In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter 2

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men will see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’
(Acts 2.17-18) A reflection by Imogen Nay

We follow the story of Acts in the Easter Season and with the first Sunday after Easter we begin with Peter’s address to the crowd. It has intrigued me to find however that the verses shown above have been sidestepped in the lectionary; on Monday of Easter week and today the same readings from Acts are given: Acts 2.14a, 22-32 and on both days Acts 2.14b-21 is missed out.

It may be that these verses are read in different lectionary years; however, it seems significant that they are deliberately not included. Reading with a hermeneutic of suspicion I can’t help but wonder: is it because there is the prediction of radical inclusiveness in the Kindom (sic) of God for the post-resurrection community of believers?

I couldn’t help but wonder if the selectors felt: Is it better not to read this passage regularly as a Christian community? Is it more convenient to turn away from the resurrection witness of Mary Magdalen in John’s Gospel and move into the circle of male discipleship authorized to declare the good news? Is it better to forget the devotion of women to Jesus during his worst hours? Is it better to control the radical nature of the gift of the Spirit?

During Holy Week Bishop Victoria Matthews was the visiting preacher at Westcott House Seminary, Cambridge, UK. At the Good Friday addresses she explained the significance of the tearing of the temple curtain as Jesus breathed his last and cried out. The temple curtain marked the entrance to the Holy of Holies into which the High Priest only could enter once a year to offer sacrifices to God. A hierarchy of access to the sacred space was employed, with gentiles furthest away and then Jewish women, followed by Jewish men and the priests. The tearing of the curtain reveals how Jesus has destroyed the regular division between humankind and God and the need for a hierarchy of access to the sacred. Jesus invites all to reach the Father through him: all are equal.

In ‘the last days’ as the Spirit is poured out upon the people and we follow the story of that through Acts and into our own lives we do well to remember the radical nature of Christ’s salvation promise. Jesus humbled himself, utterly, coming into the world, washing his disciple’s feet, showing us the way of love even to the Cross and revealing the new commandment to love one another. He closes the gap between heaven and earth, having broken into the economy as love, as the divine. It is very hard to believe. The story of doubting Thomas in the lectionary today from John’s Gospel is a necessary reminder of the task of faith and of the extraordinary nature of what we believe. It is easy to doubt. It is easy to doubt what salvation means in Christ and it is easy to doubt that all are included. As humans we want to monitor, guard and control access to the divine. We want to say who is allowed and who isn’t allowed access to the sacred mysteries.

Training for the priesthood in the Church of England in which women are still barred from the Episcopate there is a definite punch to this reading. As communities of believers it seems that we still doubt the resurrection of Christ and the implication of that resurrection. We prefer to select and read with our own prejudices, and of course I am no exception. To have the honesty to read with the eyes of Christ and to act with the mind of Christ demands great faith; we all no doubt would prefer Christ to come among us and show us his wounds so we could prod and poke them and have definite proof of his resurrection. With John we can truly assent to Jesus’ saying: ‘Blessed are those that have not seen but have come to believe’ (John 20.29).

But let us rejoice in the Sunday after Easter in the promises of Christ and of the last days. We can confidently expect our ‘sons and daughters to prophesy’ and that the Spirit will be poured out upon those who have low status in society ‘both men and women’. Christ disrupts our categories of status and authority, freely bestowing all manner of gifts upon those whom society least expects to be blessed. PRAISE BE TO GOD.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Easter Day

Reflection for Easter Sunday by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

In the Lectionary for Easter Sunday, we are given the choice of which Gospel to use, John or Matthew. While Matthew’s Gospel has certain advantages, the repeated message of, “Do not be afraid” and the clarity about the news of “He is risen,” I cannot help to be more attracted to the Gospel of John. For one thing, we have been steeped in John for most of Lent. As Jacqueline says, “In the surprising, startling, long, complicated stories… of God's abundant, overflowing, profligate grace.” And for the other, we have Mary. Mary Magdalene whom John tells us went out to the tomb while it was still dark. Mary Magdalene who has been confused and merged with the other Marys of the Gospels. Mary who has been maligned through the ages as prostitute and sinner. Mary who may have gone to France as a disciple. Mary, who since da Vinci Code fame has been speculated about as the possible mother of Jesus’ children, Mary of the many narratives, is the one on this Easter morning who brings us the story, the one who is the bearer of the news. Ultimately not only the good news of that Easter morning that Jesus was not in the tomb, but the ultimate Good News that the love of God is stronger than death and the grave is not the end. Mary who was in relationship with Jesus and knew him again when he called her by name.

