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

Friday, June 26, 2009

Proper 8B

Reflection on Mark 5:21-43 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

Mark’s Gospel begins with the words, ”The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. And indeed, Mark takes no time with genealogies or birth stories but brings us immediately into the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, into this unfolding good news of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus, for the people of that time and for us who hear it today.

When we encounter Jesus in the Gospel this morning, he has been traveling. He has just returned from the territory of the Gentiles in the land of the Gerasenes. In the Gospel we heard last week, Mark tells us about the trip across the lake and the disciples’ fear of perishing in the storm. He tells of Jesus calming the storm and Jesus’ response to the disciples “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

While in the land of the Geresenes, on the other side of the lake, Mark tells us that Jesus healed a man of a legion of demons, giving us another story of faith and fear. The man who was delivered of the demons was transformed by this encounter with Jesus and filled with faith. The people around him reacted in fear of Jesus and asked him, with some insistence, to go away from their place. So back across the sea he came, leaving in his wake both faith and fear.

This morning’s Gospel is closely connected in time and theme with these two. All three tell us the story of this Jesus, the Son of God who has broken into time to overcome evil and bring new life. The one who was foretold through history is making his way from Jerusalem and back in Mark’s Gospel, calling disciples, casting out demons, healing the sick, and overcoming death with life.

Two stories. Jairus. A leader in the community. Probably a man usually in control of the situation, in command of his resources. But not today. Today, he is desperate. His only child is near death. “Jesus, if you will come.” A woman bleeding for twelve years. Her condition had separated her from the community, devastated her resources, caused her endless suffering and struggle and now she too was desperate. “if I but touch his clothing.”

Fear, desperation, faith, longing for healing, for life to triumph over death….hoping against hope for a miracle. And Mark gives us not one but two miracles in this Gospel. Jairus’ daughter is restored to her physical life and the woman is given back her life as well as she is healed of her disease, restored to wholeness and community as Jesus says to her, “Daughter your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed…” and he comforts Jairus on the way with “do not fear, only believe.”

What is the message we are to take from this? Is this what we are to think of as signs of true faith? Are we to pray for miracles? And if they happen, or don’t, what does this mean? We know that we have a different context for the way the world works than the way Mark’s hearers did. At some level this matters in the way we hear this Gospel. And yet in another, it really does not. Because for Mark, the message of the Good News is about what happened to people when they encountered Jesus. Inevitably they were transformed and set free. Mark’s message is about how Jesus came into history to manifest the transformative power of God’s love to liberate people from powers that oppress them. People encounter God in the person of Jesus and they are transformed. Perhaps this is the real miracle.

In her book, Home by Another Way, theologian Barbara Brown Taylor tells the following story about her seven year old granddaughter named Madeline who just happens to be Madeline had a birthday party one summer. There were four people gathered around the table to celebrate. There was Madeline, Madeline’s recently-divorced mother, grandmother Barbara and Barbara’s husband, Madeline’s grandfather. As the candles burned down on the cake, Madeline listened as everyone sang the birthday song. She then leaned over and blew out the candles, but she didn’t make a wish. Her mother asked her, “Aren’t you going to make a wish?” Her grandfather said, “You have to make a wish.” Madeline looked as if someone had just run over her cat.” I don’t know why I keep doing this,” Madeline said.” Doing what?” her grandmother asked.” This wishing thing,” she said. “Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did. This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy will get back together…”“That’s not going to happen,” her mother chimed in. “I know it’s not going to happen,” Madeline said, “so why do I keep doing this?”
Taylor then says: “Since the issue was wishing, not praying, I left her alone that afternoon, but I know that sooner or later Madeline and I are going to have to talk about prayer. I do not want that child to lose heart. I want her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, but in that case I will need some explanation for why it does not always seem that way.” Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “One day, when Madeline asks me outright whether prayer really works, I am going to say, ‘Oh, sweetie, of course it does. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that.”1

Which brings us around again to ask ourselves why Mark is telling us this story? Barbara Brown Taylor says, "They are not stories about how to get God to do what we want, which is just another way of trying to stay in control. Instead, they are stories about who God is, and how God acts, and what God is like. Mark wrote them down for one reason and one reason alone: 'This is no ordinary man,' he tells us every way he knows how. 'This man is the son of God. Believe it.'"

She had been bleeding for twelve years. In addition to all of the ways we can think of as far as how awful this would be, in her culture it made her an outcast, probably cutting her off from the daily ebb and flow of community life, silencing her voice to all but herself. Being able to come to Jesus and tell him her “whole truth” must have meant so much to her, that moment of connection, of relationship…that may indeed have been her real miracle moment.

