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"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Advent 4B

A reflection by Janine Goodwin on Romans 16: 25-27 and Luke 1: 26-38

I knew exactly what I would write this week: I would take the story of Mary and talk about what God wants to bring to birth in us. Then, as I sailed through the readings, I hit a snag.

The snag was one word in the very brief reading from Paul: obedience.

Obedience is a word that has been used to keep women down for so many centuries that I've come to wince when I hear it. It reminds me of Ephesians 5, in which a writer who may or may not be Paul tries to work out how the Gospel of love and equality can be lived out in the household code of the first-century Roman empire. That fifth chapter of Ephesians is still being used to preach the subordination of women, although slavery, its neighbor in that passage, has been repudiated by most societies over the centuries. In a lifetime of devotional reading, I have found many lyrical descriptions of Mary's obedience to God's call as contrasted with Eve's disobedience, all coming from people who valued obedience, and several works that praised Eve's disobedience and the rebellion of Lilith over Mary's supposed submission, all coming from people who value creativity and autonomy.

Early on, I was taught to define obedience as unquestioning compliance with the orders of a superior. There is no room for creativity, and little for dignity, in such a definition, that compliance which does not include full and free consent can be very far from any trust, mutuality, or caring. It is power-over, the power that corrupts and controls. My education as a teacher taught me that when a power struggle gets going, everyone loses. A teacher must be able to set and enforce fair rules, but they must be for the good of all. A student must be able to question the rules, and not just be trapped in resisting because they represent limits to her range of possible actions. When a cycle of oppression and rebellion gets set up in any group of people, creativity and dignity die. A family destroys its own, a classroom becomes a place where learning fails, a church becomes a cult. Since I believe in a God of infinite creativity who respects us all, this can't be what God wants. Obedience became a word I hated, the vow I was least likely to take. I believed it was a synonym for oppression.

As I struggled with the idea that God had given me the ability and the need to question authority, a wise Dominican priest told me that obedience came from the Latin "ob audire," and "audire" implied listening—a listening that went both ways, a listening that implied mutual respect, that took my concept of obedience more in the direction of consensus. Another wise Dominican, Herbert McCabe, says that obedience for St. Thomas Aquinas was about learning, not about giving or taking orders. It was a form of mutuality in community, a way of finding a shared identity. I began to live with the idea that a call to obedience did not have to mean the imposition of force, and the practice of obedience did not have to mean violence to a soul God loves. I wasn't sure quite how it worked, but it was better than getting into a power struggle.

These days, I am always looking for what Walter Wink would call a Third Way: neither oppression nor rebellion, but a creative response to the status quo that invites us out of the false oppositions we create and into a different way of being. I believe the life of Jesus and our life of faith is an invitation to the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 18:21).

It became clear to me that I wouldn't get anywhere with either the idea of obedience or with this meditation until I took more time with the passage about Mary and Gabriel. As I reread those long-familiar words, I began to see something that was new to me, something that displaced my previous impressions of it. As a child, I'd seen the appearance of Gabriel to Mary as something like the appearance of the fairy godmother who changes Cinderella into a princess. As an adolescent, I had used it to try and force myself into a docility that my culture told me was required of good girls. As an adult, I had avoided it for fear of finding out that Mary had no choice but to follow orders and comply with a plan God enforced upon her. What I finally saw, reading it over and over again, was not a power struggle but a dialogue; not a series of orders and objections, but a conversation. Mary has courage and a sense of her own dignity; she can meet the apparition of an angel (which is always a frightening experience in Scripture) with a cogent question. Gabriel does not say, "Shut up and do as you're told," but explains what will happen, and waits for her consent. Luke Timothy Johnson translates her response as "Behold the servant of the Lord," explaining that the "handmaiden" of most translations "might obscure the text's obvious implication that Mary is also a 'Servant of Yahweh,'" a reference to the great Servant Songs of the prophet Isaiah. Mary is not knuckling under to divine
force: she is consenting to participate in divine creativity. She knows her dignity and her worth. Gabriel invites her to be part of a holy undertaking. She asks to understand it better, to see her part in it. They enter into dialogue. She consents. The son she raises grows up to be someone who, when asked about himself, says not, "Do as I say," but, "Come and see."

