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, April 28, 2012

Easter 4B: Good Shepherd

A reflection on the readings for Easter 4-b: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; John 10:11-18 by the Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

Believe it or not, there was a time when the term “Good Shepherd” would have been an oxymoron – it would have been impossible to conceive a shepherd as “good.” It would have been like saying, a “good politician.” To the ears of those who heard Jesus say these words, this term would have been an odd one indeed. Rabbis would have included shepherds as one of those occupations to be avoided. Shepherds were considered dishonest. They were accused of leading their flock to graze in other people’s pastures, or of stealing lambs from other people’s flocks. In fact an ancient Jewish commentary on Psalm 23 says, “There is no more disreputable occupation that that of a shepherd.”[i]

But there were Christians who “got” what Jesus was getting at. Soon after Jesus’ death, pictures of the Good Shepherd were appearing in places important to early Christians. They “got it” because they needed it. The Roman Empire for the early Christians was a pretty dangerous place. To understand God as a protector like a strong and wily shepherd was a good thing. No one else was protecting them from being snatched, persecuted, taxed out of existence. They could call on Jesus the Good Shepherd to rescue them from a hostile world. This shepherd was dependable, would lead them to safe places, would feed them in abundant pastures.

By the 4th century, things began to change for Christians. The Emperor Constantine turned the hostile pagan empire into a Christian one. Among the many changes were how Christians viewed the Good Shepherd. No longer needed to symbolize God’s protection for the faithful, the Shepherd now represented how Jesus would watch over them as they traveled into another dangerous place: death. Depictions of the Good Shepherd began to appear on mausoleums and in cemeteries. The Good Shepherd would be your guide after death. Around this time, when ordinary life was a little more secure, the 23rd Psalm became a common reading at funerals.

We can understand the Shepherd as our guardian and guide, but what does it mean to say that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep? That the shepherd dies for us? That is one classical strain of Christian theology: that we are so bad that only the death of God’s Son can redeem us. The ultimately Good Shepherd lays down his life – dies for – the ultimately sinful humanity. That is a debt we can never repay.

But what if we shifted the focus a little bit, from the Shepherd giving up his life, to the Shepherd giving up his living. If the Shepherd is our guide, our model for being good, what would it mean to follow this Shepherd, to hear his voice?

The first part of living that the Shepherd gives up is the fear of death: those who try to threaten him with execution and death have no power over one who has risen from the dead. Our Good Shepherd teaches us that we do not need to fear death, either.

Nor do we have to fear the culture and obsessions that go along with death. We can choose hope over despair, reconciliation over estrangement, healing over brokenness. We can give up some of our stuff that we accumulate to ward off the powers of death – as the Good Shepherd reminds us, not only can we not take it with us, but where we are going there will be plenty to go around.

Most importantly, we learn from the Good Shepherd that we are in this world not to be served but to serve. Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hireling, who at no point is willing to give up anything. Rather than serve, the hireling clings desperately to what life he has, all the while not knowing that, in the words of St. Francis many centuries later, “it is in giving that we receive, in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Good Shepherds are not so hard to find. They are the ones who lay down their lives every day, who give of themselves and find abundance and joy. Their sacrifices bring food to the hungry and hope to the despairing. They bring furniture to a burned-out family or they stand up for an innocent victim in court. Think a minute; you know who I am talking about.

The Good Shepherd calls them, and they hear his voice.

Listen: The Good Shepherd is calling us, too.

[i] Midrash, Psalm 23:2; cited by the Rev. Michael Johnston, in his Easter 4-B sermon, April 20, 1997.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Easter 3B

A reflection on 1 John 3:1-7 for Easter 3B by the Rev. Crystal Karr

31See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he* is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4.    Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

A few years ago, Joel and I were driving to St. Joseph and a song I love came on the radio.  I cranked up the volume and began to sing along (be glad you were not in the car with us).  He got a strange look on his face and asked, “Is there something you’re trying to tell me?”