For Jairus, though the waiting was not as long, we can be sure the feelings were no less intense. He was forced to endure the interruption as Jesus stops to deal with the woman. Then he is told it is too late, his daughter has died. But again, that moment of encounter…”do not fear, only believe.” Was that Jairus’ miracle? When he understood God’s power to transform was right there before him in the person of Jesus?

Jesus broke into history as the great both/and. He came to show us who God is and who and whose we are. God is God and we are not, thanks be to God, as Father Ken used to say. Prayer is not simply about going to God and asking for what we want and need, but it is about relationship with God, chasing after God’s heart and allowing God to chase ours in return. Anytime this happens, there is no doubt that miracles will occur.

1Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home by Another Way. Minneapolis: Cowley Publications, 1999.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Proper 7B

A reflection on Mark 4:35-41 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

The cover page of New York Times Magazine last week carried the title, “INFRASTRUCTURE” in bold black capital letters highlighted in fushia on bright orange paper with a pencil drawing of buildings, highways, hot air balloons, cars, trains, and so forth.

I read the NY Times magazine every week, but this one was particularly enticing as I wondered what spin the Times was taking on this topic. Inside the magazine was an article titled, “Datatecture” covering the infrastructure of our world via the internet and our interconnectivity through Facebook, MySpace, iTunes, Gmail, and so forth.

Another article looked at the remaking of Paris while another one looked at high-speed rail issues and a fourth article discussed the merits of more humane prisons with cells that are like mini apartments.

I was particularly drawn to an article on the price of chicken, where the author bought a chicken at a farmers market and then wondered by he, or anyone, would spend $35 to buy a farm raised chicken from a farmers market. This article included a recipe from the author for his homemade chicken meatballs. For this author the price of chicken is an indication of an infrastructure gone haywire. More to the point, I think, was an article about the high number of shopping malls in America: some 20 square feet of shopping space for every human being in this country. America tops the list, compared to 13 square feet per person in Canada, 6.5 square feet in Australia, and 3 square feet in Sweden, according to a study conducted by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. The fact that many of the malls in this country are abandoned or built but never used, is an indication of a country whose infrastructure is over-retailed. You might say that this article looked at an infrastructure of misused abundance, defeating the purpose, according to this magazine, of a well-designed infrastructure whose function is never separate from form.

Like the society we live in, Christianity has an infrastructure. On the one hand one might say that the infrastructure of the Church was modeled on the hierarchical structure of the Roman Empire. On the other, at its most basic level one might say that the Christian faith is as simple as “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Of course what this actually means varies greatly across the spectrum of Christianity and history.

Many years ago when I was in seminary, and when he was still alive, Jim Griffiss, my theology professor said that Episcopalians are an Incarnational people. And so I would add, “Christ was born,” to the other three phrases. For it is in the birth of Christ, in the Incarnation that all else became possible. It is in the incarnation that God chose to work in and through human flesh to bring forth God’s greatest desires for humanity, perhaps for all creation. Generally speaking I define that great desire of God as love. For me this love is not romantic, although that may be a feature of tis expression. It is not necessarily warm or fuzzy, even though those characteristics may pop up in God’s love from time to time. The love that I think of as God’s love poured out for us in the Incarnation is a love of great depth, compassion, hospitality, kindness. It’s the love the lives in between the words that Jesus uses to summarize all the commandments: to love God, to love self, and to love others. This is a difficult to love to do, if we do it well, as God intends. It’s a love without limitations. It’s a love that if we live it well will result in radical openness of Spirit.

Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, was the commencement speaker at Mount Holyoke College this year. She had this to say in her speech: “Over 40 years ago, when I was in my midteens, I announced at home that I had decided to become a lawyer. The first words I hear in response were, ‘You can’t because you are a woman.’ It was the voice of our parish priest. The next voice I heard was my mother’s saying, ‘ Don’t listen to him.’ To my mother’s surprise I heeded her advice. A couple of years later, the same year that the first human walked on the moon, I started law school and our first textbook was called, ‘Learning the Law’ by a very eminent jurist, Prof. Glanville Williams. In a chapter ominously entitled, ‘Women,’ he stated his views that law school was no place for women and that our voices were to weak to be heard in a courtroom. That man had clearly never met my mother. “ (From the New York Times National section, June 14, 2009, page 18)

Who embodies the Incarnation in your life and helps you weather the stormy waters? Whose voice calls you to your greatest self, the self God would desire you to be? Whose voice stills the waves that would otherwise silence you? These are perhaps good questions to ask ourselves as we ponder the infrastructure of our lives, our church, our world, and how the actual function of that infrastructure lives in relationship to the shape and form of our lives.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Proper 6B

A reflection on Proper 6-B: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

Simon’s 5th grade class had a science fair this week. Two of the children experimented with plants: did a plant grow faster if one played classical music, rock music or rap music next to it?

