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"

Friday, October 31, 2008

All Saints' Day

Feast of All Saints: A Reflection by Dr. Laura Grimes

I am traveling to a professional conference this weekend, so I may well miss worship on one of my favorite feasts of the church year, All Saints’ Day. However, I was blessed to celebrate the essence of the day last Saturday when my five year old daughter and I attended the funeral of my great aunt and heard the Beatitudes proclaimed. Baptism, transformation, community, justice, celebration—all these realities were radiantly present in the large and diverse group of people, not all explicitly spiritual, gathered for the Eucharist in a small and lovely building in South Central Los Angeles.

Aunt Marian, who died at age ninety-two, was my paternal grandfather’s youngest sister and the last of her siblings to die. I hadn’t seen her since her husband’s funeral eight years before, and Katie had never met her at all. Of the many far-flung relatives present, down to second and third cousins, the only ones readily familiar to her were her grandparents and great-grandmother and one of my aunts, especially memorable because she is Katie’s godmother. I spent much of the day explaining who each person was in relation to me and therefore to her, but the one thing she knew absolutely was that they were family and so she was loved and welcome—and that Marian and her husband, and Katie’s deceased oldest and youngest siblings, and her beloved name saints and Mama Mary, and all the rest were equally part of that welcoming family.

Transfiguration Church is especially precious to me because it was where I was baptized forty-three years ago, in my parents’ last act of faith while they were living in a tiny, beat-up house in the neighborhood. My grandparents lived on the same lot both before and afterwards, so my dad and the older siblings of their large group attended school and received the sacraments there. I also visited my grandparents there as a young child, served as a velveteen-clad flower girl for one of my younger aunts, and babysat her children as a teenager when she and her husband were the final family members to dwell there. Every time I walk through its doors I feel again the miracle of being chosen and loved and called by God, from before my earliest memories and through so many people and relationships—easy and painful--throughout the years. Are those who aren’t baptized, or who no longer believe, chosen and loved and called by God? Without a doubt—it is a deformation of Christian faith in an endlessly merciful God to see it as the only path to truth and love and union with the divine. But it’s my path, and I find it such a privilege, despite the suffering it sometimes brings, to spend life laboring in the vineyard with Christ and with his friends. I also visited my grandparents there as a young child, served as a velveteen-clad flower girl for one of my younger aunts, and babysat her children as a teenager when she and her husband were the final family members to dwell there. Every time I walk through its doors I
When Uncle Glenn died eight years ago, I was living in the Midwest. My mother called to let me know the news, but I wasn’t close to him, so both of us were rather surprised when I was moved by a strong inner urging to come home on a grueling red-eye for his services. The main thing I knew about my great-uncle was that my father had worked in his land surveying business before founding his own, and I was blown away to learn that both he and Marian had spent decades as dedicated civil rights activists. The rejoiced when the court overthrew the housing restrictions that had kept black families from living in the neighborhood, threw block parties to welcome them, and ended by being virtually the only white family in the parish, which now features a rousing Gospel choir. They marched and picketed, and Marian wrote fearless letters challenging successive bishops, among others, to more faithfully proclaim and live Christ’s teaching and example on racial justice. As Grand Knight, Glenn integrated the local Knights of Columbus over the vocal objections of some, and the two of them were honored for their tireless activism by being among the few white people ever made an honorary Knight and Lady of St. Peter Claver.

Like all holy people, canonized and uncanonized, they were far from perfect. Glenn was a harsh boss with rigid high standards in many areas of life, including religion. If they arrived at mass five minutes late, he would turn the car around and return for the next service, and he once declared that his family weren’t really Catholic because his wife and nun daughter believed in women’s ordination, while his other daughter, a mother of four, practiced birth control. (He held himself to the same cruel standards, acknowledging that he didn’t deserve the name either since he had doubts about the Assumption of Mary!) Marian had an equally strong personality—she regularly disregarded “No Trespassing” signs while hiking, which once led to a broken back and months in a body cast, and spent much of the seventies and eighties in major conflict with one of her daughters. But, as in the lives of all holy people—all sinners dependent on God’s grace—that grace worked in amazing ways to heal as much as possible in this life, give consolation where that was impossible, and didn’t stop working at the grave. My father experienced a major conversion around his own parenting during Glenn’s service—I am convinced, through his intercession--and his heartfelt apology for showing me the same harshness was one of the things that moved me to move home to the West Coast with my family. And the daughter who had been in conflict with Marian shared in her eulogy the joy of their hard-won and precious reconciliation, urging all present to reach out and heal fractured relationships while there is still time.