The song was Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”  It’s a song about a woman who cheats on her husband, “I cheated myself; like I knew I would.  I told you I was trouble.  You know I’m no good.”  (At the time Joel was living in Kansas City while the girls and I were living in Mound City—1.5 hours away)

I rolled my eyes at him and laughed, “of course not!”

It was funny but I remember a time when I felt the same way, that I was no good.  I can’t tell you where that idea came from—I’m not sure.  But for a very long time I believed that I was no good.  I remember panicking right before Joel and I were about to get married.  I tried to get him to break off the engagement because I was afraid that he would see who I really was.  I was afraid, that I might end up being unfaithful just as I had seen some members of my family be unfaithful.  When I listen to Amy Winehouse’s song, I remember those feelings.  I can belt them out driving in my car and I am thankful that I know better now.  That I am good, I am not doomed to repeat someone else’s mistakes.

This has come through my journey of faith.  It is because of Christ Jesus that I know that I am worth more than I previously thought.  I may not be “good” on my own—none of us are.  But because of Jesus, because of God’s great love for us, we are worth more than we know.  Through Christ we are made whole.  Christ meets us wherever we are in our lives and loves us as we are but does not leave us as we are—we are transformed, changed into something more wonderful than we could ever imagine, into someone more like Christ.

This week as I listened to “You Know I’m No Good,” I thought about Amy Winehouse.  She was a beautiful young woman with an incredible voice.  She was also addicted to alcohol and drugs, caught up in an abusive relationship.  She was a mess.  I’d guess that she truly believed that she was no good.

I wondered how different her life could have been had she received a gift of grace; had been shown God’s love; had really experienced God’s assurance that she was more than what the drugs, alcohol, and abusive husband could take away from her.  Had anyone told her she was more than her amazing voice?  That she was a child of God and beloved?  That grace could come in and heal her broken heart that was obviously desperate for something to fill the hurt.

The core of John’s message is that God is love.  God is light.  God’s love lights up the world.  God’s love penetrates the darkness and overcomes it.  We have been adopted as children of the light; as children of God.  We are to take that light, that love and spread it throughout the world.

Sometimes though we get caught up in sin and the sin of self-righteousness; we get caught up in the darkness.  We look for others’ sin and darkness, casting them out, pushing them aside. And we forget that we are children of the light—that we are to be like Christ.  That Christ came not for those who were good but those who were desperately in need of saving, someone like me, someone like Amy Winehouse, someone like you.

We are to be bearers of the light—bringing God’s grace to those in need, those stuck in the dark.  As we become more and more like Christ, we will feel the need to judge others less and less.  This means that instead of sitting in judgment we reach out a hand—we help someone get out of an abusive relationship, we walk with them as they struggle to break the chains of addiction—we don’t push them further into the darkness.

Let us go into the world, sharing the light, the love of God.  Let us be a witness to the Light.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

...and the Plot Unfolds....Beware, its Radical!

A reflection on the readings from Easter 2B: Acts 4:32-35 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Well, I took the bait. In early February I started watching the new television series, “Smash.” I am not typically one to jump on the bandwagon of a new television show. I tend to be skeptical and un-persuaded by the advertisement. But I think my desire to watch something that was not about violence, crime, hospitals, or some bad reality, caught my attention. I hoped for a good program that offered entertainment and interesting characters.

If you haven’t seen Smash it is a fictionalized story about the creation of a Broadway musical, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The plot has the musical being written by the fictionalized successful songwriting duo of Tom and Julia. Julia recently began the process of adopting a child with her husband Frank of many years, but her focus is torn when she has the opportunity to write another Broadway hit. A rivalry soon forms for the lead role between a youthful, inexperienced Midwestern beauty Karen - who is trying to find fame in the big city against all odds - and stage veteran Ivy Bell, who's determined to leave the chorus line and finally get her big break. A tenacious producer Eileen discovers the "Marilyn" project and jumps on board with a brilliant director, Derek - whose talent is matched by his cunning and egocentric amorality. (from the Smash website)

The actors are well known – Debra Messing who starred in Will and Grace, Anjelica Huston, Academy award winner for Prizzis Honor in 1985, and Katharine McPhee who was in the top ten for American Idol in 2002 – to name a few. From the first episode it has held my attention. While I have some issues with the direction of the character development, I have for the most part enjoyed and appreciated how the plot has thickened and the characters have grown. It takes a few episodes of a new show for the characters to become multi-dimensional, for us to see their strengths and their weaknesses, their gifts and their challenges as characters in the story. Overall I’m enjoying the show and hope it continues to develop in an interesting and engaging way.

