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"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas I

Christmas 1
1 Samuel 2:18-26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-21
Luke 2:41-52
A reflection by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.

We’ve finished Advent and reached the birth of Christ, and everything has changed. Since we are dealing with the Gospels, it’s not changing in the ways we would have expected.

In the liturgical year, we are in the Christmas season, yet this week’s story presents Jesus not as an adorable baby, but as an independent adolescent. In the calendar of saints, December 27 is sandwiched between the martyrdom of St. Stephen on the 26th and the massacre of the Holy Innocents on the 28th. These juxtapositions are a useful antidote to the sentimentality of cards and of some carols. They are a reminder that the prophecies of Advent have their darker side, that the presence of God among us challenges our assumptions and intensifies our power struggles, and that the Gospel is the Good News, but never the Easy News.

Every parent has hopes and expectations for a newborn, and parents very often find that the growing child confounds those hopes. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary has gone from the Magnificat to worry and reproach. We see in her words a tension between love and dismay that will last until the Resurrection. She remembers the prophecies, she stores his words in her heart, and she does not understand what Jesus is doing. We would do well to remember that none of us do. We may be familiar with the Gospel stories through a lifetime of repetition, but the more closely we listen, the more disturbing and challenging they become.

Jesus explains his actions in words that bear more examination. In the NRSV, the translation is, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” but Dr. Ann Nyland, in the Source New Testament, translates that sentence as “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” and Luke Timothy Johnson, in the Sacra Pagina commentary on the Gospel of Luke, renders it as, “Did you not know that I must involve myself in my father’s affairs?” When Jesus aligns himself with the God who sent him, the emphasis is not just on presence, but on action. The action, in this case, is theological study, and Jesus is holding his own with the great scholars of his day. The Father’s business is not just fulfilling prophecies of messianic kingship: that business, the story tells us, has much to do with knowing God in new ways and finding new answers to old questions. All who heard Jesus, Luke tells us, were amazed at his understanding and his answers. The incarnate one, even as an adolescent, was a teacher among teachers, a teacher of scholars. He was, and is, one who calls us to question everything we think we know about him and about God.

That call to listen, to question, and to learn is difficult and sometimes frightening, but I find it a joyful call, because I have my own questions when I look at the stories in today’s lectionary readings. The reading from 1 Samuel is chosen to match the boy Samuel, who served at the temple and “grew up in the presence of the Lord,” with the boy Jesus. Elkanah is there, a woman who received the blessing of children and gave the first one to the service of her faith. Her faith and grief, and her husband’s love for her, were vividly described in earlier passages. As a teenaged feminist with the preconceptions of the 1970s, I would have assumed that she was just another woman who wanted what she was told to want, a domestic drudge. I would have judged her life, which was lived well within the norms of her culture, as having been somehow less worthwhile than that of a woman judge like Deborah. I now believe that we need not devalue what has not always been valued, or what has been valued as the exclusive work of a less valued class of persons. The work of keeping a home and raising children may not be the only work for a woman, but it is not a task to which authentic feminism is opposed: the opposition must be to those who would make it simultaneously compulsory and worth less than any other work. If I believe that Jesus challenges assumptions with which I disagree, I have to accept that he challenges mine as well.

The darker side of the story here is the part about Eli’s unnamed sons, who are using the unnamed women who serve at the tent of meeting for sex. Sexual abuse of those who serve and who hold no power, abuse practiced by those who do have power is present, noticed, and named as wrong, yet no one seems able to make it stop. No one values the women enough to protect them, and Eli’s protests, based on reputation rather than on the damage to the women, make no difference. The assumption about the men’s resistance to change in the text is that “it was the will of the Lord to kill them,” an assumption I wish I could discuss with Jesus. I cannot believe in a God who controls people and then kills them for acting under that control.

The passage from Colossians shows an understanding of human worth that is growing toward a life of mutuality and equality, but still tells wives to be subject to their husbands and children to obey without question. For its time, it is radical; for ours, it can be used for purposes that deny the changes its author sought to make in the ways we see each other. For centuries, passages like this have been used to send women back to abusive men, and children back to abusive parents, for centuries, with admonitions to husbands and fathers which have often been ignored. It is a first-century admonition from a culture very different from our own, and if we use it as a proof text, rather than considering it in the light of what we now know about power and inequality in relationships, we may do damage to people and to the Gospel message.

The Jesus we come to know in the gospels is one who would have stood up for the women outside the tent of meeting, who valued and taught women, who cared for children. His father’s business was to teach us, across cultures and across time, that we all have worth and that all our work matters.

The adolescent Jesus in today’s Gospel went home, as an adolescent should, with his parents and into their everyday life. One commentator waxed lyrical about the simplicity of that life as opposed to city and scholarly life: as a resident of a ranching community, I am deeply skeptical of such lyricism. Some lives may seem simple in comparison to others when viewed from the outside, but whatever our circumstances, there is complexity in any human life. Jesus did not give precedence to the scholarly life, small-town life, the lives of the rich, the lives of the poor, or city life: he spent time in all those lives, saw them, gave the same love and attention to everyone, and in doing so changed all human lives, giving them new significance. Like the scholars in the Temple, like people of faith in all times and places, we are still trying to learn what that means.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent 4C

A reflection on the Gospel, Luke 1:39-56, for Advent 4C by The Rev. Crystal Karr

One of my favorite things to do is to look for art, especially paintings that were inspired by the scripture we read each week. The paintings draw me deeper into the story. Each artist emphasizes and illustrates something different from the next. For example, some artists have dressed Mary in rich and luxurious fabrics like velvet, while others dress her in rag-like clothes. Some have the angel, Gabriel, larger than life floating above her with Mary cowering in fear. Others have Gabriel bowing before Mary to honor her with the news. Each picture enriches the story of the Annunciation, gives more depth and food for thought.

Often what appears to be a "little thing" might give us a new perspective into the scripture, give additional meaning. Until recently, it was normal for artists to paint Jesus and stories from scripture into their own modern context---think of all the elaborately decorated dresses and costumes Mary has been robed in throughout the years--historical accuracy was not a concern. This allows the story to be real for us--to break into our world and open our eyes and heart to where God is moving in the present. Sometimes we zero in on a particular rendition or image and begin to idolize that image--forgetting that it is just that, one artist's idea. But if we examine many images it can enrich our understandings of the scripture and help us to grow in faith.

As I've looked for pictures of this week's gospel reading, of Mary and Elizabeth meeting, the pictures I've seen show 2 women greeting one another, sometimes with rounded bellies, each filled by a little boy. Yet, they sort of look the same--perhaps it's the family resemblance. Their differences are not striking nor profound--a slight difference in age but not too much.

Yet, when I picture Elizabeth in my mind, I see a woman with grayed hair, tired from the weight of the child, tired from taking care of her ailing mother and father, tired from reading and playing with neighborhood children that could, should have been her grandchildren and yet she is just beginning her journey into motherhood.

Mary, she's young, her face pleads innocence and confusion, and joy, through it all is joy. She has just the beginning of a baby bump, hardly noticable unless you already know she's pregnant. She could be the nursery helper, assisting her aunt Elizabeth on Sunday mornings.

These are two women who have no business bearing children, let alone children that are special not only to their mothers but to the world, to us 2000 years into the future and beyond.

As they meet there are no wayward glances, no scanning of one another's bodies looking for a note of shame, downcast eyes, that recognizes the aberration of their bellies--each filled with an infant son. No, instead there is joy, excitement, and anticipation for the birth of their special babies. They are at home with one another.

Can you imagine the chatter? Have you felt the hiccups yet? Oh, John kicks all the time--I think he might be a great soccer player! Then laughter! The laughter they must have shared--laughter over the disbelief, Zechariah's muteness; tears over the lack of understanding, the lack of belief, the looks, the small cruelties inflicted as they walk down the street. Joy over being together, finding sanctuary in one another sensing that "yes, this IS absolutely real!"

It is no wonder that Mary would then break into song! Have you ever had one of those moments? Have you ever just burst into song because you were overwhelmed by something--good or bad? When the girls were younger we'd make up silly songs for everything and there were (and still are) those moments in which life feels like a part of a movie and you could easily be convinced that someone is recording it? The only thing missing is the background music to cue you in on what will happen next.

Mary's song, her Magnificat, begins by praising God and moves to proclaiming the promises that her son will make come true. Her song is much like Hannah's, it's the classic Biblical reversal of fortunes--the hungry are fed while the previously well fed go without, the poor are elevated while he rich are humbled, the world is flipped upside down.

Good news for some but for most of us in this sanctuary it's sort of scary, at the very least a bit intimidating! But this is what happens, what has been promised by the Most Divine, the Holy One when God becomes man, becomes flesh and bone. When the glorious day arrives and Christ returns for a permanent transformation of all of Creation, the world will be made right--which likely means that our values and priorities will be set straight, that all peoples on the earth will be well fed and have what they need.

No longer will we be driven by fear of war to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. No longer will we feel be driven by greed to stockpile stuff. No longer will we attempt to fill the emptiness--the void that we foolishly attempt to fill with food, alcohol, drugs, money, and stuff. All of our additions and greed will fall away, shatter into dust because God will be with us upon the earth, peace will fill our lives. Real peace, peace that is more than freedom from fighting, the peace that which only God can give will envelope and transform us from the inside out. We will be free from the fears and false idols that distract us from loving our neighbors and loving God with all that we are. God will live among the people, finally, at last, all will be well and joy will stir our hearts evermore.

