Monthly Archives: June 2007

Visions: Sermon for the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul

The Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul is June 29. At my parish (named for St. Paul) we translate that feast to the nearest Sunday and celebrate as one of our two patronal occasions (the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, being the other). Thus, on July 1, 2007, we used the propers for this feast instead of the regular propers for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. The lessons were Ezekiel 34:11-16, Psalm 87, 2 Timothy 4:1-8, and St. John 21:15-19.

Coptic Icon of Peter and PaulIf you look through the Kalendar of the Church Year, you will find something very interesting about our Patron Saint, Paul, and his First Century Christian compatriot, Peter … neither of them has a day devoted to him and only to him.

There is, of course, a feast entitled “The Confession of St. Peter” which commemorates the event when Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” and then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s answer was, “You are the messiah! The son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16) We have a day devoted to celebrating that answer.

And we have a feast, one week later, called “The Conversion of St. Paul” which commemorates Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus when he was confronted by the Risen Lord as he traveled with letters of warrant empowering him to arrest any follower of the way of Jesus. (Acts 9:1-9) We have a day devoted to celebrating the change of heart, mind, and soul that confrontation worked in Paul.

But neither St. Peter nor St. Paul have a day devoted to them as individuals, say, the way St. Alban or St. Francis or many other Christian notables have devoted to them. What we have is the feast which falls this week, the second of our parish’s patronal feasts each year, which honors the two of them together. There must be a reason for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul – a reason other than Peter and Paul. Why this feast to honor them both? There must be something common to these two men which speaks to our faith, something which, if we pay heed to it, will draw us more deeply into relationship with God in Christ; Peter and Paul must speak this message more eloquently together than apart.

Consider, for a moment, who these two fellows are: an “apostolic odd couple” who, it seems, were and remained “sparring partners” throughout their common life in the early church. The New Testament clearly shows that Peter and Paul were bitter opponents at one point. The two men could not agree on the issue of whether Gentiles (non-Jews) should be included in the early Christian Church. Peter was certain that the “unclean” Gentiles should not be included in the church, just as Paul had once been certain that all Christians were heretics to be arrested, tried, and put to death.

St. Luke, in relating early church history, tells us about the first council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem in 50 A.D. Luke tells us that the issue of Gentile membership was settled at that council. It was there that the leadership agreed not to subject the Gentiles to the Mosaic Law, including circumcision; they decide that Gentile Christians would not be required to first convert to Judaism before they could be accepted into the community of Jesus’ followers.

I believe it is marvelous that Luke tells the story of the Jerusalem Council, for it teaches us two great lessons. First, that there has never been a time, since the very beginning of the church, when the church lived without conflict and disagreement over something – frequently about who is in and who is out. Second, it gives us a model for reaching consensus about and living with our disagreements under the direction of our leaders, particularly our bishops: it was neither Paul nor Peter who settled the issue of Gentile membership, it was James, the brother of Jesus and first bishop of Jerusalem, who actually led the church to a solution.

But insofar as that council, or similar disputations, had an impact upon the lives and strongly held views of these two saints Peter and Paul … I really doubt that what changed the mind of either man were the logical arguments and reasoned debates of colleagues and opponents. What changed these men and set them and the church on very different paths than they would otherwise have chosen were visions: Peter and Paul both received visions from God which showed them that they had been too narrow in their views of who receives God’s salvation.

I’ve already mention the vision seen by Paul on the road to Damascus, his encounter with the Risen Christ. Here is the way Luke tells that story in the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts:

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:1-9)

After this, of course, Saul went to Damascus where he was instructed in the Christian faith by Ananias and thereafter began his career as a great missionary and preacher. Saul, who had been so sure that the followers of Jesus should be arrested, tried, and executed as heretics, became Paul the apostle – not because of any reasoned argument – but because of a personal encounter with God, because of a vision.

In the next chapter of Acts, Luke tells the story of Peter’s vision:

Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen….. (Acts 10:9-17)

Immediately after seeing this vision, Peter is confronted by some Gentile believers who have come seeking his aid. According to Luke, he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) And, a little later afterward, Peter said to the same Gentiles, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) Peter, who had been so sure that only Jews could be admitted to the company of Jesus, who had insisted that Gentiles convert to the whole of Judaism before being baptized into the church, became the one who said his fellow Jewish Christians, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)

I suggested as I began today that there must be something common to Peter and Paul which speaks to our faith, some message which their witness speaks more eloquently together than apart. I believe it is this: that no matter how strongly we hold our opinions and beliefs, we must be prepared for the possibility that God holds a different opinion, especially if the question pertains to church membership. Indeed, the examples of Peter and Paul suggest that the more certain we are about who is in and who is out, the greater the possibility that God disagrees with us, and …. if are so convinced of our own rectitude that it causes us to exclude anyone from the household of God, God’s disagreement is a virtual certainty. God, as Peter said, shows no partiality, and we should not call anyone profane or unclean.

But no matter what the issues may be, the lesson to draw from the examples of these two great saints is to expect the unexpected from God. Do you remember the old TV show Candid Camera? Allen Funt, the originator and host of the show had a famous line he said just at the end of each epised: “Remember, when you least expect it, someone, somewhere, may walk up to you and say, ‘Smile! You’re on Candid Camera.’” The lesson to take from Peter and Paul is that God is like that: When you least expect it, sometime, somewhere, God may walk up to you say, “Smile! I’ve got a different plan for you.”