During the Season of Easter we will hear readings from the Book of Acts.  In a similar way that the plot of Smash has grown and the characters have developed, so does the early church grow and develop. The climax of the story of what God is doing in the life of Jesus occurs in Holy Week – the crucifixion seems to be the ultimate dramatic ending. But true to God’s unexpected ways, the end is not the end. The story continues in the resurrection on Easter Day.  

The Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke are companion books, written by the same community. Luke describes the story of Jesus’ life, from his birth to his resurrection. Acts describes the formation of the early church in its life after the crucifixion and resurrection. The story is told by a disciple named Luke who, as best we can understand, travelled with Paul. It appears that the author of Luke/Acts was a Gentile, possibly from Syrian who converted to Judaism and then to Christianity

According to Raymond Brown, a foremost authority on the New Testament: The Luke/Acts series was written between 80 and 100 CE. Like most books of the era, Luke/Acts is not a clear chronological historical account of the events. However they tell a fairly accurate story of what transpired through the life of Jesus and the communities of faith that grew up in response. The purpose of the Book of Acts seems to be one of telling the story of how Jesus was crucified by Roman officials and yet -  that was not the end of the story. Amazingly, the teachings of Jesus moved through the region, even into Rome, where churches were established and lives were transformed.

Bruce Epperly, a noted Spiritual Director and author, says this about our reading this morning (it) “describes a community of prophetic hospitality in which justice and compassion characterize social relatedness”…thus forming relationships focused on radical hospitality, justice, and compassion.

The Book of Acts is filled with stories and characters who struggle to live into the reality of Jesus’ teachings – to love God, love self, and love others. They struggled with how expansive this hospitality, love, justice, and compassion was intended to be. In particular the struggle was to determine who could be a member of the community, of the church, and who could not. This struggle manifested in the relationship of a dominant Jewish community and its Gentile sisters and brothers. These Gentiles were raised in radically different ways than the Jewish followers of Jesus, they did not practice or follow the teaching of the Jewish faith. They did not look right, they did not eat the right things prepared in the correct manner. These Gentiles had much to learn about Jesus and Jewish prayer and practice. The early church fought over the details of what was important and what was not important in order to become a faithful follower of Jesus. One of the earliest arguments, one that nearly fractured the church in Jerusalem, was about circumcision. Circumcision was a requirement for Jews, unheard of for Gentiles. In chapter 15 of Acts James addresses this argument and settles it with gracious hospitality. James calls for a radical inclusion of all Gentiles, without the need for the Gentiles to be just like the Jews. James provides a model for moderating all conflicts in the church. He provides a model for us to navigate the issues we face today – when in debate over the ordination of women or partnered gays and lesbians, over the full inclusion of all gender identities, over the full inclusion of all-bodiedness, over the full inclusion of all people, James calls for radical hospitality – all truly are welcome in the body of Christ.

And the, in the end two primary practices prevailed – baptism and Holy Communion.

The season of Easter is a season focused on Baptism. Baptism is the rite that makes us Christian and defines, in the baptismal covenant, how we are to live as Christians by sharing, teaching, and treating others with dignity and respect. Easter is also a season when, in the ancient church, those newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the first time. Now, full members of the community, the newly baptize enter completely the Christian story by sharing the sacred meal of bread and wine. Baptism and Communion define us as Christians, and are lifted up in the Season of Easter. Thus the baptismal font is filled with water, and blessed, as a reminder of our baptism and the promises we have made. The Paschal Candle is lit and reminds us of the light of Christ shining in the world, shining in and through us. The communion bread and wine are light and sweet, a celebration of the love God made known in the person of Jesus. And the confession is eliminated for the season of Easter, reminding us that we spent the season of Lent considering the ways we are broken, the ways we contribute to the brokenness in the world, and what we can do to mend the brokenness. Now in the season of Easter our focus is on being made whole and our efforts, by the grace of God, to bring wholeness into the world.