The centrality of grace and the dignity of every human person, as well as the blessings Christ promised to the meek and the poor in spirit and the suffering, was emphasized by stories of the last years of Marian’s life. These were marked by severe dementia but lived with utter joy in the smallest pleasures and a loving and grateful presence to all who visited and cared for her. In one of the fates many of us fear most, she enjoyed and modeled the gift of living absolutely in the present moment, an elusive spiritual goal. The eloquent, talkative woman of earlier years was reduced to the simplest of conversations. The same daughter would visit her and say “I love you, and I’m so glad you’re my Mom.” Marian would reply, “I love you, and I’m so glad you’re my daughter” (on a good day—occasionally the response was “I’m so glad you’re my Mom,” which is poignant in itself). And as she pointed out in her closing words to the assembly, what more ever needs to be said?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Proper 25 A

Reflection on Deuteronomy 34:1-12 by The Rev. Margaret Rose

I have been traveling the last few weeks and took Moses along with me. I have always loved the story or stories of Moses: his birth in turbulent times; the courage of his mother and the miraculous hiding in the bull rushes; the intelligence of his sister Miriam ( I have a daughter named for her!) in suggesting Moses’ own mother as a wet nurse; the years in Pharaoh’s court, yet never forgetting his Hebrew identity; and finally of course Moses’ own life in God, accepting the call to lead the people of Israel out of bondage into freedom—the Exodus story which has been the basis of liberation theology. Those long years in the wilderness which followed recount times of suffering and challenge, with occasional joyous glimpses of hope that the land long promised will one day belong to the people of Israel.

And then it is time for Moses to die. In the Deuteronomy text today, Moses peers from the top of Pisgah looking over into Jericho and the land that he himself will never inhabit, but toward which he had journeyed for long years. “I have let you see it with your eyes, says the Lord, but you shall not cross over there.” And then Moses dies, and no one knows the burial place.

Something about this death, this simple recounting after so much writ large of Moses’ life, is profoundly sad. After all this work--nothing? The people weep of course, and there is I suppose some comfort in the knowledge that the successor is there to carry on. Joshua had been prepared, full of the spirit of wisdom after Moses’ holy hands in blessing had been placed upon him. Yet the sadness and sense of loss is the predominates.

Coincidentally, as I was departing for two weeks on the road, I opened an unsolicited email from the Shalom Center and Rabbi Phyllis Berman. I learned by chance that this week too was one in which the death of Moses is the portion of Torah appointed. It was read for the dancing festival of Simchat Torah or the Joy of Torah. Rabbi Berman tells us that the portion is called “V’zot ha”Brakha—And this is the Blessing.” “It is the shortest portion of the Torah, she writes, betokening the ever-shortening breaths as Moshe breathes his last. As all our teachers, parents, heroes, breathe their last.
It is the only portion, of all the 54, that is never read on Shabbat. Instead, it is read only at this week’s dancing festival. And the moment it is finished, the readings move to the Creation of the world. As she writes, “We move from the end to the Beginning, as if the Scroll were held in one great circle so that its ending indeed leads straight to its beginning. Perhaps, she speculates, “This is indeed the blessing—that the tears of loss open the wellsprings of Creation?”

I was profoundly moved by this notion and by the joyous possibility this opened up. For in my travels these weeks I was first in the poverty of Haiti and later at a reunion of college friends brought together by one colleague whose recently diagnosed brain tumor suggests that months with be the measure of his remaining life.

