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."