This is our story as a people of God  - who through the grace of God -  are called to bring wholeness into the world through radical hospitality, gracious love, and acts of justice and compassion.  

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter It's More than "Happy"

A reflection on the readings for Easter Day: Isaiah 25:1-10; Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1; Mark 16:1-8 - by Janine Goodwin.

When the blog schedule came out and I saw my name by Easter, my first impulse was to ask to be switched to a different Sunday. Since I don't have a congregation, I was hoping to ignore Easter: the thought of it was painful. In the last few months, I have had to deal with the death of people I love. I was very angry with the people who told me everything would be all right when anything I'd recognize as “all right” was no longer possible, and even angrier with the ones who told me that “every thing happens for a reason” or that “God is in control,” despite the fact that many things can't be seen as good without making God seem to be cruel or incompetent by any standard that makes sense. My first thought about Easter was “Christ is risen. So what?”  After a day or five, I remembered that what we want to ignore is very often what we most need to face, and took on the challenge of facing Easter with grief and anger. It helped a little to remember that God meets us where we are, not where we think we ought to be.

As I started studying the account of the resurrection in Mark, I began to realize how much my past responses to Easter had been shaped by fairy tales and movies. It was embarrassing to discover that I had, on some level, been thinking of the Resurrection as a version of the standard-issue happy ending, inwhich the heroine or hero or deus ex machina is able to use time travel or magic to restore the dead to life, undo the damage the bad people have done and conquer them decisively, get everyone out of danger, and make everyone live happily ever after in a world that is better than before. Sometimes they even explain the whole crisis and why it took them so long to work things out. Everything is tidy and everything fits.

No wonder I was furious. My expectations were all wrong. It was a relief to discover that Easter is not like any of those stories. It is far more strange and far more real.

The resurrection doesn't fix anything.Jesus doesn't come back to the life he had: he has gone on into new life. In Mark's gospel, he doesn't even show up except in an ending that was appended later, which does not appear in today's reading. In the gospel of John, his risen body is clearly different from ours,but still bears the marks of his execution; he is not an invulnerable superhero. The people who colluded to have him killed are just as much in power, and will not be defeated or changed.  The disciples are in just as much danger as they were before: when they talk about what they have seen, their danger will increase. Happily ever after is nowhere in sight, and all we know about life after death is that Jesus didn't rise from the dead to to tell us all about life after death, but to insist that we keep listening to him about how to livein this world. The angel says only, “Don't be afraid. He is not here. Go tell the others, and go where he said he'd meet you.”There is no command to be happy ever after. There is no explanation of the way in which the contradictory truths of ultimate goodness and present pain fit together. There is change beyond our dreams and beyond our understanding, and we will never see the end of it; we will be finding out the meanings for all the time there is.

The very lack of consolation in Mark'saccount is a help to those who grieve. Everything the angel says is something a person in deep grief can hear without fury. It is direct and simple. It was an immense relief to me to notice that angels open conversations with “Fear not,” but never with, “Cheer up!” No one is required to act happy or to try to understand everything: all they have to do is act on what they know, whatever their emotions may be. The women are trembling and astonished after their encounter with the angel, and they say nothing because, despite the angel's words,they are still afraid. Everyone's initial reaction to the resurrection, in all the gospels, is one of  confusion, with disbelief and fear close at hand. Joy and certainty come later. Safety never happens at all.  As always, the reign of God refuses to show up on our schedule and be what we expected. We are called to see what is real and to listen, we are told to get moving, and Jesus is going to meet us: that has to be enough.