In Haiti, where it seems that every step forward for democracy or health seems to be thwarted by political or natural disaster, I was nevertheless astounded by the energy and hope that my hosts continued to offer to that country and their people. Sister Marjorie Raphael, a Sister of St. Margaret who has been in Haiti for many years told the story of the funeral of 4 popular musicians whose tragic death in a car accident brought the nation together in mourning as they prayed and sang their sorrow in a mass gathering. They sang hymns in the public square, bearing the load of personal sorrow and national unrest yet also praising God. The gift of life and hope and even moments of joy were present in that gathering. She tells of her astonishment and gratitude to God who made human beings with a life-source deeper and beyond tragedy.
It was not only the people whose hope astounded me as I listened to Sister Marjorie, it was hers as well. Frail and in her 80’s, I knew that the years of hard work, the long haul journey Marjorie Raphael had experienced in Haiti would not be one in which she reached the destination either—the promised land of Haiti’s original independence and liberation was still a distant hope. And the fruit of her work there would be enjoyed by others. Yet, neither was she in despair but spoke in hope of democracy and freedom which she had glimpsed post Papa Doc. Even amid the violence which has ensued, she is like Moses in Moab looking over to Jericho. She will no doubt not experience that promised land for which she worked so long and hard. But the legacy will not be forgotten.

And then there was Dominique who gathered 22 friends from student days for a retreat, some of whom had not seen one another for many years. He told his own story of a slight headache one day and a massive brain tumor the next and of his hope that this gathering might be the start of renewed friendship and community for years to come.

It would be trite I think, to say that every end marks a beginning--- a little too Pollyanna to say that things always turn out for the best. They don’t always.

And yet, as I acknowledged the coming death of my friend Dominique, I knew that the friends he had brought together were more alive because of him. And would remain so. A new creation was possible in the relationships of friends in community who rarely see one another. And Haiti is the better for the presence of Marjorie Raphael.


Perhaps that is what we should know about Moses as well. It does not really matter that his grave is not marked. Rather more important is that Joshua carried on. As will the friends of Dominique and all those working for healing in Haiti. And in all the other places around the world. The blessing is the creation that surely comes.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reflection on Proper 24A

A Reflection on Thessalonians 1.1-10 and Matthew 22:15-22 by I.J.Nay

Leaders, figureheads, those in authority have a responsibility to use their positions with integrity; nowhere should this be truer than in the Church. The Gospel passage from Matthew states very clearly that the motive of the Pharisees is a bad one; they seek to entrap Jesus with a clever question. They flatter Jesus: ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one’ as part of that trap. Jesus of course is more than able to shatter their cleverness with his insight and truth. The Pharisees leave amazed at his teaching.

The question of who speaks with authority, who can lead us into truth and into the wisdom of God is not a mute one even today - in our own contexts and communities. Indeed, the way of the Church is littered with disputes concerning matters of theology, ecclesiology and ethics. Who speaks with authority, and how can we recognize them? Is it simply what people say that should move us, or should we too be concerned with who they are and the pattern of their lives?

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul commends the Thessalonians for being of such faith that ‘there is no need to speak about it’. He adds, that they are to be commended for turning from idols ‘to serve a living and true God’. The letter shows us how Paul sees the spread of the Gospel to be a matter not only of spreading the Word but also of setting an example, a pattern of Christian living. It is their imitation of Paul’s way of living that commends Paul to them. The Thessalonians are converted in their hearts to the way of Christ and seek to follow him. This does not necessarily mean, as can be seen, for example, in Paul’s difficult conversations with the Corinthians that all matters of daily living are resolved. Many difficult theological and ethical questions still confront them.

This has led me to thinking about theology and the Church and how the Anglican/Episcopal Church in particular is a Church that has a whole range of theological, ecclesiological and ethical viewpoints. What can hold us together despite these disagreements? How can we recognize Christ in one another? How can we call ourselves common members of the same Church? It is easy to demonise those we disagree with; it’s far too easy for me, for example, to see all those who disagree with women’s priesthood as being untrue to the Gospel. Similarly I may look down on those who consider homosexuality to be a sin. I think that Christ leads us in a better example however, one that cajoles us in to seeing Christ in the ‘other’ and especially in his disciples whom we have matters of disagreement with. It is not simply what people say, how they interpret Scripture, how they understand matters of theology that matters (even though these do matter) but we must seek also to read the hearts of others: listening to the pattern of their lives, to see if they are loving Christ-like people, honestly seeking to serve God and neighbour. We then may be able to look to ourselves and see if we truly are loving Christ-like people seeking to serve God and neighbour. If we start out aiming to respect the other, we may find that our conversations take on a new tone and we are able to move into positions of compromise.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Reflection on Proper 23A

Exodus 32:1-14 or Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

by Janine Goodwin

When I looked up the six possible texts for this week, I felt I was developing a case of spiritual whiplash. In Exodus, an idolatrous people make a golden calf and Moses persuades an angry God not to destroy them. Isaiah presents a vision of a banquet in which all are invited to share God's abundance. Psalm 106 speaks of a God who destroys sinners and rewards the good. Psalm 23 is a song of pure trust. Paul, in the reading from Philippians, urges the faithful to consider whatever is good, true, pure. The Gospel is a disturbing parable about a king who invites people to a feast, destroys those who refuse the invitation and kill the messengers, and throws out a guest who comes without the proper garments.