Is this what God wants to bring forth in us? Can God be wanting us to bring our own gifts to birth, to appreciate our own worth, to accept a place in salvation history that places us with the prophets and allows us to talk as equals with angels? Does obedience to God mean entering the work of co-creation and accepting full freedom, dignity, and responsibility? I believe it does. Thanks be to God

Friday, December 12, 2008

Advent 3

A reflection by Sarah Rogers on: Isaiah 61:1-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, and John 1:6-28

Advent is it seems dominated by the male figures in the bible, the patriarchs, prophets, now John the Baptist, Mary will get a look in next week. But, let us get past the patriarchal language, that it is of it’s time, and look at the meaning behind it.

John the Baptist quotes Isaiah saying “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (Isaiah 40:3). John prepared the way for Jesus to come 2000 years ago, but his words could equally well be said by any of us today. After all Advent isn’t just about waiting for the coming of the Messiah in the form of the baby Jesus, God incarnate here on earth, it is about waiting for his coming again and we must be prepared for that, there is so much to be done. The world we live in is a wilderness of famine, of violence, of HIV & AIDS, of environmental concerns and a wilderness where men and women don’t always have the same opportunities. These are all the sorts of issues that those of us who have been involved in UNCSW have been involved in.

The passage from Isaiah is part of a long statement about the role of the anticipated Messiah, is reads:

‘he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners’, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2).

The world has a lot of problems and they wont be sorted out overnight. Jesus the Messiah came to bring release to some of the problems the world faced in his day, and most importantly he died on the cross to bring ultimate release in the redemption of sins.

It goes on to say that those the Messiah binds up and releases will go on to restore the ‘devastations of many generations’, and that ‘you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God.’ The work of the Messiah didn’t stop after the Resurrection. We are all called to continue that work and take our part here and now, we have been redeemed, we have been released and we must go on to restore the ‘devastations of many generations’.

The voice of women becomes more important than ever amongst what appears to be the male dominated Advent period. The patriarchs wouldn’t have got far without the matriarchs, John was a voice crying in the wilderness 2000 years ago and we are that same voice today. We are called to make the path straight because the Messiah will return.

Paul says ‘Do not quench the spirit, Do not despise the words of the prophets.’ So let us be renewed in spirit this Advent, let us listen to the words of the prophet and let us make straight the way of the Lord. Mary rejoiced in carrying our Saviour in the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and focussed on what God had already done and was going to do for all people. God continues to do wonderful things for all people, and finally the voice of women has been released and they are a powerful force, who care about the world, the environment and their communities and they will continue God’s work on earth and prepare the way for the second coming.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Advent 1

A Reflection on Mark 13:24-37 By The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

When I was a little girl one of my favorite activities was to lie outside and watch the falling stars. During the month of August my brothers and I would line up on blankets in our front yard excited that we were allowed to stay up way past our bedtimes. We would lie there in great anticipation of seeing the falling stars, hoping to see a really big one! As our excitement eased and we became quiet I found myself pondering the immensity of the universe. I tried with all my might to imagine an endless universe, a space that went on forever and ever. I tried to imagine other planets like ours with life on them. I tried to not be limited by the images of our favorite TV show, Lost in Space. If alien life exists in outer space, I thought, it was probably not dangerous monsters out to harm us, but rather beings that expressed the mystery of God acting in all creation.

Advent, the season of the church year that we begin today, beckons us in a similar way to imagine the mystery of God acting in creation. Advent is a season of darkness, mystery, wonder, and, like my brothers and me lying on those blankets, a time of anticipation and waiting.
Life provides lots of things to wonder about, lots of things to question. How it is possible for a person to be mauled, run over, and killed, by a mob of Christmas shoppers? Or, as we worry about terrorists randomly shooting people in hotels in India, how do we make sense of this chaos? It makes me want to stand up and, like the robot in Lost in Space, flail my arms and shout, “Danger danger”
I don’t have a simplistic answer to these and other questions. Rather I know that when we focus on who we are as a people of God and trust in God’s faithfulness to us we cultivate a way to understand the anxieties and fears of our lives. Our faith anchors us in the assurance of God’s faithfulness in an uncertain world. Our faith helps us make meaning out of the tragedies of our world. Through the church our faith gives us a language, words like greed and sin, words that point to our brokenness and our need for God. Each Sunday morning, when we gather to worship we hear the story of the history of human brokenness and of God’s response with love and faithfulness.