The children were convinced rap music did the trick. In one boy’s experiment, one plant was kind of shrunk down compared to the others. The other boy said that the rap music one was taller – the classical music one looked vigorous and healthy to me – but the rap music one had broken its stem on the way to school. But I was skeptical. Maybe I had today’s parable in mind: we sow the seed, but it sprouts on its own – it grows tall – we know not how. It grows to tall, ripe grain, or to become a shrub so might that the birds nest in its branches. Even controlling for variables in a scientific experiment, it is still God’s seed, God’s mystery, God’s power, God’s time.

That is kind of what is meant by “the kingdom of God.” That kingdom is not necessarily a place, with border guards and boundaries, but a sense of God’s power. God’s dominion. God rules here. God’s rules rule here. The seeds sprout and grow into plants. The sun rises and sets. We work, we sleep, we rise. We see God’s kingdom at work in the world around us.

Following the rules of God’s kingdom is a balancing act between the work God calls us to do, and an utter detachment from the results of that work. In every way, God wants us, I think, to participate in the work of that kingdom: to plant seeds. What are the seeds God has given you in your life? How do you think God wants you to participate in the kingdom of God?

What was God looking for when he chose David out of all the warriors offered to him, David, the youngest, to be the one chosen and beloved of God? What could David have possibly done to deserve such a blessing?

In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul encourages the believers. “The love of Christ urges us on,” Paul says. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away.”

There are moments in our lives when we just can’t make things fit. Try as hard as we can, something just doesn’t work. A relationship, a task, a problem to be solved. Aren’t we just prone to worry ourselves sick? Don’t we just want to get this right, that perfect, to please ourselves, to please God? Is this what God would want? How do we know what is the right thing to do? What if we just worked a little harder, fixed this thing a little better, dug a little deeper, stayed up a little later? Wouldn’t there be more justice in the world? Wouldn’t there be more mercy? Wouldn’t things be RIGHT?

One of my favorite summer stories is set in New York City, in an indeterminate decade sometime in the middle of the 20th century. It’s a story of boys playing marbles on the street, in the deepening dusk. The narrator is Buddy, shooting marbles with his friend, Ira. Buddy’s brother, Seymour, comes up to them.
One late afternoon, at that faintly soupy quarter of an hour in New York when the street lights have just been turned on and the parking lights of cars are just getting turned on - some on, some still off- I was playing curb marbles with a boy named Ira Yankauer, on the farther side of the side street just opposite the canvas canopy of our apartment house. I was eight. I was using Seymour's technique, or trying to - his side flick, his way of widely curving his marble at the other guy's - and I was losing steadily. Steadily but painlessly. For it was the time of day when New York City boys are much like Tiffin, Ohio, boys who hear a distant train whistle just as the last cow is being driven into the barn. At that magic quarter hour, if you lose marbles, you lose just marbles. Ira, too, I think, was properly time-suspended, and if so, all he could have been winning was marbles. Out of this quietness, and entirely in key with it, Seymour called to me. It came as a pleasant shock that there was a third person in the universe, and to this feeling was added the justness of its being Seymour. I turned around, totally, and I suspect Ira must have, too. The bulby bright lights had just gone on under the canopy of our house. Seymour was standing on the curb edge before it, facing us, balanced on his arches, his hands in the slash pockets of his sheep-lined coat. With the canopy lights behind him, his face was shadowed, dimmed out. He was ten. From the way he was balanced on the curb edge, from the position of his hands, from - well, the quantity x itself, I knew as well then as I know now that he was immensely conscious himself of the magic hour of the day. 'Could you try not aiming so much?' he asked me, still standing there. 'If you hit him when you aim, it'll just be luck.' He was speaking, communicating, and yet not breaking the spell. I then broke it. Quite deliberately. 'How can it be luck if I aim?' I said back to him, not loud (despite the italics) but with rather more irritation in my voice than I was actually feeling. He didn't say anything for a moment but simply stood balanced on the curb, looking at me, I knew imperfectly, with love. 'Because it will be,' he said. 'You'll be glad if you hit his marble - Ira's marble - won't you? Won't you be glad? And if you're glad when you hit somebody's marble, then you sort of secretly didn't expect too much to do it. So there'd have to be some luck in it, there'd have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.'