Where, in all these songs and stories, is the God I want to worship and serve, the God of love and merciful justice who cares for every created being and is always ready to forgive, heal, and empower? Is that God really present in Scripture, or really absent from it—or, perhaps the most frightening alternative, is God capricious, loving one moment and violent the next? After a childhood of fearing to question a punitive God and an adult life spent asking questions, as I work to trust a God who is neither the autocrat of my projected fears nor the puppet of my magical thinking, I find myself looking at some images of God and saying, "That is not a God I want to worship and serve." This is startling to me. Some would call it blasphemy or arrogance and say that the very act of challenging an image of God found in Scripture or interpreted in certain ways by tradition makes me less a Christian—even though Scripture is full of questioning, full of the search for a trustworthy God. I have come to believe that my calling is exactly to hear that inner voice, no matter how it may challenge and disturb me. If I do not question my own responses, I can't hear what God may be trying to tell me about Godself and about the limits of our human perceptions of God--always including my own perceptions, which are, like everyone else's, both enriched and limited by my experience, perceptions, culture, and temperament.

I believe Scripture is a conversation, that the history of faith is a conversation, and that our life of faith is a conversation. The differences between a given set of Scriptures sometimes feels more like a talk-show free-for-all in which different views of God compete loudly for air time. What are we to believe of God, given this set of texts? What are we to say when even Jesus seems to be calling down destruction on those outside his circle of followers?

Is God the cosmic version of a punitive parent who plays favorites, who responds to the destruction of human sin with even greater destruction, who can only be persuaded not to destroy us by desperate pleas for mercy? Too many of us have grown up with abusive parents and find that image of God all too familiar and not at all lovable. A God who burns cities and sends plagues, even with unpredictable moments of leniency, is not a God I want to worship and serve.

What are we to do with the conversation of faith around these texts, the conversations that become traditions and often end up claiming to be the only truth about Scripture and about God? What are we to say about the long tradition of anti-Semitism which has used the parable of the wedding feast to justify prejudice that simmers at the best of times and is expressed in horrific violence at the worst? A God who chooses a people as favorites and then destroys them is not a God I want to worship and serve.

What are we to do about the preachers who claim the destruction stories, or the destruction of the city in this parable, and call upon natural disaster and disease as punishment for sin while ignoring the fact that the demonstrably innocent suffer alongside the presumably guilty? A God who kills innocents to make a point is not a God I want to worship and serve.

Does God only love those who are good—or only love us when we are obedient? A God whose love for any part of creation is conditional is not a God I want to worship and serve.

The parable in Matthew 22:1-14 is the most disturbing, because it is presented as coming from Jesus. It is relatively easy to understand that this parable is insider language, spoken from one member of a group to another, and should not be warped into a tool for anti-Semitism. That still leaves is with the questions of violence and exclusion, and Jesus' seeming approval of both. This parable doesn't sound like the Jesus who preached nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount, who talks to women and Samaritans and Samaritan women, who heals lepers and befriends prostitutes and tax collectors. But it's there, and although I worship the God who inspired Scripture rather than worshiping Scripture itself, I can't just wish it away.

Barbara Reid, O.P., takes on this apparent contradiction in an article entitled, "Matthew's Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables," and suggests seven possible explanations. The ones she prefers share the idea that this passage is a parable about the end of time, when God will show us the consequences of all our actions. She says, "God does not become vindictive and violent at the end time. But those who refuse to imitate the gratuitous, unearned love of God choose instead to fuel the cycles of violence and, by their choice, become victims of this violence themselves."