Stories are important. They remind us of who we are and our place in the world. Stories are shared from generation to generation, stories about our grandparents, our parents, ourselves, and our children and grandchildren. Stories we tell which will then be retold by other generations. Of course each time a story is told it changes just a bit. Even when we tell the same story over and over we might choose to nuance a certain piece of it or we might hear a piece of the story in a new way.

The same thing is true of the stories of salvation that we hear on Sunday morning. Sunday after Sunday, Year in and year out, we listen to scripture readings and sermons and pray the Eucharist. And yet, if we pay attention, the story we hear will not be exactly the same from one Sunday to the next, from one year to the next. In part this is because as a liturgical church we anchor our worship in the seasons of the church. These seasons, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, tell us the story of the life of Christ, spread out across a year.
Our Gospel reading this morning does not ease us into Advent with a gentle call to wait. Instead it has an apocalyptic tone that reflects the real fears we face of death and annihilation. But, rather than keep us in that place of fear, this reading throws us into the mystery - Jesus’ words are filled with layers of symbolism and complex visual images and sobering ideas. Jesus’ vision propels us out of the comfort and security of our ideas and world and drops us into the mystery of God. This reading reminds us that we cannot know everything. We can’t see everything, we can’t predict everything. Jesus speaks of losing sun, moon, and stars, of darkness, the loss of our usual ways of illumination. Then this reading - and the season of Advent remind us - when the world is deprived of light as we’ve always known it, we are to become that source of light. We are the source through which the light of Christ can shine.

One of the things we are doing at St. Francis is engaging the many opportunities for praying the Eucharist that our rich Episcopal tradition affords us. We are anchoring each of the prayers in the context of the liturgical year, choosing to worship with a particular Eucharistic prayer because it speaks intentionally to the theme of the season we are in.
In the season of Advent we will be praying a particular version of the Eucharistic prayer that conveys the mystery of the Advent season. This story, this prayer, is a dialogue between priest and congregation. It begins with the story of who we are and how Christianity continues the story begun with the Israelites:

We say, “We praise you and we bless you, holy and gracious God, source of life abundant. From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing. You made us in your image and taught us to walk in your ways. But we rebelled against you, and wandered far away; and yet, as a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us.” Do you hear our story in this? Do hear how this connects to the opening verses of the Book of Genesis and the story of Israelites? And how it connects us to the ways humans act out, ways in which instead of building up the body, we seek to tear it apart? It is an age old story that plays out over and over.

We then begin the salvation history story as it continues in and through Christ, we pray: “To deliver us from the power of sin and death and to reveal the riches of your grace, you looked with favor upon Mary, your willing servant, that she might conceive and bear a son, Jesus the holy child of God.” You see how this prayer tells us the Advent story, the story of God choosing to become human?

The prayer then continues with the story of how Jesus lived his life: “He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love.” Sadly, part of the story is our rejection of Jesus….of God’s love…

The story then moves to the last night of Jesus’ life and the institution of the Eucharist itself. We pray,” On the night before he died for us, Jesus was at table with his friends.” Remember the scripture verse where Jesus tells his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends?” That is the version of the story we hear in this prayer. When we gather around this table Jesus calls us to gather as friends.

This then is what we pray for, that we can be friends and as friends, the Body of Christ. Then, using these words we pray: “Pour out your Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Body and Blood of Christ. Breathe your Spirit over the whole earth and make us your new creation, the Body of Christ given for the world you have made..” Not only is the bread and wine consecrated and made holy, but so are we. Our lives, in the story of our salvation history, are made the living body of Christ. Even in the threat of chaos and a world on the brink of collapse, we are called to treat each other with compassion, dignity, respect, and love. We are called to let love be our guide, instead of fear, because we know our purpose is ultimately faithfulness to God.
May the words of this story seep deeply into our hearts. May the words shape and form us as friends, as God calls us to be. May this light of Christ, the love of God, shine into fear and bring hope, shine into the anger and bring peace, shine into hurt and bring healing. May this story truly be our story, Sunday to Sunday, year to year, from one prayer to another, reminding us of the love God has for us.

And, may we be that love.