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, 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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Proper 11-B

A reflection on Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

My parish sits in the middle of a busy city.

Last week, at our midweek service, we read this gospel. There were three of us at the service: me, the sexton, and a woman I will call R., who until a few months ago had NEVER cut her hair. She is 60 years old. She has no grey hair, and few wrinkles. We who are privileged to live in cities frequently come across people like R.

Our midweek service is always very small. For the gospel reading, we practice a very modified form of lectio divina, or African Bible study, where we read only a snippet of the gospel a few times over, with lots of space in between, and let the wisdom of the words rise to consciousness. Our parish has the only soup kitchen, in a city of 100,000, where hungry people can come for lunch. Some of these people come to church, on Sundays, or Wednesdays. R. is one of the people who for many years has come to lunch here. Three years ago, when I arrived, she hardly spoke. I would take communion to her in the pew, because she was too ashamed of how she looked to come to the altar. She always wore a coat, and pulled her matted hair back with a woolen cloth. She lived in a variety of rooming houses, and when one would be shut down for code violations, or foreclosed, she would walk away, leaving nearly all her belongings behind and try to start again in a new place. Each time, she moves closer to the church, and now she is our most faithful, twice-weekly communicant.

This is what I read on Wednesday: “Jesus said to the apostles, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

I read it once, and a siren screamed by. Usually, I ask another person to read the passage again, after a few minutes, so we could hear it in a different voice, but I wasn’t sure either of my friends had heard the passage, given the screaming siren. So I read it again.

“Jesus said to the apostles, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

There was some silence, then a truck steamed by, grinding gears and belching fume. The roofers hammered away. Other cars passed by.

What does it mean, in a busy city, to “come away to a deserted place?” Did Jesus just hop on to the metro north, or jump into his Volvo station wagon, and head upstate for a few days? Did he visit Wave Hill? Or the Cloisters? Or take a short hike in the Palisades Interstate Park, or any other of the other diversions some of us city people can take advantage of? We all know the need – the pressing need, often desperately needed, to get away from it all. To stop the noise, to seek, in the words of the old hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier, a place of quietness, where all our strivings can cease, where our souls can let go of strain and stress, and our ordered lives confess the beauty of God’s peace.[i]

But look at the text: Jesus tried to get away to a deserted place, but he must not have been able to go very far. The crowds followed him, pressed on him before and behind, with their insistent noise and needs and hopes and desires. Like the noise of the sirens, and the trucks going by, and the roofers hammering: in a city, the demands of the world are never far away from us.

And yet it struck me that we are able to create in that little chapel, Wednesday morning after Wednesday morning, something approaching the “place apart” that Jesus intended. A few moments of prayer, reflection on scripture, an ordered few minutes where the passions of life, the needs of those on the edge of psychotic break or violent outburst, could sit quietly for a time. In a liturgy stripped bare of the demands of middle-class propriety, we could sit, quietly, our consciousness moving back and forth between the words of Jesus and the noise of the street.

“Jesus said to the apostles, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

We stood up for communion. On Wednesday, for the first time, R. stood up, came close to the little table used for an altar, entered vigorously into the responses, put out her hands for the bread, drank from the cup. In this place apart, in the midst of the busy city, Jesus is known to us in a word, a gesture, and then is off again, waiting in line for lunch, walking down the street with his possessions in a bag, bringing rest and refreshment, and words of wisdom, to all of us harassed and helpless, and in need of a shepherd.

[i] Hymn 652, 653, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation)


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Friday, July 10, 2009

Proper 10B

A reflection on Proper 10B: Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29 by Janine Goodwin

I love the Gospel stories that point to healing, that call us to hope and teach us to trust God. I have been taught by wise people to place myself in the Gospels, to imagine myself as the person healed or called by Jesus, and that has brought me much growth and joy. In this week’s scriptures, I am nurtured and strengthened by the Psalms and by the reading from Ephesians. After that, I’m out of my comfort zone and moving toward things I really don’t want to face. The calling of Amos has its disturbing notes, particularly when God tells Amos he will lose everything and his (nameless) wife will become a prostitute, a life women have always been blamed for “choosing” when the fact is that women turn to prostitution when they have been enslaved, tricked, coerced, or have no other choices available to them. Then comes the Gospel, and there seems to be no good news anywhere.