This is the joy I see in Mary and Elizabeth's greeting. This is the joy that I pray you and I, we will awaken to this Christmas and this is the joy that I hope and pray that we will courageously bring into our world with each day that is gifted to us. We too are asked to make room for Jesus, we too are asked to give birth to Christ, to raise Christ up so that all may see and recognize the bit of Christ, that image of God that lives within each and every one of us. May that living image of Christ be born in us, so that when we greet one another--we too can experience a joy-filled exchange of love and recognize the Christ in one another. Amen? Amen.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent 3C

A Reflection on the readings for Advent 3C: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6) Philippians4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

Once again Advent is moving past us quickly. This third Sunday is focused on joy. This is the point where we pause for a moment in our Advent waiting and rejoice and give thanks for the abundance of God’s love. Our readings reflect the theme of the joy that comes from faith and trust in God’s steadfast care and presence with God’s people. We have Zephaniah….. ”Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”…and Isaiah….”Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.…Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation…..Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” And Paul who writes from his prison cell…”Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice….Do not worry about anything...” And of course, John quoted in Luke, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” What! Wait a minute here! What on earth does that last bit have to do with it? How does that fit in here? It seems a bit out of sync with the all the rest of this joy and reassurance.

Yes, with all these sure and certain voices telling us to sing and rejoice because God is near and we need not fear, John seems to strike kind of a discordant note. But if we look closer perhaps he really is singing a closer harmony than it might seem. Like Paul and the prophets, each of whom had a deep sense of God and God’s action in their lives, John too knew who he was in relation to God’s plan. Jesus, the Incarnate One was coming and it was John’s job to clear the way, to ready the people, to say what needed to be said to make a way for the true joy and light and God to manifest in human history in a way that had never happened before. As Eugene Peterson says in The Message, in the Incarnation "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood."

There is no doubt that John gets our attention…and it appears he got theirs. “What then shall we do?” Not a bad thing to ask when preparations for a big event need to be made….what can I do? What is my part in the bringing about of the kingdom? The crowds asked. The taxed collectors asked. The soldiers asked. No matter who we are….from the poorest and least to the most powerful….all are called to be a part of this transformation.

John’s answers were not complex….to the poor…”share what you have with one another,” to the tax collectors….”take only what is right and fair,” to the soldiers, “don’t misuse your power to get money, be content with what you have.” It almost sounds a little like Paul…. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”

So maybe what John is saying is really not all that different from what we hear in Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul after all.….. maybe it is the same message “God is right here in the midst of us, loving us exultantly and doing great things for us, and if that is the case, maybe we need not be quite so worried about everything. We know that when we come from a place of trust we feel secure. And when that is the sure and solid footing from which we base ourselves, it is much easier to be generous in sharing whatever we have with one another, as we aren’t feeling so worried that there is not enough to go around. Maybe we can even begin to repent of that…to turn from it… from the hoarding and holding on. From all that living in fear and zero-sum thinking that we are so prone to. Maybe we can release ourselves just a bit from that upside down, fear-based worldview that tells us that the only important things are how much we get and how much we keep. Stuff. Money. Power. Maybe we can repent of that too. Because it really isn’t life-giving. It really isn’t joy-giving. In fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s really quite deadening. We see examples of that all the time. Of the way it destroys our joy and relationships and love and peace. Of the way it saps the life right out of us. In The Message translation, John says to the people, “What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire." Harsh words in some ways, but words that can also wake us up. Words that can move us toward the kind of repentance he is talking about and bring us to a place where we can find real joy. “What counts, John says, “is your life.” Your life, my life, one and precious, is what counts to God. Zephaniah says God rejoices over us, exults over us with loud singing. That’s quite a thought, isn’t it? That life, that one….yours, mine, his, hers, each individual one….is the one that Jesus the Incarnate one broke into history for…each individual one…..

God’s vision for the world and for God’s beloved ones is always so much bigger than ours, filled with so many more possibilities for transformation than ours could ever be. God’s vision never reflects the world as it is, but as it could be….or already is in God’s time. People like John and Zephaniah, like Isaiah and Paul manage somehow to understand that vision and pass it on to us. And hopefully we too get moments when we have glimpses of it too and are able to see the world with God’s eyes for a moment. To see ourselves as we could be, and the world as it could be, transformed by God’s redeeming love manifested in the radical lived daily Christianity of the followers of Jesus. Imagine if….if we shared what we had, collected no more than was needed and were satisfied with what we had….if we did not live in fear, were gentle with another. If we were thankful. If we were at peace. If we loved one another the way that the God who exults over each of us does. How would it change the world? How would it change us?

“What counts is your life.” What then should we do?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Advent 2

A reflection on the readings for Advent 2 C by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

I write today with appreciation for the life and witness of Grant Gallup, an Episcopal priest whom I got to know during his very productive retirement years in a retreat house he established in Managua, Nicaragua. Among the many productive things he did during those years was to send an weekly e-mail called “Homily Grits,” with exegesis and reflection on the lessons of the week, on the political and social challenges of the day, drawing on a deep well of religious texts and literature. He would pull together the most remarkable and unlikely bits, and there was always something in those Homily Grits that made my own sermons come together in a fresh and yet deeply orthodox way.

Grant was one of the many progressive Anglo-Catholics I met during my years in Chicago. He had retired from parish ministry there to move to Nicaragua, and was always an enthusiastic supporter of the Sandinista revolution, and of the ever flowing well of hope such political movements would bring to the adventure that is the revealing of the reign of God on earth. Indeed, perhaps it is fitting that Grant died in late November, on the cusp of Advent, whose theological themes of hope, waiting, expectation, the coming of the end times, the beginning of the reign of God that will overturn all corruption and darkness and want, were part of his weekly messages to us in what he called the “Me-First World.”

You can read some biographical details of Grant’s life in Louie Crew’s pages, or on the blog Randuwa. It’s important to note that Grant was one of the first Episcopal priests to come out of the closet in a public and spiritually grounded way. His early witness shocked many of his very deeply closeted colleagues in those Biretta Belt Midwestern dioceses of the 1970s and ‘80s, dioceses which were then seemingly impregnable opponents of the ordination of women as well. Yet as a gay Anglo-Catholic, Grant was a true prophet of the sweeping changes that came across that “gin and lace” culture. Grant understood and proclaimed that only as each of us are allowed to stand before God as our true selves, woman or man, gay, straight, transgendered – name your identity – that God’s dream for the church as an agent of the healing of the world can be realized.

I close with part of Grant’s Homily Grits for Advent 2-C, 2006, as published on Louie Crew’s website. Thanks to Louie, all of Grant’s work is available to read.

John the Immerser is the one who speaks to us in the word of preparation.

John comes onto the stage in the musical play Godspell, remember, with a bucket of water and a sponge, as he splashes water over the other members of the cast, singing Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord. So John came preaching justice, for he was the first liberation theologian of our Epoch. He was, according to Jesus, the greatest of the prophets, and we tend to forget that Jesus himself said so, and we tend to forget that because John was so very great that the Church, very early on, began to be afraid that he might outshine Jesus, as centuries later on it feared the Prophet Muhammad might also shine too bright, and so when the gospels were written down, they went out of their way to make people understand that John was after all only an usher, a fore-runner, a curtain-raiser or an emcee, but not the Main Act of a three-ring circus. But Jesus never spoke of John as an "only" or as a "merely". Jesus said he was the Greatest, just as Muslims speak of God, and like them that John was Greatest ever born of a woman. John came preaching preparation, and still does so, and today John is back again amongst us with his gospel of Get Ready, take your places, start your engines.

Luke sets John's word in history, and tells us the news came when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Tiberius Caesar had been Emperor fifteen years , Herod was tetrarch (that is, ruler of a fourth) of Galilee, and Caiaphas was high priest (his father-in-law Annas still had a lot of influence, though retired, like Papa Bush) . Pretty precise in his dating, Luke was. About 27 or 28 C.E., perhaps in the month of August or September. Preparation had to take place specifically, some time, not any old time, but THIS TIME. Luke gives us the date, almost the hour and the minute, when GET READY must begin. He doesn't tell us this, but at about that time the Han dynasty was beginning in China, Cymbelline was recognized as King of the Britons, London was being settled, Italians were first using soap which they had got of course from the French, the Pantheon was being built to house all the gods of Rome, and the oboe had just been invented at Rome, the "ill wind that nobody blows good," as some wag would put it one day. The Japanese had recently started their style of wrestling, and gaining weight by eating lard, and Pontius Pilate had replaced Archelaus as Tetrarch. Jesus still lived at home with his mother and his brothers and sisters. In Preparation. Incubating. In the womb of history.

When we use the word Prepare, we forget that it is made up of two words, PRE, meaning beforehand, and PARE, meaning to trim, to cut, as in preparing vegetables or trimming the fat off a cutlet before cooking. To pre-pare is to take some action beforehand in planning the future. Look at the things I have mentioned that were being PREPPED at the time: Changes in government in China and Britain, Changes in hygiene and health in Italy, changes in music and sports, in Rome and Japan. Everything we're living with now in terms of what all these have come to be in our own experience, all had a beginning in their preparation back in 27 A.D., in the time of our Lord, or C.E., of the Common Era.

