salvation – that we should seek God’s word to nurture us, from our earliest days – receiving with humility as if infant children the sustenance of the Word. He adjures us to put away sin and evil of all sorts, so that we may offer ourselves to be built together into a Temple – a living temple – to the praise and glory of God.

What does this look like? Instead of envy, slander, malice, and deceit (v. 1), practice love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness and forbearance.

How can this be? Through the Spirit.

We are called to testify to what we have seen and heard, and what we have experienced, in our lives, of Jesus’ work. We are witness to how God provides, guides, and reshapes our lives.

We are called in faith to take a stand, to bear witness, and to express belief in action.

This call may be subtle; it may be loud. It may be joyous; it may be painful. Responding to it may lose us friends.

Living into the forgiveness and mercy of God is a new way of Being.

Like Stephen we know that forgiveness is not an act of individual heroism – it is an act of God at work in the world through his people.

Forgiveness in itself is a vision of the peaceable kingdom, the reconciliation of all things in Christ, which is the true consummation of time, the real victory.

So these are the last days – for Christ is already at work in the world – reconciling all things to himself. God is faithfully present to us as we are called to join in this work.

Lord, as you have called us to walk in your way, make us the people that you would have us be, that we may reveal your truth, and lead others to the fullness of life; that we may be a chosen people, a royal priesthood; that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Lord, lead us in the ways of peace. Guide us in the path of life.

--David Adam, Clouds and Glory (SPCK, 2000) 68.

Come my way – Spirit; my truth – Word; my life – Creator.

Source of all being: you call us into life, you sustain us, and you provide for all our needs. Eternal word: your truth is a light to our path and we come to the Father only through you. Holy Spirit: you illumine us, guiding us as we seek to follow Jesus.

You are peace, Lord: you are the way. You are love: you are the life. You are justice: you reveal the truth in your righteous mercy.

What we face in our lives as Christians, your faithful people, we do not face alone. You are with us – through the Spirit we experience your presence and your power. Your gift of love, your sustenance of faith, and your light of hope: [these] accompany us through all our days.

Help us now to realize your triumph over death and sin, the ultimate adversary. Move us to proclaim and embody that victory in the world.

Empower us – fill us with hope – embolden us with faith – so that we your people may be as your own hands and feet and voice, advocating the love of your creation that fulfills your word.

May love’s redeeming work be evident (manifest) in all we do and in all you accomplish, in us and through us, for the glory of God.

Lord, guide us that we may walk in your Way, rejoice in your Truth, and be kept for ever in the Life which you give, which is eternal; through him who lived and died and rose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus, live in our hearts – forever!

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14



Saturday, May 14, 2011

fullness, abundance

"Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving, as inspiring. Perhaps this sense of fullness is something we just catch glimpses of from afar off; we have the powerful intuition of what fullness would be, were we to be in that condition, e.g., of peace or wholeness; or able to act on that level, of integrity or generosity or abandonment or self-forgetfulness. But sometimes there will be moments of experienced fullness, of joy and fulfillment, where we feel ourselves there."--Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007) 9.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Perfect Stranger

Who do you break bread with?
Who do you invite to stay with you?
Who is the perfect stranger?
How will you know him?

It was a long time ago – it was earlier today. On the Emmaus road two of us were walking – and a third man came alongside. Who was the third man? They did not think to ask. They were preoccupied, overwhelmed, with troubles of their own.

Our news, the good news, was hidden in a maelstrom of fear and anxiety – even terror: for it was an act of terror that set their feet on the road, drove them from Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate. And then, on top of that, the truly incredible news the women were telling: the tomb was empty. He was not there. Angels spoke to them.

When the disciples set out down the road to Emmaus they did not know where they were going. Sure, they knew where the road led – but they did not know what adventures the future held. They were talking with each other about what had happened, trying to sort out what was really going on. What did it mean?

The third man approached, and walked along with them. They did not recognize him. And at his inquiry they rehearsed for him the events of those days, almost like a creed, beginning with the words and deeds of Jesus, a prophet mighty before God and the people. They spoke of his betrayal and death, the empty tomb, and the angels’ message. But they didn’t get it – they did not know what it meant.

The disciples did not see him – had not seen him – not yet.

O you foolish Emmæans! How slow you are to grasp it – this is what the prophets were talking about – that the Messiah must suffer, must pass through passion and death and resurrection, before he can reach his glory.

The passion, the death, the resurrection – these are all part of God’s plan, and now Jesus can enter into glory.

As they reached the village he made as if to go on. But they stopped him, offering hospitality.

Stay with us, for evening is at hand, and the day nearly spent.

So he went in—

“But let me tell you, that to approach the stranger
Is to invite the unexpected, release a new force,
Or let the genie out of the bottle.
It is to start a train of events
Beyond your control. So let me continue.”

[“The Cocktail Party” by T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952) p.306]

And there in that place the guest became host. He became host, as he must always do, when we invite him in. When we take Jesus in, as guest, as host, we are transformed, we are enlightened.

For now the stranger – for it was he – took, blessed, broke, shared the bread; and they knew: this is his Body, and we are in his Kingdom, now. We are at his Table, fellowshipping with him.

And he is the Bread; he is the Life.

As he left them, they were no longer afraid. They turned to each other and said,

Our hearts warmed
as he taught us
on the road, opening
to Word to us
to our understanding.

Word and Table –
in these they knew him –
in these we know him—
as we break the bread
and tell the tale,

of the marvelous events of Jesus, Lord, God with us.

They returned immediately to the City and to their company, to tell their friends, to share the news, the good news, that all the world soon should know, that Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia! That he arose, that he is made know to us in the breaking of the bread.

And so we ask— how is Christ known among us?

Who do you break bread with? Who is it that you see at the table? Is Jesus there? Jesus, who told us, I will be with you. Jesus, who said, when I was hungry you fed me. Jesus, who said, I am the bread.

Is he there at the table?

Yes— for whenever we bless the bread and break it and share it, whenever we take the cup of wine and share it, we remember his death until he comes. And we know that he is risen— that he is alive and among us— that in this action he becomes known to us.

Do we walk with him on the way? Do we welcome the stranger? Share our table fellowship? With whom do we, now, break the bread? Do we know, in them, friend or stranger, the fellowship of Christ? Do we hear him teaching, are our eyes opened, do we see him, as we study the Scriptures?

Open our eyes to your presence,
open our hearts to your love,
that we, openhearted, open-eyed, open-handed,
may share the bread and tell the story,
that you may be present
in the midst of us,
and that we might share
that good news with all those we meet on the way.

Travel with us, Lord, show us the truth;
stay with us, Lord, show us your love;
send us, Lord, forth from this place,
newly strengthened by Word and fellowship
with the knowledge of your love,
and full of news, good news,
to share, in word and deed, with the world.

Elusive God, companion on the way,
you walk behind, beside, beyond:
you catch us unawares.

Break through the clouds of doubt,
the disillusionment and despair,
that obscure our vision,

wide-eyed with wonder
open-mouthed with awe
we may find our way
and journey on
as messengers
of your good news.