This passage from the Gospel of Mark is an ugly story, a story of unjust power used for destruction. How can it be part of the good news when its bad news is still so familiar, still playing out daily in different places under different names? Is my faith strong enough to face an ugly story and survive? Can I look not just at what is clearly being redeemed, but at what remains unhealed, at the injustices that call me to speak with a prophetic voice and risk the losses prophets face? Can we, as church, face the ways we have misused power and claim our calling to be a prophetic voice? Can we accept the task of calling our world to change?

I invite you to walk into this story with me. Let’s consider each character in turn and see what about her or him we may see in ourselves. It will not be easy or comfortable. It may not be reassuring. If we find Jesus is using this story to heal of our wounds and call us to repentance, it may become redemptive.

The one we’d most like to identify with is the obvious victim, John the baptizer. He is imprisoned because he speaks out against a ruler’s marriage and dies because the ruler dares not lose face in front of his guests. It is an ignoble and unnecessary death, but it is always easiest to imagine ourselves as the prophetic martyr than as the persecutor. John, like many other prophets before him and like Jesus after him, is killed because he presents a threat to the power structures and cultural assumptions of his time. While scholars disagree about whether the details of the story are historically correct, in this account John is imprisoned because he has told Herod it was not right for him to take his brother’s wife, Herodias.

Over the centuries, the story of Herod’s banquet has been shaped into a narrative with two female villains, the seductive Salome and the destructive Herodias. The seductive daughter, who may be either Herod’s daughter or his stepdaughter, exerts sexual power to cloud Herod’s judgment, and the destructive wife, who controls the daughter, uses her child to demand John’s death. We are used to seeing the daughter as Salome, a full-grown, though young, woman who does the “dance of the seven veils,” and conspires with her mother to destroy John. We are used to the idea that she is attracted to John, whom she cannot seduce, and that she chooses to have power over him by having him killed. None of these ideas or details are actually present in the Gospel stories, either here or in the account in Matthew (neither Luke nor John does not mention the circumstances of John the Baptist’s death).

There is one similarity between the daughter of Herodias and Mary Magdalene, and it is this: both of them have been persistently sexualized throughout the centuries. They have become objects for male sexual fantasy rather than characters in a story. The other aspects of Mary Magdalene’s life—her healing, her roles as friend and student of Jesus and first witness to the resurrection—are all replaced with the picture of the beautiful penitent who is still a sexual object, and lately with the hypothesis that she was the wife of Jesus. She is not seen as a person. The same process has taken place in this story.

We are used to seeing the Salome of legend, opera, painting, and film as a mature young woman using sexual power to manipulate powerful men, and it may be hard for us to see through that stereotype and understand that even such a young woman may have no other power, no real choices, and men may project their desires on her without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. She is blamed for using sexual power and denied her full humanity, while the men who use her need not repent; they can blame her for their actions. She may sin; if she does, she should repent, and she is not the only person who is to blame. Many women can recognize themselves in that situation. It is something our culture glorifies and mistakenly names as sexual liberation, though historically the seductive young woman has been a dangerous figure. Both sets of assumptions lose sight of this fact: when the only choice is to be a sexual object, the humanity and freedom of the person is always lost.

The daughter of Herodias has no name in either of the gospel accounts, though some read the Greek as saying that her name was also Herodias and the historian Josephus calls her Salome. Herodias did have a daughter named Salome, who lived out her adult life as the wife of her own grand-uncle, but it is uncertain whether she was the dancer in this story. The unnamed dancer is a girl: she is called a korasion. That word appears only one other place in this gospel. It is used as a translation for the Aramaic words Jesus uses it to call the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus back from the dead. In our English versions, korasion is translated as “little girl” in that passage. No translation I can find uses “little girl” when the daughter of Herodias is called a korasion. Some sources say the girl could be of marriageable age—which could be as young as twelve in the time and culture of this story.