But what we first know of her here, on this dark morning is that she stands weeping, confused and confounded by something she does not expect to see. She has come to grieve, to mourn and she finds that the tomb is open, the body gone. She is horrified and upset. What does this mean? Has the grave been robbed? Has someone taken the body? Clearly resurrection is not the first thing on her mind. She runs to her friends for help, for solace, for some explanation. But they are of course no use to her. They see what is before them, an empty tomb, and all they can “believe” is that it is empty, Peter and this other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. Despite all Jesus has tried to tell them about the power of God, the power of life over death, they see only evidence of death in this grave, evidence of absence. They too assume that the grave has been robbed and the body is simply gone, and they have nothing to say to Mary, to comfort her in her obvious distress, and they leave her and return home.

I wonder if John just had to set it up this way for us. If the narrative had to continue in this way, so there could be just one more chance, one more story, just one more rich opportunity for Jesus to show himself at his best being Jesus self….revealing himself as the light whom the darkness could not comprehend and being the one who gives her that beautiful moment of “aha” as he calls her by her name and she knows him for who he is, the relational one, the one who knew and loved her. Like the sheep who know the voice of the shepherd. I wonder if it had to be set up this way so that she too could be converted again, so that she could know that there was yet another task of evangelism required of her, this time the task of letting go of the earthly Jesus she loved so much, of letting him be bigger than even she could understand him to be. ”Do not hold on to me” he tells her, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and to your God.” And there is something in what he says to her that that reveals Him to her as more than a beloved rabbi, more than whatever he has been to her in this life, and she gives her testimony, “I have seen the Lord.”

In her reflection for Lent 5, Janine Goodwin talks about how we continue to struggle with making our God too small. It is hard for us and our human minds to grasp the enormity of a God so great and so loving that God would incarnate Godself in the form of us, and then choose to be our atonement in the crucifixion. Apparently this struggle to understand has been going on for a long, long time. Nicodemus could not at first understand the kind of rebirth Jesus was talking about; the woman at the well struggled to understand living water. Having sight given to a blind man with spit and mud, and seeing a dead man called out from the grave all required just a little bigger God than could be grasped. Until that moment when she encountered Jesus in all his reality as the Lord, really heard her name being spoken by the risen Christ, and knew without a doubt who it was that was standing before her. She knew that in rising he was bigger than death and bigger than anything she could hold back…or should.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Palm-Passion Sunday

If you have to do Lent, this is the one to do: story after story of God's abundant, overflowing, profligate grace. These stories from the Gospel of John have been surprising, startling, long, complicated stories showing that God's grace and love and truth have no limits. We started with the establishment Nicodemus; Jesus' admonition that even he must be born again showed the grace of God as the great leveler. Jesus discussed great theological truths with outsiders -- with the Samaritan woman at the well – an outsider in many ways. She, the first missionary, told this good news of the waters of eternal life with such conviction that many became believers. The man born blind, another nameless nobody, gets grilled over and over again about what happened to him, and his story never changes: the man put mud on my eyes; I was blind and now I see. He is who he says he is.

Jesus does good works, and he does them to reveal that the glory of God is here. Now. With us. It's a new day, a new world. Or rather the world restored to the way God created it to be.

All this work of truth-telling and restorative justice comes at a cost. The story of bringing Lazarus out of the tomb is followed by the grumbling and conspiring of those who are angry at what Jesus is done. The raising of Lazarus sets in motion the events of the passion – the arrest, trial and crucifixion which we begin to read on Palm Sunday.

I feel better prepared for this Holy Week – spiritually anyway; not at all in terms of all those tasks that need to be done before next Sunday!!! – than any other year. It's these lessons, of surprising, unending grace, that have done it.