What we do today in our own land, in our own cities, in our own churches and at our own holy tables, is inevitably a preparation for what is to come after. We need consciously to look at what we might in fact be introducing to the stage of history, what we might indeed be ushering into the future. What it is we have set "slouching to Bethlehem to be born." The unelected leaders of the Western World say we need to prepare for Star wars and nuclear wars, that we must prepare for an endless war on terrorism and on terrorists. And so we have done so, and are prepared indeed to destroy all life on the planet if necessary, to save it for the market, for capitalism, and to keep it from choosing socialism or home-rule or independence or the Religion of the Prophet, or any way but our own way. The surface-to-air missiles we sold to half the world half a century ago to save it from communist Russia are now turned on us from the hills of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq. President Reagan said in 1985 that he told the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that he was confident there would be an alliance between the two superpowers against "an alien race" if there was ever "a threat to the world from some other species from another planet." But the threat against which the US and Russia had finally to make common cause was not from another planet, but from the Two-Thirds world of our own planet---the rising victim nations, the barking underdogs, the oppressed peoples of the global hegemony the Me-First world has made. It is not so far after all from Chechneya to Central America, from Pakistan to Peru. You get what you prepare for, and the US has prepared not for the completion of a democratic project in history, but for the catastrophic end of imagined enemies, and rushes towards a doomsday, carrying the world with it as John Baptist sings out instead, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord". Fill up the valleys of poverty amongst you, pull down the mountains of privilege and selfishness and greed around about.

Whose way are you preparing in your own life, with your own resources, your own skills and gifts, your own commitments? Are you preparing a Way for the Lord? Are you preparing the way instead for continuing racism, continuing class oppression, continuing theft of your own taxes to slaughter the world's innocents, to fund the military monster? If so, you are preparing for death and hell. John Baptist sings his solo across the ages, and across the stage to the privileged main floor seats and numbered boxes where we sit: "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christ The King, Last Pentecost

A reflection on Christ the King, Last Pentecost: Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1: 46-8;John 18: 33-37 by The Rev. Sarah Rogers

‘My Kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.’ (John 18:36).

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Jesus is about to go to his death, hailed as King of the Jews, Pilate and Caiaphas have both disowned him. Only a penitent thief on the cross beside him will acknowledge his sovereignty.
When he comes in just a few weeks time as a baby, the manger will be ready, lined with soft hay waiting to receive him. He will be welcomed with carols and gifts. A humble birth in a stable.

But today we welcome him as King, but are we ready? How do we welcome our King? I am never quite sure, I find it difficult to conjure up a picture of Jesus reigning in heaven. The traditional picture we have of a monarch clothed in fine robes, seated on a magnificent throne, never quite fits – perhaps that is just a British view of a monarch. I find it difficult to reconcile that image with the image of Jesus on the cross. I think this poem sums things up:

King of my life, I crown thee now,
Thine shall the glory be.
Lest I forget thy thorn-crowned brow,
Lead me to Calvary,
Lest I forget Gethsemane,
Lest I forget thine agony,
Lest I forget thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.
(Jenny Evelyn Hussey).

I cannot separate the crucified God from the King, Jesus reigns from the cross. At this time of year our minds are often drawn towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Christmas is approaching, and this week America celebrates Thanksgiving, both are times when families gather together, to share a meal, to exchange gifts and just to spend time together. So many don’t have that, and so I am drawn back to Jesus, crucified. That image of the ultimate suffering, and all for our sake.

Jesus reigns here and now, he is to be found in the homeless, the poor, the sick, the bereaved, indeed all those whose suffering mirrors his own suffering on the cross.

Jesus cannot truly reign until there is no more sorrow or suffering. Although for those who rest in Christ the kingdom has come, for those of us here on earth, we must still work towards the kingdom. As we sit down with our families and friends and celebrate, we remember the struggles of those who have gone before us. Those who have fought and are still fighting for equality of all people, those who fought against slavery, those who won the right for women to vote, those who fight for all of the marginalised groups.

Being a Christian is not easy in today’s increasingly secular society, and yet Christianity persists and will continue to persist. It persists because the crucified God reigns, wherever there is suffering. So, the kingdom is come, Christ reigns through us, whoever we are, regardless of our gender, race, colour, ability. Christ reigns through us as we minister to him when and wherever we find him in those who are in distress and suffering.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Proper 28B

A reflection 1 Samuel 1:1-20 from the Propers for 28B by the Rev. Margaret Rose

As a feminist and practitioner of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s hermeneutic of suspicion I read the Bible with a lens which often notes the absence of women. And when women are present and named I rejoice. Hannah’s well known story prompted me to name my older daughter Hannah, and through the years we often reminded her of this fact. We told the story of Hannah’s persistence, her desire, and especially of her song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, the prototype for Mary’s Magnificat. We reveled in the news of Samuel’s birth and of the answered prayer.

But until a few years ago when I was writing daily devotions for a month of Forward Day by Day, I had not paid much attention to what surrounded the text. My lens was just a bit too short sighted and I did not notice the other characters or even the social context.. I did not hear the loving words of Hannah’s husband Elkanah who says to Hannah in the agony of her barrenness, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?” I did not take note of the text which tells us that Elkanah gives a double portion of the sacrifice to Hannah “because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.”

Filled with the pain of barrenness and the ridicule of a rival wife, Hannah is in misery. Steeped in the cultural norm which claims she is not worthy or whole unless she bears a son, she weeps and prays for deliverance. Her prayer is answered and we have remembered Hannah and Samuel through the ages.

But the real hero of the story is Elkanah, the husband whose words defy the very cultural norms that would exile Hannah from the social circle. Elkanah claims Hannah as whole and worthy, offering himself to her, proclaiming his care—in spite of what the culture might dictate. As I often lament the missing voices and history of women in the Biblical texts, here I want to lift up the courage of Elkanah, whose name is certainly not a household one, but whose actions were quite radical and without whom, the Biblical story would be quite different. I am grateful for Elkanah’s long ago witness and for the chance to tell his story.

In fact, I am thinking of starting the Elkanah Circle—good men who love women well and who have the strength to defy stereotypes and cultural norms to do so. This week I attended a panel discussion on Young Women and Violence hosted by the Wellesley Centers for Women. There were the horrifying statistics of young women raped and trafficked, the continued realization that domestic abuse is still rampant. We were reminded of the recent violence in Richmond, California on the grounds of a high school during a high school dance where a teenager was raped in full view of many. But the good news was the story of the number of men who are engaged in stopping this violence: 100 Black Men; Men Stopping Rape; and the groups of fathers and husbands and brothers who are engaged in changing the culture of bullying in schools and on playgrounds.

Elkanah-- and these men and so many others help me remember to use my glasses to see the whole picture-- to question my own assumptions, to look at all the characters of the story. Here of course, I have not dealt with the “rival wife”. And the Biblical scholars will surely remind me of much that I have neglected. But those questions are for other reflections. For now, thanksgiving goes to Elkanah for his respect, for his love and for his courage.

The Rev’d Margaret Rose
New York November 13, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2009
A reflection by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the holy spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

I believe in the communion of saints, and I have recently begun to see how little I understand what that means. It goes almost without saying, but not quite, that all people of faith are saints, and that churches celebrate exceptional lives of faith by calling the people who lived them a capital-S Saint. But the communion of saints is what fascinates, puzzles, and sometimes frustrates me. What does it mean to be a part of that communion? What is it like? Behind that lies the question: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Some non-Christians, having had painful experiences with Christians who were busier telling them what they ought to do than showing them Christ’s love, can list negative characteristics of Christians with a clarity and justice that should get more attention, and more repentance, from Christians. Those of us who think we are not like THOSE Christians need, as soon as we think that, to examine our own biases. Some people find it easy to say Christians have certain defining characteristics, though many of them are eager to define those characteristics in ways that exclude other people who also call themselves Christians. Some people, both Christians and non-Christians, assume that Christians always agree with each other: the reality is more like the quiet observation of a former Catholic priest I once met. He said that people asked him what the Catholic position on an issue was, and he could only say that there were a lot of Catholic positions on any issue, some held by the hierarchy and some not. Later on, learning from members of the Order of Preachers, I heard a friar joke, “Two Dominicans, three opinions.”

The communion of saints is certainly not a fellowship of the like-minded, and to prove that, just look at Peter and Paul, whose battle over whether or not to perform surgery on new male Christians prompted the first council of the nascent Christian church. They argued passionately and openly; now they share a feast day, which seems to me to prove a Divine and institutional sense of humor. There is a deep rightness to the linking of Peter and Paul, because in the end, their differences did not divide them. That, for me, is the first clue to what the communion of saints is like. It is also a great relief, because I am not going to agree with Tertullian’s writings about women, nor say there is anything good about them. I have condemned his words as harshly as he condemned women; I cannot imagine what being reconciled to him would mean; yet someday I will be, as Peter and Paul are reconciled.

The exact nature of that reconciliation is what I cannot yet imagine. I take comfort in my growing faith and trust in a God who can love people on both sides of any conflict without downplaying their differences, pretending they don’t matter after all, or requesting that everyone just make nice. Those are human ways of coping, and they don’t work any better than the opposite extreme, which is persecution. People who believe in the communion of saints, but wish to exclude each other, have a shameful history. Having been both an Episcopalian and a Catholic, I have heard stories of Reformation-era martyrs from both sides. Frequently the martyr in one church’s story was the persecutor in another. Thomas More turned Protestants over to be executed for heresy, and was himself executed for treason by Henry VIII for refusing to accept Henry’s sovereignty over the Church of England. More’s response to his execution fascinates me: "albeit your lordships have been my judges to condemnation, yet we may hereafter meet joyfully together in Heaven to our everlasting salvation." This is the sort of generous response that must be treated with care. It could never be asked of someone: it is a gracious gift. It does not diminish the enormity of the judgment, yet it reaches beyond it, and reaches grace.