The most expansive visions of God's reign in one generation are found to be limited or perplexing by another. Isaiah makes a wonderful, prophetic song about a great feast, the end of injustice, the end of death and sorrow, the unityof all people, and a few sentences later the poetry is rudely interrupted (at least for people like me) by his insistence that the Moabites will be trodden down like straw in a dung-pit. I suspect the prophet's limitations got in the way there. I don't want a feast unless the Moabites are there too, but I can't be smug toward Isaiah,since I have just caught myself imagining a God who would give us a happy ending instead of a fundamental change.

Seeing all this has been healing in away that does not take grief away. I had been afraid there would be nothing left of Easter if I couldn't bear trumpets and lilies and rejoicing. Trumpets and lilies and rejoicing are good things. They are about Easter, but Easter is not about them. Easter is not a time when we are required to be happy because everything is fixed and figured out. It is a time when even the most wounded of us can assert that Jesus is not in the tomb even as we face that our loved ones will not come back. Jesus has transcended death. We don't know all of what that means; we don't have to. We can be trembling and astonished, but fear is not the point. We can still meet Jesus and be with him without trying to be stronger or happier or wiser than we are. We can be afraid, confused, and grieving, even as we believe that the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday

A reflection Mark 11. 1-11 for Palm Sunday by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

The readings for today take us through the whole range of emotions of Holy Week.  We begin with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, with people cheering, laying their cloaks and palm branches on the road – that was the equivalent of a red carpet in those days.  They welcomed him as king.  Today the paparazzi would be there clicking away, photographing the moment for posterity.  However, rather than looking at a photograph we re-enact the triumphal entry, processing around our churches and local community carrying palm branches, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord of All.

Jesus chose the humble donkey to make his entrance into Jerusalem, he did not choose something grander as he was welcomed into the city as King of the Jews.  Donkeys can still be seen today on the hillsides and in the towns of Palestine.  They have no choice in the load they bear in their panniers.  They may carry heavy rocks from the quarry, or wheat from the miller, or peppers and olives to the market.  They bear their load without question, carrying it with patience and fortitude.  One donkey and her colt 2000yrs ago had the privilege of carrying the son of God on her back as he made his grand entrance into Jerusalem.

That moment of adulation and glorification is short lived.  Soon the crowd turn against Jesus and they yell for him to be crucified.  I thought that celebrity was something that only existed in this day and age – the adulation of those who appear to have it all.  However, the same was true 2000 yrs ago.  The crowds who welcomed him into Jerusalem thought he had all the answers, they thought he was going to rescue them from the oppression of the Romans and ‘take his power, and reign.’  But Jesus was not that kind of Messiah, they hadn’t realised his true nature or what he was really offering them.  Not a here and now solution to their problems, but a solution that would last for all eternity.  Jesus bore his burden in more or less the same way a donkey does, his human nature allowed him to question, he had his time of doubt in the garden of Gethsemane, but nevertheless he bore his burden with patience and fortitude, praying ‘not my will but yours be done.’  He carried the burden of his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, sometimes falling under its weight.  Then at Calvary, he bore the weight of the world’s sin as he hung upon the cross.  His patience and fortitude held out even when he was abandoned by some of his companions.  Only those closest to him remained at the foot of the cross.

Palm Sunday represents a beginning.  The praise and adulation that greets Jesus as he enters Jerusalem is short-lived, the love of the crowd is superficial, it runs only skin deep.  But God loves us so much that he sent his only son into the world so that the world might be saved.  The true cost of loving is to see something through to the bitter end, which is what Jesus does for us by dying on the cross.  However, even that is not the end the result of God’s never ending love for us is brought to fruition when Jesus rises from the dead.  Through his resurrection comes God’s glorification and with it the promise of eternal life.

Today we begin our journey with Jesus to the cross, let us follow him closely every step of the way, so that on Friday we will stand close to the foot of the cross and look on him in love, not stood at the back of the crowd ready to run away in fear.  Then his name will be glorified again and again, then next Sunday we will be ready to witness his resurrection in sure and certain hope that we will share in the resurrection to eternal life.