Our Lenten exile in the side chapel has worked as well. We returned on Lent V to the nave, to a wide open space – we removed the first third of the church's pews. We have a new free-standing altar, with a muddy-Lenten Jacobean frontal. We have two large pots with bare branches. The lectern is the one the church already had, a 4-foot tall angel.

People liked it. The high altar can stay the same. We can have the same Easter lily arrangement. Everyone could come to communion as equals, with no steep steps to climb. We had space to move, space to breathe, space to greet each other.

The educational process was key: I did a power point slide show of other churches with renovated liturgical spaces, and showed the very good "St.. Paul's Pew Project" from St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church, New York. It was convincing that sacred space could change and still be sacred.

Without this shock of the new, I don't think this little church could ever move on from its troubled past. It's like Daylight Savings Time: at 6 this morning I was none too pleased but at 6 this evening, with the sky still light and a touch of spring in the air, I see the value of the change. Born again, living water, sight to the blind, life to the entombed. Hosanna, hosanna, even the stones cry aloud.

Jacqueline Schmitt

The Adventurous Parson
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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Reflection Lent 5

A Reflection on the readings for Lent 5 by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A. Theology.

When I was a teenager, I began a passionate search to learn more about God. Since I was shy and bookish, I began with the church library, a single bookcase full of threadbare copies of inspirational titles which promised a perpetual mood of cheerful holiness I found implausible if I would only yank on my spiritual bootstraps hard enough to achieve a level of trust I couldn't sustain for more than a few hours of hopeful euphoria; those hours were invariably followed by a scrabbling, flailing period of faked happiness that bottomed out into a long, grim letdown. After awhile, each book seemed like more of the same old hopeless thing, but I read through them one by one, searching for the one that would change me.

I still remember the shock of recognition, joy, and a little fear when I saw a new addition, a battered paperback with the title Your God Is Too Small. I remember little of what J. B. Phillips wrote, but have never lost the insight that our concept of God is always too small to encompass God's reality. At various times, I have found out that my God was too small, too rule-bound, too male, too pale, too twentieth-century, and thought too much like me. The too-small Gods fold up in crises, fade away in the face of sustained thought, fail to meet me when I seek them in prayer, and disappear in the light of new knowledge. But that's all right, because none of them are the real, living God, in whom we live and move and have our being, who speaks to us in the deepest part of our souls, who is close to us than we are to ourselves, and who, for all this, remains unknowable.

Scripture is like that, too; it keeps expanding the more I learn about it. My perception of scripture has gone from that of a frightening monolith full of harsh commandments and blinding miracles to a fluid, multi-voiced, very present set of stories that invites us to read,, reinterpret and retell, finding our own truths in its light as we grow.

A priest I knew used to lead a Monday night Bible study: whoever showed up sat in a circle and practiced lectio divina with the coming Sunday's Gospel. The prayerful silence brought forth images, ideas, and interpretations that made the sermon the result of group discernment as well as of the priest's education and skill. The insights and questions that seemed most difficult at the first hearing were frequently the most illuminating in the end, and we would smile at each other when we sang the hymn whose refrain was, "The Lord has yet more light and truth to come forth from the Word."

The themes of the too-small God and the multiple readings of a story came back to me when I began to study the raising of Lazarus in a circle of books. In at least one interpretation of this story, everyone's God is too small, and this makes Jesus so angry he cries.

First, the disciples ignore Jesus when he tells them, with increasing clarity, what is going on. He tells them that Lazarus is asleep, and they don't get it, so he tells them that Lazarus is dead and that they will see God's glory—but all they see is what Thomas voices: they will risk death by heading toward Jerusalem. I had always heard this as a heroic utterance, but Ann Nyland, in her 2005 translation, The Source New Testament, says it is "highly sarcastic." Suddenly, the bold figure I'd imagined, calling his friends to martyrdom, became someone who may be hunched and muttering an aside, or even speaking clearly on the edge of defiance—but someone who went anyhow, following Jesus imperfectly and with doubt.