When we see the dancing daughter as a girl who may be as young as twelve, as someone who might be called a “little girl,” another image may emerge for us. Though the dance is not the “dance of the seven veils,” a late addition to the legend, and although the verb for Herod’s being pleased with the dance is not one that necessarily carries sexual overtones, the possibility of sexual exploitation can’t be ruled out. It does not seem to have been usual to have the daughters of minor royalty in the first century Roman empire perform for their fathers’ guests. When we see a young girl summoned by her father or stepfather to perform at what appears to be an all-male party while her mother waits outside (the girl has to leave the banquet in order to consult her mother about what she should ask of Herod), the picture gets darker. It is entirely possible that the dancing daughter is as much a prisoner as John the baptizer. Since one in four women has been sexually abused before the age of 18, many of them in the homes where they grew up, some of us may recognize within ourselves what it is like to be a dependent girl with no good choices and no place to go. Many of us know what it is like to be a girl who is used either overtly or covertly by powerful men and men related to us, and to be controlled by women who do not protect us. This is not just feminine knowledge, either: boys, too, are abused in every way. Sexual abuse of boys may be less common, but it is still all too common, and boys, too, face emotional and physical abuse in a culture that tells them not to feel and not to go for help.

Whether or not she is being used as a sexual object, the girl is certainly being used as a political pawn by her mother. When Herod makes his surprising promise to grant her anything she wants up to half his kingdom, she doesn’t know what to ask for and she dares not ask for anything she might want. She cannot take the power Herod seems to offer. She runs to her mother, who tells her to ask for John’s head, and she runs back into the banquet to make her request. She has been used by her mother to manipulate her father, another situation many of us can remember, another way of using and abusing a child. When we take away the fantasies and projections of the ages and glimpse a young person caught in a sick family system and a power structure that offers no freedom or hope, how do we respond?

Herodias wants John dead; she probably wants it more because Herod respects John and listens to him. Herodias has little power in the system: she controls her daughter and manipulates Herod through him. She does so well that her daughter, given a chance at power, runs to her to ask what she should want rather than trying to gain power over her mother. Herodias is not a free adult in her society, but she does have choices. If we put ourselves in her place, we must confront the times we have responded to our feelings of powerlessness by acting destructively toward others. We may have been the instigator of destruction in indirect ways, the wife who chose manipulation over confrontation, the one who stood by in silence when someone less powerful was abused, the sabotaging employee, the spreader of rumors, the one who could not get into the group that had power but could make sure we kept down those who had even less than we. As adults, we need to face the Herodias in ourselves. What innocent parts of ourselves, what innocent others, are we using unjustly in our struggles for power? What kind of power do we want: the power that heals and makes right, or the power to destroy?

Herod is a powerful man and a complicated character. He respects John the baptizer despite John’s open opposition to his actions and he listens to John, though the listening makes Herod confused. Herod seems to have enough self-awareness and courage to hear himself criticized, but not enough to change. In an impulsive moment, he makes an oath that gives away his power. He cannot question the obligation to keep that oath, no matter how foolishly he made it; he cannot do the right thing if the right thing will threaten his power over the men he rules. He can see what is right, but he cannot risk. Like Pilate later on in the story, Herod will save face, but he dares not save a life. How many times have we made such choices? How many times have we refused to use our power for good because we feared losing it? How many times have we chosen to do what is expected rather than what is right? How do we substitute listening for action, and excuse ourselves for letting things slide? How do we kill the voice of the prophet within us, and how do we silence those around us if and when they call us to repentance?

Herod’s guests represent the society around us, the status quo, the group that both follows and limits its leaders. They uphold the assumptions and the rules they have been taught. Herod’s power is affected by their expectations. They are the voices that say, “But we’ve always done it this way,” and, “We can’t follow those crazy idealists, or listen to those wild prophets. It will threaten our security.” How do we perpetuate the stereotypes we have been taught, accept the rules without questioning whether they are right or just, assume the prophets are crazy? How often do we accept the sacrifice of others as a sad necessity and move on with our self-centered lives?

It is hard to see this story as part of the Good News. I hate watching it play out. I want it to be a different story. I want Jesus to break into the palace, rescue John, save the little girl, confront and heal Herod and Herodias, convert the people in power. Jesus does not do any of those things: he does not even appear in this story. He is somewhere else, healing another child, talking to other people. His time to meet the ruler has not yet come. He was not invited to the banquet. If we want to find Jesus, we must leave this story, taking what it teaches us about ourselves, and invite him into our own. When he comes to us, what will he find?