Several hundred years after More’s death, I was invited to a Vacation Bible School celebration at a Baptist church in which a beloved Catholic child was taking part. Liam’s parents told me the Baptists were very welcoming but couldn’t quite believe that Catholics would come to their VBS. Indeed, when the leader read a list of participating churches, we heard Liam’s parish announced as “St. Thomas More Episcopal Church.” We laughed about it afterward, and told each other that More, the satirist, was laughing too—but if he was, the joke was on us, because he has been listed in the calendar of saints of the Church of England since 1980. That is a moment of institutional grace.

I do not believe our differences and conflicts can be erased or denied. I cannot believe that they are not important. Yet there is something beyond them, something none of us, except perhaps a few of the more mature and perceptive saints, can see without distortion or express without confusion.

Thanks be to the God who can see us, know us, embrace our individuality, and love us all, despite all divisions, and will yet bring us together joyfully in Heaven to our everlasting salvation. Amen.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Proper 25B

A reflection on the readings for Proper 25B: Job 42:1-6, 10-17 or Jeremiah 31:7-9 • Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22) or Psalm 126 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52 by The Rev. Crystal Karr

Job lost a bet he never made.
We call him patient.
We call his wife a fool.
His friends call him sinner, hating his sin and begging him to repent and to be healed.
He cries for justice.
He calls for God to face him.
He demands.
He dispairs.
He is not patient.

God comes.
God comes demanding answers.
God speaks from a tornado
God cries too.
God cries the pain of creation.
God cries for what man has said is evil and doom but God loves and made.
God rebukes the friends for they did not speak the truth, they spoke what was easy.
God cries to Job,.
God talks with Job.
God sits with Job.
God heals Job.
God restores Job's wealth.

Job knows injustice.
Job prays for his friends.
Job gathers his friends and family.
Job names his daughters.
Job gives his daughters an inheritence.
Job knows injustice but does what he can.

Job was a good man.
Job knew suffering.
Job knew sorrow.
Job knew pain.
Job knew betrayal.
Job knew that somethings lost can never be replaced.
Job knows that all's well that ends well is just a lie.
Job knows that joy can come again but it doesn't drive all the pain away.
Job knows that flowers can bloom in the shit, but the shit still stinks.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Proper 24B

A reflection on Proper 24B: Job 38:1-7, (34-41) or Isaiah 53:4-12 • Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c or Psalm 91:9-16 • Hebrews 5:1-10 • Mark 10:35-45 The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

I recently resigned from my position as the Rector of a parish. I was there a total of 19 months. I loved my parish and the position I held. It was big, busy, and dynamic. It required intense pastoral care to an aging population, something I am very good at. I preached and presided at over 30 funerals in those months. I comforted many suffering people and their family members too, as the end of life took its toll. I made more visible the children and young families, especially bringing the children into leadership roles in the Sunday morning worship. I tried to work with all the congregation, young and old alike.

My desire to work with all the congregation required navigating a road between those who wanted everything to stay the same and those who were ready for some exploration of life, faith, spirituality, and worship. Within a few months, as that exploration began, we encountered significant resistance from some members to maintain the status quo. Although I received help and advice from a congregational development consultant, our Canon to the Ordinary and my Bishop, and worked on leadership development and discipleship, I came to feel that the congregation could not resolve its conflicts. As a result it would be unable to move beyond the animosity directed to the “new priest.” With my resignation, both my Bishop and I hope that the congregation may have a longer intentional interim period, consider its conflicting desires, and reach a consensus about its values and direction.

The process of resigning, the actual doing of this and living into the aftermath, feels very Jobian to me. There is a lot of suffering within me. I feel a great and heavy sadness. I also feel as if it was the very thing I needed to do. The right and healthy thing for me and my wellbeing was to remove myself from the situation. The right and healthy thing for this congregation, was to remove myself from the situation so that they can do the work they need to do. I felt this deeply in my inner being and in my prayer life.

I am left with a lot of feelings. Feelings of failure. I failed. I was unable to do whatever the right thing was to navigate the conflict and restore stability. Feelings of loss. Loss of my identity as the Rector of this church, loss of work, loss of the ministries we were about, loss of direction. Loss of confidence. Others I know, both men and women who have gone through similar congregational conflict experiences, have similar feelings.

Another piece of what I have to work through is the experience of being “Told what to do” by members of the congregation and others in leadership. The parish consultant I hired said, “When women are called as Pastors to a congregation, the congregation views her as ‘their daughter.’ And daughters are supposed to listen to what they are told, and be obedient.” I have worked in three other congregations and not felt that this was the case, but it certainly mirrors a piece of my experience at this particular congregation.

And, another question I've been asked, "Would this have happened to a man? Would this have happened if the rector had been a man?" I don't know. I do know that I have several male colleagues who have had challenging experiences in churches, men who resigned as a result of the conflict. So, I really can't assess if this particular church would have responded differently had a man been there instead of a woman. It is possible that for some any change in leadership style would have been too much change.

More to the point, I have a lot of feelings to work through. And work through them I will. In the meantime, I am in a deep dark place. My hope is that my time of reflection is something like Mary Oliver describes in this poem:

"Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this too, was a gift."

Mary Oliver, "The Uses of Sorrow" in Thirst: Beacon Press 2006

There is a bigger issue here, though, than just my particular situation. This is a feminist theology blog and therefore by intent these reflections offer a particular feminist lens through which we view church, ministry, life, and faith.

That said, as women we struggle to have our voices heard. Numerous studies have been done, and in particular I think of the work of Carol Gilligan, on the developmental process of girls seeking to be heard and have their voices honored. It is a cultural dynamic and it feeds into our leadership as well. I think of how Hilary Clinton is portrayed by the media: how pictures of her tired and angry hit the news during a meeting in Africa. We never saw though, the many other meetings she held that were filled with hope. Of how an African-American President and a white American woman are impacting the world.

It is rarely conscious, the reality that individuals and groups, tend to “hear” male voices over female voices. Rarely intentional that boys are called on in the classroom more than girls. A social reality that men jump in to a discussion quickly while women speak up more slowly.

What then does this mean for women as leaders? Several books have been written on the way women lead. In particular I think of, “The Web of Women’s Leadership” by Susan Willhauck and Jacqulyn Thorpe, and “Leading Women” by Carole E. Becker. These books describe women’s leadership as “relationtional” and offers ways for women to work on being heard and lead without compromising who we are to “become like men.” They honor the differences in leadership, men and women, one not being better than the other, just more authentic to who we are. Men and women are different. It’s been years since I read these books and no longer remember exactly how they unpack this. Perhaps I will reread these books as part of my process of moving through my feelings during this dark time.

Our reading this week from Job is an incentive to move through darkness. It doesn’t really sound that way, perhaps; God scolding Job because he has missed the point. God reminds Job that God is creator of all, that Job is part of what God has created, and that Job plays a role, albeit small, in the ongoing recreation of the world, a re-creation grounded in love.

I think though of a book I once read, I believe it was “Job and the Mystery of Suffering” by Richard Rohr. I’d go back and reread some of the book to be certain, but it’s packed in one of many boxes of books from my former office, so I have to rely on my memory :-)

Following today’s reading Job responds to God. Scripture says, Job repented in sack cloth and ashes. (Job 42). Rohr suggests that one word is misinterpreted. Job did not repent “in” but rather he repented “from” sack cloth and ashes. In other words, Job, rather than sitting around feeling bad, needed to pick himself up and move on, certain that God was with him all the way. It seems God is telling Job that God will act in Job’s life when Job takes action in his life.

I hear in this that I need to reflect on what happened in order to learn from it. And, I need to honor my feelings of grief and remorse. I also need to trust that God is in this and therefore I need to move through my feelings.

Some time spent reflecting on what happened will be useful. I don’t want to become bitter and blaming, of myself or others. I hope an honest reflection will enable me to become wiser and more mature. I hope I am better able to understand my leadership style. Perhaps I’ll have some insight as to what I might do different the next time I encounter conflict and resistance. In time I need to forgive those who hurt me in this process and I need to forgive myself.

Perhaps I can learn from Job and trust that God is a part of all of this, the good, the hard, the painful. I don’t believe that God causes these challenging times in life. Loosely based on the systematic theology of John MacQuarrie, I’ve come to think that because of free will God allows life to unfold, the good, the hard, the painful. I also think that, as God did in the beginning of creation, when God created order out of chaos, that God helps us move through the chaos into a new created sense of order.

Perhaps as women we play an important role, at this time in history, helping God re-create from the chaos of the world. Perhaps God is speaking into the world in a particular way, through the voices of women and the way we lead. Perhaps in time relational leadership will pull order out of disorder and create new ways of being church? Perhaps we are called to lead in this challenging time so that the world can more fully understand what Jesus means when he says, “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Proper 23B

A Reflection on Proper 23B by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy - Mark 10:17-31

“He looked at him and loved him.” And that, it seems was the moment of the rich young man’s undoing in this week’s Gospel. When someone sees us and loves us as we really are, it can be challenging to us. It can call out a response in us to face the truth of our lives for good or ill. And it can make us turn tail and run for cover, even if we are grieving as we go.