There are no accidents in the kingdom of God. We sow the seed, we shoot the marble, we reach out to the friend in need. The seeds sprout, we know not how, and when we turn around, a great tree has grown up in our midst, and the kingdom of God is here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday June 7, 2009

Reflections on Relationships and the Trinity by The Rev’d Margaret R. Rose

When I took the General Ordination Exams some 28 years ago, there was a question about the Trinity. I can’t remember exactly if I had to delineate the various controversies or map out my own theological arguments. In those days, one had to write things out and then hire a typist to put it all together. Though the exam was “open book”, there was no quick enumeration of the various controversies which I have just checked out on Wikipedia—(I wanted to log in and edit, but didn’t) In order to prepare, since I had not gone to an Episcopal seminary, I took a class on the early church at Episcopal Divinity School whose main focus had been the Trinity. So when it came up on the Ordination Exam I was thanking my lucky stars. More than that, however, I have great memories of the class and its loud and lively discussion. Yes, we went over the controversies: Aryanism, the Monophosite issues, Monarchianism, the writings of the “Church Fathers”: Novation, Clement, Origin, Ireneus, the Gregories, Eusebius, and Athanasius. We were reminded of the “wrong” ways to understand the Trinity: One substance, different properties—water, steam, ice. Or the first among equals idea, where one person of the Trinity was just a little better than another. There were the discussions about Adoptionism. In the midst of it all, I was struck not by how outdated these issues were. But rather how current. I had the same questions these old boys had. Moreover, one day I leaned one direction and another found a different answer which seemed to reveal the truth and mystery of God as Trinity of persons. Though some would say these questions were settled by the Councils of the Church or the magisterium, I am convinced that faith is made vibrant and alive when the questions remain. It is unfortunate that too many had to burn at the stake when one or another was declared heretical.

The class and the professor, luckily, encouraged our questions, and when we got to Augustine, I knew we were on the right track. His was not the didactic answer bur rather invited us to look at who and how of the three in one, invited us into cosmic thinking. It is pretty standard theology now but for me then, it was a classic AHA! The fundamental truth of the Trinity is that the very nature of God is Relationship. Three in one, one in three and all interdependent.

And that is also the fundamental truth of human being. And our call is to live into that interdependence in a way that mirrors God, in a way that calls us into relationship with one another, with God and all of creation.

This past weekend I was the celebrant at a family wedding. (Actually, it was the family of my ex husband…) In the homily in addition to dutifully mentioning the texts they had chosen, I noted a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine which related a 40 year study following the lives of 250 men. What makes people ( men in this case) happy?, the question was asked. The results are what most of us know in our heads and hearts but too often forget. It is not wealth, not stuff, a nice house, education or even travel or health. But relationships---friends, family, lovers, husbands, wives-- who sustain us. That is it, said the scientific study, as if we didn’t know it already. That is what matters in life-our connections with other people. I went on to remind the congregation that they were there precisely because of their connection with the bride and groom and having made a promise to support the couple in their life together had made a vow as indelible as the couple themselves.

The morning after the wedding, I was up before dawn, to drive three hours to attend a baptism. This one was a great niece, the granddaughter of my sister who died a few years ago. A number of family members had flown great distances to be there.
Back at work, I had to face the hard task of working with colleagues whose positions are about to be eliminated. And to whom I had been the bearer of the news. Later, catching up on emails, there were a number of announcements, a death among colleagues’ families, or some need for prayer. I found myself writing notes of condolence to mail. What was happening I wondered, that I was stopping in the middle of the day to connect with friends or colleagues.

Somehow I had listened to my own preaching and knew that these connections are somehow as fundamental to wholeness as any task I could complete.

I might have avoided the wedding, avoided that difficult situation of meeting the new wife, decided I needed sleep rather than make a predawn drive, or simply ignored my colleagues who soon will have no job. But if I take my words or what I know about the Trinity seriously, I belong to these people and they to me, even when it is not easy to do so or we don’t quite understand how we fit.

This morning as I listened to the speech that President Obama gave in Cairo, I thought he must understand that too. His words about Muslims and Christian and Jews being indelibly related to each other by our common humanity seemed to be much more than pie in the sky wishful thoughts for peace. His call for all to respect the dignity of every human being hearkened to our own baptismal covenant. And his proclamation that there is more that binds us together than separates us proclaimed that we belong to each other beyond nation or tribe in ways we have not yet imagined. It is our relationships that matter—within the family and across the globe.

It may be a stretch to bring in the Biblical texts for Sunday here. But they seem to be about figuring out how to belong to God in a web of relationships. The prophet Isaiah, in fear and trembling answers God’s call: Here am I! Send me. Nicodemus in John’s Gospel comes to Jesus furtively by night to ask him who he really is. Later we see that Nicodemus plays a role in the band of followers. In Romans 8, as this new community of Christians discovers how its members are not just related by blood in their own families but as a diverse group who transcend family or tribe or nation, they claim their oneness in the spirit, bound together as children and heirs of God.

If only we could make that claim real, knowing that like the Trinity we are one when we are three or indeed many.