When Jesus and his fellow travelers reach Bethany, Martha expresses deep faith in Jesus even in her reproach, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." At his prompting, she confesses that he is the Messiah, a confession that would stand alongside Peter's if women had been valued alongside men through the last two millennia. Martha is the heroine! I thought, then read Francis Moloney's commentary on the Gospel of John in the Sacra Pagina series. Moloney contends that Martha's proclamation of Jesus as rabbi and even as Messiah show the limits of her understanding. She still sees only the miracle-worker, not God incarnate. She interrupts Jesus to tell him which resurrection he means: "I know he will rise again at the last day." Her confession of faith is limited to what she already knows.

Here, I felt a flash of anger and a wince of recognition. Can't the woman be the one who really gets it right just this once, and can't we finally recognize it? Then I thought of all the times I have told God what I know in prayer rather than listening for the living and creative voice of the Spirit. If Martha's confession is limited by her limited perceptions, she is still no less an apostle than Peter, whose proclamation was followed by cowardice and whose comment on the Transfiguration was to try and build walls around a vision. None of Jesus' followers see everything and get everything right. When we miss the point, we are following in the footsteps of the apostles—and when we follow, mistakes, rebellious words, and all, we are doing as much as any of them did.

Next, Jesus meets Mary. If Martha made an imperfect confession, perhaps Mary, who sat and listened while Martha was busy managing, will understand better. Mary falls at his feet and repeats, "If you had been her, my brother would not have died." Moloney identifies this gesture and unconditional confession of faith in Jesus' power as a sign of greater faith than Martha's standing and engaging in conversation; given the many examples of faithful women who argue with Jesus in the Gospels, I disagree. In any case, Mary's hope has already died; she joins the mourners, and they all weep out their grief over Lazarus.

Jesus weeps, too. Whether the words describing his state indicate his grief for Lazarus, his anticipation of his own death, or his anger and frustration at his own followers in their failure to imagine how God's glory could come out of this loss, Jesus is as caught up in his emotions as we are in ours: he weeps and is deeply moved. No one is above grief. In the Gospel which insists most strongly and persistently that Jesus is divine, the incarnate God, for whatever reason, sobs and wails with the people who have lost a brother, a friend, a precious set of hopes for the future. God weeps with us in our losses. One persistent vision of God, the God who cannot suffer, is a God who looks too large for us, but is too small in the inability to share in all our griefs. (Recently, theologians have begun to question the idea of the God who is immune to suffering. To name only two, J. Massyngbaerde Ford gives a summary of twentieth-century takes on the impassible God in Redeemer: Friend and Mother and Rosemary Haughton writes luminously of The Passionate God.)

My God was too small, my disciples were too large, and here they all grieve together. Jesus does not show up on the scene, calm everyone down from a detached perspective, and make a miracle as shiny as a laminated holy card. Jesus stands in the dust, weeping as others reproach him for coming to late to heal his friend. He calls for people to push away the stone at the tomb's entrance, and practical Martha reminds him that death stinks. How often, when God is offering to do something new, do we try to turn aside from it because we know what our deaths smell like—the stench of a broken relationship, the dusty smell of a dying church, the sweaty bodies of the homeless, whose smell is a reproach to those of us who will not help them find a clean, safe place? Jesus may weep with us, but he never despairs with us, and he faces our deaths with us even as he brings new life. As anyone who as seen a birth knows, new life is a messy thing. Lazarus does not come out like the undead of the horror movies, but he doesn't come out tidy, either: he returns from death trailing his graveclothes, stumbling back into the light of day blinded by a cloth around his face. Jesus does not make the graveclothes fall away, but calls the disciples to remove them. When God calls something back to life, we have work to do; we must unwrap the graveclothes, bring the food and drink that sustains new life, continue the healing.

Lazarus is returned to his family and his community. Jesus has raised him from the dead so that those around him might believe. In the next part of the story, the part that is not usually read in the lectionary for this week, the imperfect belief of the disciples is joined by the limited belief of the political and religious authorities, who see clearly that Jesus threatens the status quo and their power. He is dangerous, and he must be killed. I find it easy to empathize with the disciples in this story, but it is much harder to face the times when I, too, have wanted to kill the power of God in my life in order to feel safe.

Our God is too small, our faith is imperfect, and sometimes we want to silence the Spirit and kill the messenger: but down the road, beyond the Crucifixion, there is a Resurrection coming. Dare we believe?