I recently attended a clergy conference where the facilitator used the work of Parker Palmer from his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. As part of our discussion, he asked us to reflect and share with one about another our “shadows” which are:
 A basic insecurity about our own identity and worth

 The belief that the universe is a battleground and essentially an unfriendly place

 Functional atheism – the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us

 Fear of the natural chaos of life

 Denial of death and denial of failure

What was most interesting to me in this group of clergy was how many of us identified that our biggest shadow was “functional atheism” and how much we struggle with that. Many of us articulated how painful that is, and how deep it goes – that indeed it is a soul conflict. We “know” with our hearts and souls…indeed most of us with all of our beings that God is God and we are not…and yet…and yet….to see us in action, one might easily conclude that we might think that indeed the ultimate buck does stop with us. Many shared that they find themselves feeling burnt out, exhausted and even resentful about the demands of their call, and yet feel the need to keep doing more and more, and to keep striving to do it perfectly, or at least as others demand they do it because this is the only way they feel that they are “good enough.” Many also shared, with some sadness, what gets lost in all this striving. Compassion, joy, a sense of connection with oneself and with the Holy One.

“I have followed all the commandments all of my life. Indeed. I have been a good minister. I have dotted every i and crossed every t. I have visited every sick person and attended every meeting. I have signed every register and done good liturgy. I have studied hard and preached well. I have listened and been a non-anxious presence even when my own anxiety was rocketing me out of my skin. And God…I am so tired! That’s what that particular shadow in action looks like for many of us.

“Enough trying” says Jesus. “It’s not about that anyway, because my beloved silly human….you cannot save yourself anyway. Give it up, give it over, give it away….it is not about you.”

Oh. The young man couldn’t bear that particular piece of news, wasn’t ready for the depth charge. He had to go. But he went sadly. Knowingly? Maybe. Sometimes we do know when it’s there, the real thing, the better way, just out of reach…but we can’t quite manage it yet, the fear, the shadow pull is still too strong.

We were reminded that shadows are illuminated by light and that there is for us a Light that the darkness cannot overcome. We were also reminded that frequently we cannot see our own and that is why we need to be in loving community with one another.

We cannot save ourselves. For the functional atheists among us that may come as scary news on a bad day. The illusion of control brings us comfort and the command to give all we have away makes us quake in terror. Until we remember just who and whose we are anyway….just who it is that looked in love, said “give it away.” The credibility of the example is hard to argue.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Proper 22B

A reflection on Mark 10:2-16 by The Rev. Camille Hegg

I wish this reading were not in the lectionary anymore. It has always been, and still is, cause for controversy. The whole business of adultery and whether a person re marrying is committing adultery has been the cause of much pain in the church. Women abused by their husbands have been told to go back home and make things better, or to pray that God would so their husbands would act better.

I once had a mother come to me for counseling. Her daughter who was in her early twenties was in the hospital because the daughter’s husband had beaten her and she had a broken collar bone. She wanted me to pray for her daughter and her son in law, that the son in law would not hit her again. I asked her if she wanted her daughter to stay in the marriage and she replied, “Oh yes, marriage is sacred.” All of us reading this article know of very similar experiences. Violence against women does not seem to lessen.

For long history divorce in marriage was forbidden and women continued to be treated as property, or as unimportant as the small rocks an absent-mjnded walker kicks out of the way on his walk. When Jesus says that Moses granted that a man must give a wife a certificate of dismissal, we are invited to think this was an improvement. With the certificate she could prove she was no one’s property anymore. Perhaps she wouldn’t get beaten up so much. But she was turned out to fend for herself. Centuries later, through this passage Jesus broadens the issues and says whoever divorces and marries another is an adulterer. Seems to me that makes it worse. You can’t marry again without being another kind of sinner and the pressure to stay married because of this ‘teaching’ as caused much worse consequences. .

But I noticed something in this gospel that I never had before. Jesus says that when a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she get the same treatment. She is an adulterer, too. But she apparently is free to divorce.

It made me wonder: When did the ability of a woman to divorce her husband come into the culture? In the time of Moses? With the new covenant of Jeremiah? With Jesus and these words? I’m going to keep that question in my mind as I do some research. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans were already making it possible/legal for a woman to divorce and by the writing of the Gospel of Mark it was assumed.

I propose a look at the words of Jesus to broaden our images from this passage. Then maybe I won’t regret so much int being in the lectionary.

For instance:

Various translations of the creation story describe God as creating a “fitting helper” or a “helpmeet,” or a ‘partner.” Some refer to a wife and we infer a woman when we hear the word wife. The terms ‘fitting helper” and helpmeet” broaden our images of what a life partner means. It scares some people, but it seems a natural process to enter into discussions about what fitting partnerships are. .Perhaps one day we will ask the question “when did unions of people of the same gender come into the culture and be assumed part of the culture?” There will still be controversy, and divorce, and hardness of heart, and adultery.

Let us broaden our images of adultery and hardness of heart. Making something impure or using cheaper materials than called for means it is adulterated. It’s more than what people do in their bedrooms. It’s what they do in their lives to themselves and others.

Any relationship or person can be adulterated. Issues in relationships involve power and the potential to abuse it; giving or withholding respect, lack of forgiveness. Sometimes couples grow apart through neglect and dishonesty. Hardness of heart should be an occasion for tears, repentance, and calling forth the most honesty, integrity and respect we can pull from our being. To do less is a kind of hardness of heart toward ourselves. To stay in an abusive relationship also implies a kind of hardness of heart and a lack of forgiveness of oneself for allowing such treatment. That is a kind of adulteration toward oneself and an occasion for tears and self forgiveness.

The more we know about the world, the more we realize that women are still being treated very badly in many parts of the world. Keeping girls from education, killing them for being raped, female genital mutilation, starvation, are just the surface. They are some of the varieties of hardness of heart. The people who foster these systems and these cruelties engage in a kind of adulteration of themselves.

We need divorces from these abuses and hardness of heart.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Proper 21B

A reflection on Proper 21 Year B, Esther 7-9:22, by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Reflections on Esther and Orphan Theology

My daughter, Miriam, now 21, was an avid Bible reader at an early age. Her favorites texts were the Old Testament family epics. She would read for hours and then come to me with questions which stretched my exegetical knowledge. She was most perplexed that in the midst of the many everyday details about women related to “flow of blood” or cosmetics, eating and drinking, or intricate descriptions of palaces and their d├ęcor that there was a vital missing aspect. “Why don’t they ever talk about bathrooms in the Bible, mommy?” (Actually, she later told me she did find some reference to Saul in this regard…)

While I could not answer her question, with or without a straight face, I was glad her reflections quickly moved to other stories. Often, though, she returned to the book of Esther which includes this Sunday’s text. I dare say she missed the strong feminism of Queen Vashti who refused to strut in front of the King and his feasting friends. And I suspect she enjoyed the beauty treatments that Esther received in order to please the King. But she was also moved by the courage of Esther who defied cultural norms, named herself as a Jew and saved her people. This is the Jewish celebration of Purim which happens in the crossroads of winter to spring in the Jewish calendar’s month of Adar.
The text for this Sunday relates the part of Esther’s story where she calls Haman out for his plan to annihilate the Jews. The king is enraged, Haman is hanged and at least for this day there is no pogrom.

What a strong and strategic woman Esther was. First, in becoming Queen, then in hearing her Uncle Mordecai’s plea, “Do not imagine Esther, that of all the Jews in the kingdom you alone will be safe. If you remain silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will come from anther quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows whether it is not for such a time as this that you have become Queen.” Esther heeds his call and in defiance of the law, vows to go to the King, even if it costs her life.

Initially, I intended to continue these reflections with a look at how life so often brings us to a time and place for a certain noble purpose. We, like Esther have a choice to risk, if not our lives , much that is important to us. For such a time as this…. we are given the means and the power to make a difference, if only we will choose to do so. For that we need strength and bravery and a large dose of courage.

What we don’t often realize in Esther’s story as we revel in her courage is that she is an orphan, having lost both her parents. It is Mordecai, her uncle, in whose family she has been raised. And because of that I offer another aspect which might be useful in preaching this text.

In the Spring/’Summer edition of the Harvard Divinity School bulletin, Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi, currently a Phd student at Boston University and a Kenyan, relates the story of her field work in Kenya at the Homa Bay Children’s home which works with children orphaned by HIV/Aids. During her intense summer of field education Elizabeth saw the connections between the wisdom encountered among the children there and the Biblical texts studied in her more academic life. She reminds us not only of the Biblical mandates to care for the widowed and orphaned, but also of the small and powerful voice these who are seen as powerless often exert. She notes the power of the small voice in 2 Kings when the widow woman calls on Elisha to help her orphaned children, and later when the voice of the servant girl to the wife of Naaman is the one responsible for the Elisha’s healing.

And it is the small and strategic voice of Esther who saves her people. Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi’s own words say it best:
Although the story of Esther has been romanticized, her life story is fraught with difficulties. When Queen Vashti is banished from the throne, Mordecai, whose intentions are hotly debated by scholars, seems to be looking out for Esther’s best interests by granting her the opportunity to become the king’s new wife. However, the “application process” consists of girls engaging in sexual activity with the king and being judged for their beauty and performance, the price of which is deemed to be small in comparison to the opportunity to become queen. The story suggests that through this avenue Esther can save herself, have a better life and save her people.
In a small voice reading, Esther’s story reminds us that sex for potential salvation is daily presented to or forced upon orphan girls. Just as Esther was subjected to sexual abuse as the way to salvation, it is not uncommon for prostitution and sexual slavery to become the means of income for some orphan-girls in Africa.” (Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Spring/Summer2009)

And I would add many other places. As Siwo-Okundi develops her understanding of Orphan Theology, she invites us to read the texts with a strong hermeneutic of suspicion. What is really going on here? Who is being exploited? She invites us to note the places where rather than become a powerless victim, the small voice of the orphan becomes a powerful word for good.