I like this answer for several reasons. It takes away any idea that we are the judges and the ones who execute God's punishment in the
present: when God is the final judge, and judgment happens at the end of time, we lose the impetus for holy wars, witch burning, and the bigotry that tries to cloak itself in faith. This answer also takes us away from the question of whether human violence or natural disaster are sent by God or serve God's purposes with "collateral damage" to the innocent. It calls us to focus on our own responsibility for our own actions, both individually and collectively; to work on making wise choices; to live those choices well. At the end of time, I will not judge my ancestors, my contemporaries, or those who come after me:
I will come before God and answer for my choices and my part in the choices made by the groups to which I belong. Facing the natural consequences of my choices is a very different thing than facing someone who is angry and punitive because I disobeyed arbitrary orders. I may not like the consequences of my choices, but they were mine to make; realizing both the extent and the limits of my freedom to choose, I can listen to the God who offers infinite creativity and infinite love, and learn to choose better the next time. As a nation facing the effects of our greed and violence, we may have hard times ahead, but we are not being punished by God, and we still have the chance to make better choices, to make sure the consequences of our greed do not keep us from the duty to feed and clothe and heal all people, to find the richness of God's mercy and love rather than continuing a level of consumption the world cannot sustain and inflicting violence that the world may not survive.

Our responsibility to choose is paralleled by our responsibility to question. We have to ask what Scripture means, ponder the contradictions, work to understand the voices we hear. This parable is based on the only cultural paradigm available to the people who lived in the time of the Gospels, the paradigm of empire. We now see that set of symbols as limited, and we can suggest others: Letty Russell has suggested the paradigm of the household as one possibility. No matter what they are or how they choose them, no matter what insight they bring them, all symbols and images for God are limited. We must always remember that. We must not stop by seeing the limits of others'
ideas, but must also look and pray to find the limits of our own.

A trustworthy God who can't be limited by our images, who gives us freedom, who allows us to experience the consequences of our own actions without being either permissive or punitive, and who is always ready to help us change and heal and do the work of God's good creation—this is the God I want to worship and serve. What will I do today, what will I plan to do, so that I may live out that worship and service?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Proper 22, Pentecost 21

Reflection on Matthew 21:33-46

I am writing this reflection in the midst of a busy start to the new academic year. Just before term started the Governing Body of the Church in Wales approved the recommendations of the Working Group that was a set up as a result of the visit of two welsh female priests to UNCSW 50 as part of the AWE delegation. The remit of this working group was to look at ways in which the Church in Wales could comply with ACC resolution 1331. One of the outcomes of this report was that the theological college where I am training (the only one in Wales) is now committed to not only educating ordinands on issues of gender equality but also all of the clergy currently serving in Wales as well. So, in the midst of enrolment and the beginning of lectures I have been asked to help work out how we do that as a college. The college has chosen to draw on the experience I have gained as a delegate to UNCSW51 & 52. It seems to me that there is now a genuine interest in what I have to say, and issues of Gender Equality are now at the top of the agenda.

All of this was on my mind as I read the Gospel passage for this Sunday. It reads as a warning to those in positions of responsibility to be mindful of their attitude. The tenants in the parable are selfish, out for what they can get and determined not to let anyone get in their way. They forget who they are working for, they forget they are only tenants. Jesus himself tells this story knowing that he is the owner’s son, he too is going to be thrown out of the vineyard and killed. He also knows that his death will be the turning point for Israel as those who kill him will be displaced, they too have used their position to make themselves rich, and have not given God his due.

In approaching Gender Equality at a college level I have been very careful to highlight the reasoning behind ACC 1331 to put it into context in relation to the Millennium Development Goals and the place that women have in achieving those goals. Taking into account today’s Gospel reading it seems quite clear why it is important to get women into positions of responsibility. Women are slowly but surely finding their voice, a voice that has been suppressed by the powerful for far too long. And yet, we are still struggling. My message has received a mixed response this week. Some are keen to redress the balance, others are under the misconception that women in Wales have equal opportunities and that there is nothing more to be done, they do not understand that until women penetrate into key positions of responsibility that women’s voices are never truly heard. Many seem to want to ignore the global issues altogether, they are far enough away, let each country deal with it’s own problems.

Despite the mixed reactions I have received this week, I am heartened by the progress, and I, and we, should take heart from today’s Gospel passage.

"'The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes'?

As surely as the tenants are overthrown, and as surely as we know the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, so too will women achieve positions of responsibility and redress the global imbalance to make life better for all. All that we are asking is an equal share of power with men, all we are asking for is for our voice to be heard. As long as we stay strong and persist we will achieve our goal.

Sarah Rogers