As I re read the story of Esther, I began to wonder about Purim. And whether there were any discussions of this celebration from a feminist perspective. Indeed, a number. One in particular was an article in the JWeekly, written by the mother of four sons. In it she delves into the power and courage of Vashti who in refusing to come before the King and show her beauty, was banished from the Kingdom, or worse. But that voice is for another Sunday!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Proper 20B

A Reflection on Mark 9.30-37 by The Rev. Sarah Rogers

I have noticed that Jesus often goes away quietly with his disciples to teach them. He focuses on this small, chosen group of followers so that they will be better informed of what he is about and will therefore be able to pass on his teaching to the wider community. The central focus of his teaching is that he will die and rise again and in order to explain this he tells them many things about the Kingdom of God. There are many new things that the disciples need to grasp, and time is short, as Jesus repeatedly has to tell them, he is not going to physically be there for ever, time is short.

The disciples are incredibly reluctant to accept that this young man is going to die. After all he is not only their teacher and they have witnessed him doing great miracles. How can it be that he is going to die. However, Jesus persists in his task to make the rather reluctant disciples understand this new dimension in Jesus’ ministry. This is the second time out of three that Jesus has had predicted his death and resurrection in Mark’s gospel. The disciple’s still don’t get it, but Jesus nurtures his disciples, he is patient with them (at least most of the time).
Jesus’ task is to make the disciples realise that his death is not going to be a tragic accident it is the ultimate goal of his ministry. He does this gradually, the details have yet to be explained, they will become clear in time. Jesus also hints at the fact that his death is not going to be the end, ‘three days after being killed, he will rise again’.

Although the disciples continue to misunderstand what Jesus is telling them about his death, resurrection and the new Kingdom, he patiently puts them right, he nurtures and teaches them.
As the disciples begin to realise that they are about to lose Jesus, they also begin to realise that they need someone to take on the authority, that is why they want to know ‘who is the greatest?’ But, Jesus looks at this question of status rather differently, as far as he is concerned ‘the first will be last’. Jesus firmly tells the disciples that they should not seek greatness, rather, they should seek to be last. Their ministry is to be servants and not to dominate. Jesus turns things upside down. The outcasts of the Jewish society at the time, gentiles, women and children will be first in the kingdom of heaven.

I can’t help thinking that Jesus thought like a woman. How often have women been the unsung heroes, the power behind the throne, the ones doing the cooking and cleaning whilst their men are out doing powerful things. Women understand the role of servant, for some it has been a role they have been forced into, for others a role that they have fallen into and been quite happy with and for others to serve has been their ultimate goal. Servant-hood is certainly not something to be fought against rather, Jesus teaches us that it is desirable.

I am also struck by the way Jesus appears in a nurturing, mothering role in the way he teaches his disciples. He uses the child as a visual example of what he means. Children are not valued in Jewish society, except perhaps by their mothers, they are expected to do as they are told.
What does all this mean? Well, I think it gives us hope that one day the gifts of women will be fully recognised. We must go on nurturing, gently teaching those around us that women have an equal place. Of course, that doesn’t just go for women, the mission of the church has always been to reach out to the deprived of society. This passage not only affirms the role of women within the church, but also gives us courage to continue just being.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Proper 19B

A reflection Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 by Jacqueline Schmitt

There is so much about Jesus that we now, here, today, take for granted; after all, we know the end of the story. Our culture is filled with worn cliches about Jesus, who is either our cozy buddy or our moralistic judge. So much of what has happened – actually all of the past 2000 years of western civilization – gets in the way of our understanding of who he really is in the pages of the Gospels.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They trot out the usual answers, drawn from their experience with religious figures: Elijah, who was an ancient Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, who cried out in the wilderness. That would be the predictable thing, to understand Jesus because he was like someone we already knew about. But then Jesus surprises them – and us – by asking them – and us, the readers of this encounter, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter delivers the surprise line now: You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the leader with royal stature and political power to lead us in a revolution against all that oppresses us. You are the one who will deliver us from the power of the Roman Empire and the corruption of the Jewish authorities. You are the Man.

We can hear a tune playing in the back of Peter’s head: “happy days are here again.” Visions of sugar plums, their side winning, the oppression of the cruel Romans routed out, no more crippling taxes, health care with a public option, leaders with true spiritual and moral integrity restored to the Temple in Jerusalem. These plans sound good. Isn’t this where you’ve been heading all along, Jesus?

Then Jesus delivers the really surprising salvo: “Get behind me Satan.” What you have in mind are merely human expectations; you need to set your mind on what God has planned, and for the short term, it won’t be pretty. God has sent me here to confront all those evil things that you mention: the powers and principalities that work against what God has in mind for humanity. But they will fight back, and I will suffer and die. And to follow me means sharing in that fight, in that suffering, even in that death. This way is difficult, but this is the way to life, to justice, to abundance, to mercy, to love, to community, to life.

No, this is not an easy lesson to preach on. It’s so much easier to preach on the abundance Jesus promises, or the healing he delivers, or many times he fed and taught and touched people in need.

The Epistle is a difficult, harsh reading, but it makes a point: Last week the emphasis was, “Watch your actions! Keep them true to your words – faith without works is dead.” This week it is, “Watch your words!” Perhaps Peter should have followed such advice, for his words in answer to Jesus’ question caused Jesus to erupt in an angry rebuke.

I came across a quote from a theologian reminding me that the parables of Jesus are stories about how God is searching for us, seeking the lost and the least, not the triumphalistic and powerful. He wrote, “The Christian Church does not offer men and women a route map to God. Instead it tells them by what means they might be found by [God].”

So often, when we seek God, the temptation is to look for a reflection of our own needs, to find the key to our own selves. But these two lessons remind us when we get in this business of a relationship with God that God takes the lead – God looks for us – God asks tough questions of us – God directs us to places we never thought we’d go. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks us. This is not the final exam, but it is an invitation to follow him and to find out more.

Jacqueline Schmitt

The Adventurous Parson
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Friday, September 4, 2009

Proper 18B

A reflection on Mark 7:24-37 by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M. S. Ed.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What on earth is Jesus doing, saying a thing like that to anyone? How can these words be coming from the Jesus who has just told members of his own group that observing food laws is not as important as what is within a person? I find myself disliking this passage for two reasons. The first is personal. This is not the Jesus I want to believe in. I want Jesus to be unfailingly kind and loving, always generous, always comforting to those in need. I am a recovering codependent, praying daily for healing from old, distorted teachings, working daily to uncover and recover from my own need to always be the good girl, the teacher, the helper, and never to admit my own needs, anger, bias, or sinfulness, not to mention plain old bad moods. I wonder whether I want Jesus to be the ultimate codependent. Certainly I don’t want to believe he would say something so cruel to a woman who wants healing for her child.

As I begin work on this passage, I want to find an excuse for Jesus, a reason those words aren’t really as cutting as they sound. The second objection takes shape: it is a sense of distance from the culture in which the Gospels take place, combined with the sense that God is alien and unpredictable. I am haunted by a remark from one of my Education for Ministry mentors, a passionate conservative who was doing his internship year in a wildly liberal parish: when we discussed some troubling passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, Gordon would smile and say, “Ah, but that was before God was a liberal.” He always got a laugh from us, and he got us thinking as well. I like to think that God agrees with me. It is easy for me to see that some passages in Scripture are written out of assumptions we no longer share—and it is easy to bear that as long as I am sure mine are an indication of the spiritual growth of the church as a whole, more true to the spirit of the Gospels, more just, more loving, more, well, right. In my indignation and unease at Jesus’ words to the Syro-Phonecian woman, I find a deeper fear: what if I’m wrong? What if Jesus was sexist and prejudiced? What if God is?

I feel again the sense of distance between my culture and the cultures from which Scripture grew. The Jesus whom I take for granted is in many ways a stranger, and his world is not mine, though my faith stance tells me that my world is also his and he is present with me. Still, in the world of this story, I don’t even know why this woman is there, what treatment she has faced for having a child who is seen as demon-possessed, and why Jesus makes such a distinction between their groups that he can call his people children and hers dogs.

Chasing the uncomfortable questions through commentaries and articles, I find that the woman’s act goes outside many rules. She breaks in on Jesus’ privacy by walking into a house where he has gone to be free of the demands of others. In a culture where public life revolved around men and a male relative was expected to do the talking, she addresses Jesus directly as she begs for a healing for her child. She does all this despite the fact that their ethnicities and faiths are different, and that his group regards hers as inferior. She is no coward; having come this far with her request, she is unlikely to shrink back at one rude sentence. Like the woman with a hemorrhage who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment despite the deep taboo against a bleeding woman touching a man, she has gone outside the rules of her time and place. She has the courage of desperation, the determination to get what she needs for her child no matter what stands in her way.

Jesus does not simply react by telling her to go away and leave him alone: he responds by gives her an opening. He tells her the “children” must be fed first, that their food must not be thrown to the “little dogs.” The initial sense of a rude refusal hides an interesting nuance. Has he taken her measure and offered an argument that those around him will expect to hear, trusting a brave woman to press her point? Whether he is surly or setting up an argument for her to knock down, he has not slammed the door.

There is also a hint of a conversation between groups: it is possible that the “little dogs” refers to the Cynics, followers of a Greek philosophy whose adherents frequently went outside social convention and who were scorned as “dogs” as a result by the respectable folk of their time. If Jesus is making a reference to the Cynics, the phrase about dogs has the potential to be both an intellectual joke and a way of engaging the woman as an equal. The audacious female outsider is as worthy of serious conversation as a respected Pharisee. This could, after all, be Jesus crossing boundaries and extending respect to a stranger and an alien.

As a teacher, I know my students often learn best when they teach each other or teach me what they have learned. Jesus, in offering an opening, gives the woman a chance to teach him and those around him, and she does so, using her wit and courage to turn his utterance around with a skill worthy of Jesus himself. The dogs eat the children’s crumbs, she responds, taking the image and turning it back so that there is a reason he should grant her request and give her just a little grace, just one deeply needed healing. There is a compliment to his power hidden in her clever answer. I wonder whether Jesus laughs at that perfect response. Certainly, he respects it, and dismisses her only as he grants her request: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” The commentators say that she is the only person in this gospel who teaches Jesus something; the woman, the alien, the breaker of rules is a teacher after his own heart. Whether she wins an argument with a Jesus who needs to learn a lesson, or engages in a game of words in which, as Frost says, “the work is play for mortal stakes,” he has, in the end, respected her for qualities and actions that are very like his own.

There is much of which I cannot be sure in this story, but one thing is certain: God is indeed unpredictable. In both of the stories in this Gospel, the healings take place in ways that could not be expected. The woman’s daughter is healed at a distance: the man is healed by intimate contact. Jesus does not turn away someone who breaks the rules: he does command those around him to keep a healing secret, a puzzling theme to find in an account of good news meant to spread to the whole world. God may not always be a liberal or a conservative, and Jesus is not just a creature of his time or of my own. We would do well to keep a sharp but open mind as we ask Jesus for healing, and we must be ready to take it in the way and time that it comes, not as we would expect it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A reflection on the Propers for 17B

A reflection on the Song of Songs 2:8-13 by The Rev. Crystal Karr

The voice of my beloved!

Look, he comes,

leaping upon the mountains,

bounding over the hills. 

My beloved is like a gazelle

or a young stag.

Look, there he stands

behind our wall,

gazing in at the windows,

looking through the lattice. 

My beloved speaks and says to me:

‘Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away; 

for now the winter is past,

the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;

the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtle-dove

is heard in our land. 

The fig tree puts forth its figs,

and the vines are in blossom;

they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away.

Song of Songs or Song of Solomon is quite unusual when compared to the rest of the books in the Bible. Not once is God mention, nor are there any references to Biblical tradition or religious celebrations, and it’s a bit racy. Song of Songs is the only book in which a woman takes the lead and we hear what she says without also hearing the voice of a man interpreting what we hear, there is no narrator to direct the story—it is simply a woman and her lover. It is a book of rebellion just as the story of these lovers also breaks away from the cultural norms of Israel.

How so? You ask. The woman speaks with brazen desire, this woman who is expected to patiently wait on and for her husband and obey him, does not wait, she demands, she calls and desires. Some have tried to label these poems as marriage poems, yet there is nothing to suggest that these two lovers are married. The encounters are brief and passionate, it seems that they must hide and meet in secret. No, there is little evidence that this is a safe situation in which the bonds of matrimony have been shared. I invite you to take the time read the rest of the poetry in the Song of Songs and embark on this sensual adventure alongside these young lovers.

So why is this sensuous book of love poetry contained within our Holy text? That has been a question for many for thousands of years. Some rabbis believed that it was included in the Hebrew writings because it must contain some special meaning about God. More commonly it has traditionally been interpreted to be an allegorical or symbolic story about God’s love for Israel and then Christians have interpreted it as Christ’s love for the church.

This love is passionate and moving, tangible, touchable and real. It can be dangerous, exciting and beautiful.

The woman calls out for her beloved, beckons him to come to her in his magnificence and glory. Her own physical beauty woos and courts him. God desires us, God yearns for us and calls out to us. God’s passion and desire to be in relationship with all of humanity was so great that God became one of us.

In the verses we’ve listened to today, the woman, like God, watches over her lover with joy and anticipation, admiring his beauty. She hears him calling to her, “Arise, my love, my fair one and come away.”

Do we listen when God calls for us, enticing us into relationship with the Divine? Do we hear God’s voice as a demanding, responding out of obligation? Or do we hear the sweet tones of God’s voice, whispering to us and respond as a lover who cannot move fast enough to reach out other half?

Let us respond to God with joy and rapture, embarking on a new and inspiring adventure. Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Reflection, a prayer

on the readings for Proper 16B: 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

God of joy - we give thanks for a song in our hearts -
Our souls long for You;
Our heart and our flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Happy are those who
live in your house, ever singing your praise.

Hear our prayer; give ear, O God!

Behold our shield, O God;
Guide us in times of trouble, through night of sorrow,
and days when deceit lives in our heart more than love,
and hate for the stranger, more than love.
Speak gently to your anointed ones, that we may hear.

Hear our prayer; give ear, O God!

Help us see the stranger, who comes because Your song
is in his heart and on her tongue, ringing through -
help us to hear, to see, to embrace You -
in him, in her, in you, even, in me -
with outstretched arms and mighty hands.

Hear our prayer; give ear, O God!

God of joy - we give thanks for a song in our hearts!

Crossposted at: RevGalsBlogPals

Friday, August 7, 2009

Proper 14B

Reflection for Proper 14 year B by The Rev. Camille Hegg

The Epistle this week is somewhat a continuation of the one last week. Paul gives some very specific lessons in how to behave as Christians…..One of the best phrases is “be angry, but do not sin, and then he enumerates how to be angry without sinning: to speak the truth in love, put away falsehood, give up the kind of talk that is actually tearing down the body rather than building it up. and speak words that give grace. We could go on and on.

I’m reminded of a saying, one of those catchy phrases that is succinct and so true and clever, too. “No matter how long you nurse a grudge, it never gets better.” Not letting the sun go down on anger is a good axiom, too. In the church people often forget Paul’s admonitions and encouraged, and his reminded in this passage, which is that we are to remember the Holy Spirit with which we are marked at baptism. He is also reminding us that forgiveness is the best, most graceful way to buildup the body, and is healing for the one who forgives as well as the one forgiven.

Paul has probably given all feminists trouble, but one can’t neglect that his encouragement and reminders do soothe us all when we try to practice them. In many churches, people carry grudges, sometimes not even realizing that they are doing so. Anger, and a disposition toward a way of life can make one bitter and suspicious, always looking for a villain. That’s no way to live into the day of redemption, or into the Kingdom which Jesus said is “now.”

So many people don’t know how to speak in love and forgiveness when they are angry and the stalling I see in most parishes I know much about come because people cana’t speak openly for fear of being blamed, or because they are afraid of their anger.

Paul is both making a plea and giving instructions for the smooth function of a group of Christians trying to live and grow and live into the Kingdom. We all know this. Sometimes a nice reminder helps.

I am also thinking about this passage in relation to the gospel. Jesus has fed the people and then teaches them that they are clamoring for the bread that he gave because he said “I am the bread of life.” He said ‘don’t complain among yourselves but listen to me because I am speaking eternal things.”

We have manners in these passages and promise of a richer life. And someone baked that bread that they distributed.

I have been quite a bread baker in my day. I once spent a week in New York City at a cooking school in a Master class for baking bread. One thing I learned, first, is that kneading is a gentle act, not intended to be rough or harsh, but gentle, firm, consistent. It can be very healing just to knead bread.

We started at 9 a.m. and left around 5 p.m. We baked three or four loaves of bread – all different kinds – each day. We baked some basics, some Italian, Swedish, Jewish, Russian, French, and more from around the world. Some were very dense and heavy, some light and airy and a variety of shapes. We spent a lot of time kneading, shaping, and learning even the chemistry and physics of what happens when the ingredients come together.

I stayed at the Community of the Holy Spirit on W 113th St. The culinary school is on E 23rd. I traveled to and from on the subway each day. Every afternoon I was loaded with my day’s work on the subway. The sisters were so glad to see me because we had a banquet of bread for all. .

Bread is a miracle. A few basic ingredients can make such a variety of bread.
. The feeding of those who were hungry when Jesus was teaching and who were fed physically and spiritually by him was a gracious miracle, and sustained them longer than just physical food.

A few basic ingredients can shape a parish of people and help them become graceful, forgiving people who delight in one another and in remembering the promises. We have a gift and a task – to be the people of Christ and to show forth through our lives and through putting away falsities, grievances and speaking to one another without blame and with care. thanking God for all God’s blessings.

The production of food, especially bread is an act of generosity and kindness. The feeding of people, physically and spiritually are also gifts of generosity and kindness. I suggest it is hard to carry anger when we set out to bake bread or prepare something else for someone, especially someone who has hurt us. To accept food from someone is also an act of generosity and kindness.

There is a beautiful article by Debbie Taylor from ‘Women: An Analysis” in “Women: A World Report.” I found just a part of it in the book In Celebration of Women by Helen Exley. Taylor describes in very poetic ways the new mornings of women around the world. She begins, “At dawn in the dry lands of Africa …,as one body the women rise, tie their scarves round their heads and their babies on their back… set sticks to burn under cooking pots, slop food for chickens and pigs, pile porridge in bowls, …..and as the sun rises they make their way to the land for the day.”

Another paragraph begins at dawn as Andean women awake. They tend the goats, heat beans, and then go to the fields. Sometimes it is the prayer call from the mosque that awakens them, sometimes it is a cock crowing, sometimes a baby, but always as dawn begins and the sun rises. .

The part that I know ends with this sentence concise sentence: “These women, who live in the world’s rural areas, are farmers in everything but name. And their labor produces half of the world’s food.”

Friday, July 31, 2009

Proper 13B

A reflection on the Propers for: August 2, 2009, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost Ephesians 4:1-16 by The Rev. Margaret Rose

This week The Presiding Bishop was the celebrant at the regular week day Eucharist at the Episcopal Church Center. We were remembering William Reed Huntington, who as the de facto leader of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies made bold proposals for women which finally resulted in the canonical authorization of deaconesses in 1889. Passionate about Unity and reconciliation in an earlier time of stress and threatened schism in the Episcopal Church, he was the reconciling spirit even as the schismatic Reformed Episcopal Church was becoming a separate entity. In her homily and in another sermon in Anaheim, Bp Katharine suggested that Schism is not a Christian act. She commented that Philip Jenkins in a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal (July 17) disagreed with her. Jenkins noted the current controversy is not unique as Christian groups have been branded as schismatic or heretical since the 4th century. He writes, “At no point in Christian history has one single church claimed the authority of all believers.” “Is schism really so awful?” he asked. He suggests that the answer depends on the outcome—if a movement fails it is schismatic, if it succeeds, it becomes another mainstream denomination.

I suspect however that it is our understanding of unity which we ought to explore. The One True Church may be the issue here. For if unity has an underlying message of conformity, then it is little wonder that many are breaking away. What the Episcopal Church –and others--- have been struggling with is how we can find unity in a diversity of understandings. We don’t have to think alike in order to be together. Is there some way to be unified in the love Christ and the love of God’s people and yet stay together. And what does together mean anyway? That is the hard question. It is not so difficult when one is in accord with the direction of the institution. I am grateful for work of the General Convention and the courageous work of our leaders. But what of Jimmy Carter and some Elders of the Southern Baptist Convention who officially left the Southern Baptist Convention this month stating that the doctrine of subservience of women was untenable. I understand and applaud his move as well as the many years he stayed in the Convention in the hope of reform from within. If thousands had left with him, would that have been a schism?

Maybe the One True Church is not anything we now know but includes a much larger body than we have ever envisioned? And perhaps it is already emerging in places we have not usually imagined on Sunday morning or as the church at all. Bodies, knit together for the work of ministry.

The Epistle text, Ephesians 4, for Huntington’s day is the same as for Sunday, August 2. Unity in the Body of Christ is its overriding theme. There is the vivid picture of the body parts knit together for the equipping of saints for the work of ministry and unity in Christ. So it seems to me that our knitting together comes from the work of ministry. Could it be that the work of doctrine or “right belief” is the result of the work of ministry?

I have often noted in this blog, that the women from around the Anglican Communion who have gathered for the last six years for the United Nations Committee on the Status of Women, have been very clear about the work of ministry. It is in their hearts and communities and the hard work of their hands. It is undergirded by such biblical passages as Matthew 10—giving the least of these a cup of cold water, Amos 5—let justice roll down like the waters, or in Mary’s voice in the Magnificat. The Anglican women claimed the Millennium Development Goals and found their unity not so much in faith and order but in the work that bound them in the love of Christ. Their oft repeated statement is a tribute to Sisterhood and the Baptismal covenant.

The women who gathered this year reaffirmed their commitment to unity in Christ:”We remain resolute in our solidarity with one another and in our commitment, above all else, to pursue and fulfill God's mission in all we say and do.Given the global tensions so evident in our church today, we do not accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can, or indeed would, ever cause us to break the unity as represented by our common baptism. Neither would we ever consider severing the deep and abiding bonds of affection which characterize our relationships as Anglican women.

This sisterhood of suffering is at the heart of our theology and our commitment to transforming the whole world through peace with justice. Rebuilding and reconciling the world is central to our faith.”

Paul’s word about unity is spoken with regard to a rebuilding and reconciling faith. But it is not about conformity. Rather it is love which calls for speaking the truth. The point of the body’s growth in all its parts is for the work of love. Ephesians does suggest that we ought not be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine or people’s trickery, or craftiness in deceitful scheming. But then again. Who could disagree with that.

As the struggles of our Communion continue, I am praying that we can seek a deeper unity which binds us together and opens us to the ways of love and the work of ministry and to building the Body of Christ in all its parts.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pentecost 8B Proper 12

A reflection on 2 Kings 4:42-44, John 6:1-21 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

God take our minds and think through them.
Take my lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and set them on fire for You
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

It all starts simply enough, this story John has for us this morning, just another trip across the Sea of Galilee for Jesus and the disciples. A crowd is following them. This has become commonplace, for the word is out on Jesus. He has compassion for the sick and heals them. Who wouldn’t want to follow this rabbi and teacher? Five thousand of them are there were we are told. That’s a lot of people. Out here we don’t even see that many people in one place very often! Jesus has a concern for them…that they be fed. He asks Philip where they are going to buy bread for that crowd. I can imagine myself in Phillip’s place feeling some panic. Wanting so desperately to get it right but just not being able to come up with a solution. Even six months wages wouldn’t feed this crowd! And I can imagine myself in Andrew’s place as well…thinking helpfully, doing my human best….”well there is that boy with the two fish and the five barley loaves….” I always wondered if Peter gave him “the look” when he said that. You know the one brothers give you when you say something really out there…..and maybe Andrew wished he hadn’t said anything just then. But we’re told that Jesus simply asks the crowd to sit, and he takes those loaves and those fish and gives thanks and passes them around to the crowd. Everyone eats until they are satisfied, and when they are finished, John tells us “… from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.” A miracle. Undoubtedly, yes. On that day, in that place God through Jesus worked a miracle.

Our temptation as rational post-enlightenment twenty-first century people is to get very caught up in the “how” of this, to focus on what happened there that day. Did Jesus really multiply those loaves and fishes…. or was it a miracle of generosity as some have suggested…. the people in the crowd really did have food tucked away and somehow just being in Jesus’ presence caused them to be willing to open their hearts to share it with one another instead of keeping what they had to themselves? Because that too, could be a miracle.

The truth of the matter is we do not know what happened there on that hillside that day. As people of faith, we know that miracles of all sorts can and do happen. God's power is of course "far more than all we can ask or imagine," as we heard this morning in Ephesians. The danger of course is if we get stuck in trying to figure out what happened, we might miss the point of what it really is all about.

We have moved from the Gospel of Mark where we have been spending time these last several weeks into the Gospel of John. Mark told us over and over in any way he could the story of “the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John’s Gospel, which tends to be more mystical, has as one of its themes the incredible abundance of God and God’s love. In his first chapter, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. And remember, this is the Gospel that tells us “God so loved the world…..” John is full of stories that remind us about God’s abundance. Early on he tells the story of the wedding at Cana where Jesus instructs the servants to fill some jars with water, and the result is an abundance of good wine. John also offers us the story of Jesus offering the Samaritan woman living water and transformation. This time we have the example of a life itself made more abundant. Later in the Gospel, as he prepares to leave his disciples, Jesus says that in addition to everything he has shared about God and God’s love, there is such abundance to all of this that there wouldn't be enough space in the world to contain the number of books that would be needed to write it. There is even a point where Jesus makes a very direct point about this subject, saying, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Sometimes though, as it was for the disciples, it’s really hard for us to just believe this. We try very hard to explain, to understand. We are so used to thinking small, it really stretches us to simply accept the notion that this prodigious and amazing abundance of grace and love is just given to us, that in God’s world there is enough and that what we have to do is open ourselves to receive it with an open heart, and when we do….miracles really can happen.

The crowd saw in Jesus a good candidate for a king. Someone to save them from their perpetual cycle of bad leadership. They saw in him someone who could provide. Food. Compassion. Healing. Mercy and Justice. A way out of their worldly oppression. Their vision of him of course was way too small. Even the disciples could not yet quite grasp who and what was before them, try though Jesus might to help them get the bigger picture. Jesus knew that he had come into being as the one who was to show them both who God was and who they as God’s beloved creatures could be. Jesus knows who and who he is. He has the vision of God’s abundance that we struggle to grasp and hold. In order to avoid their attempts at forced kingship, he flees.

And we get another miracle. It’s dark, the disciples are out in the boat and the sea, as it says in an alternate translation “was awakened” in all its stormy, windy glory. Suddenly the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they are terrified. But he says to them (again from this alternative translation, “I AM WHO I AM; do not be afraid.” He is in essence telling them very clearly, “I am God, you really can trust me to take this one on.” And apparently, they got it, for we are told that they wanted him in the boat and they immediately got to the place they were going… essence “all was well” in as God reminded them of another kind of abundance.

And sometimes for us too….. Back in October of 2006, less than a month after my ordination, I was at my first Diocesan convention, and I was fascinated and awed by the movement of the Spirit in the work of the church. I was also going through a bit of “post-ordination formation” as God did a bit of God’s work in my life. The first night of convention I had a dream. In the dream, I met a man dressed as a shepherd. I can still see his rough linen tunic, the leather belt with the knife in a scabbard, his sandals, the dirt on his feet and under his nails. The man spoke to me in the dream. He said, "My plan is for you to have more abundant life." I must have looked blank, because he put his hands on his hips and said it again more forcefully. Apparently I still did not look like I was registering, because he stomped his foot and said it a third time… with feeling. In the days since, there have been an amazing number of opportunities to recall that shepherd and his message of God’s abundant outpouring of love and life and grace and my need to receive it.

God has a dream of abundant life for all of us. Most of the time we are with Phillip and Andrew and the rest of them, thinking that it’s all in our hands and forgetting that miracles do happen and that God’s amazing grace and abundance is there simply waiting for us to open ourselves to receive it. But like the people on the hillside that day, our miracle too is there for the taking….able to accomplish abundantly by his power at work within us far more than we can ever ask or imagine. Amen.