It is not reasoned argument, logical debate, adherence to the Law, or acceptance of some propositional maxims, that makes us Christians and children of God. It is vision, and vocation, and conversion, and grace. That is what made Paul and Peter who they were, and made it possible for them to do what they did, and that is why we venerate them as the two pillars of the church of which Jesus Christ is the foundation. May we, as we prayed in our opening collect*, be instructed by their example and ever stand firm upon that foundation. Amen.

*Collect for Sts. Peter & Paul, The Book of Common Prayer – 1979, p. 241: Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



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Summertime and the livin’ isn’t easy!

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy …..

So says the song written by George and Ira Gershwin, but I have to admit that I have found summertime to be anything but “easy”!

Around church we have (as I am currently writing) a whole passel of kids running around Avalanche Ranch taking a wild ride with Jesus.  The place is inhabited by the likes of Buc the Horse, Ranger the Bison, Boss the Bull, Skye the Eagle, Shadow the Cat, and a nameless Prairie Dog we have christened “Paul”….  There are wagon wheels, cowboy boots, lariats, and bales of straw everywhere.  Busy, busy, busy!

At home, gardening …. Neither my spouse nor I have ever laid claim to owning a green thumb, but we continue to try our hand at growing things.  Last fall we had added to the “hardscape” of our home by having a 10’x12’ patio slab poured, as well as a similar sized foundation for a storage shed.  Because our lot is on a hillside, we had to build up the ground on the downhill side of that foundation.  In September, I built a stone wall about three feet tall and about three feet out from the foundation on the west and south sides of the storage building and filled the resulting planter partially with dirt.  And that’s how it sat until three weeks ago.Not me...... Gardening Gone Wrong

The first week of June, I filled the planter with topsoil and moved some plants into it.  A forsythia, an andromeda, and an arbor vitae which weren’t doing well where they were gained new homes in the storage shed planter.  And we have added a tree hybiscus, an azalea, some blanket flowers, and a knock-out rose.  So far, so good … nothing has died yet and all seem to be putting on new growth and the flowering plants are blossoming.

In the beds along the backside of our house, we’ve added some coral bells and some begonias. 

It would be so nice if all of these things took care of themselves … but, of course, they don’t!  We planted tulip, daffodil, and muscari bulbs last fall, and they all came up and blossomed … then had to be cut back.  We have salvia and weigelia in our front planters, and they have to be trimmed and deadheaded. 

And then there’s the lawn.  Our lot is just large enough that, on the hillside as it is, I consider buying a riding mower every time I cut the grass.  But it is just small enough that, every time I consider buying a riding lawn mower, I think that would be a really silly thing to do.  So I keep cutting it with the old barely-self-propelled push mower and convincing myself that I’m getting some much needed exercise doing so.

Therein lies the reason for engaging in all this sod-busting activity … exercise, health, and well-being.

In an article for the Canadian initiative Go for Green, Lydia Butler writes:

If you are one of the many individuals who love gardening, you probably do not think of it as exercise. But let’s face it, if you mow the lawn, lift bags of top soil, shovel dirt, rake the lawn and pull weeds you are getting a healthy does of activity.

Gardening can burn an average of 300 calories per hour and is also an effective form of resistance training. Recent studies suggest that moderate intensity exercises such as daily gardening can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, improve bone density and help prevent glucose intolerance.

Gardening is something you can enjoy throughout your life. No special attire is required and you don’t need a partner.

We have found that gardening is a great way to become more active and get into shape.  I’ve also found it a good time for reflection and meditation.  Like most gardeners, I prefer to work in silence.  I don’t listen to music or the radio while working outside; nor do I engage in much conversation when busy with garden chores.  In fact, I tend to use the time in the garden to escape from chatting with other people and for stopping the inner chatter within myself. 

A distinguishing feature of many spiritual practices is the frequent use of silence, quiet meditation, or prayerful silence.  Spiritual retreats always leave plenty of time for solitary reflection.  Some religious orders take very seriously vows of silence.  Silence allows one to listen freely to the sounds of life: the buzzing of insects, working machines, birds, the wind, the rumblings of the inner mind, and, as one writer has put it, “the Voidness that embraces these Utterings from the Ground of Being.” 

Silence is the epitome of openness, and leaves room for the inflow of fresh experience.  Sometimes silence is the best means of expression and communicates far more than words could ever say.  So we putter about or sit ever so quietly in the backyard, ready for the surprising insights that inevitably burst forth from unburdened consciousness, ready for our own visions, ready to see the burning bush and hear God’s voice.

For George and Ira Gershwin living in New York City where others took care of tending planter boxes and the gardens of Central Park, perhaps the summer was a time of “easy livin’” … but if you have a plot of landscaped ground in northeastern Ohio, “easy” is not the word I would choose.  “Productive” perhaps, “spiritual” perhaps … but not easy!

St. Fiacre, Patron of GardenersOh … and while I’m thinking about gardening … do you know who St. Fiachra is? 

We had an opportunity to visit St. Fiachra’s Garden on the grounds of the Irish National Stud in County Kildare, Ireland, in May.

St Fiachra was a Seventh Century Irish abbot now considered to be the patron saint of gardeners. An old monk, born in Ireland, Fiachra lived in a hermitage on the banks of the River Nore of which Kilfiachra, or Kilfera, County Kilkenny, still preserves the memory.  His unwanted fame as one skilled with herbs, a healer and holy man caused disciples to flock to him, but seeking greater solitude, he left his native land and sought refuge in France, at Meaux.At Meaux he was warmly received by St Faro.  Initially Faro granted him a site at Breuil surrounded by forests.  Fiachra built an oratory in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hospice in which he received strangers, and a cell in which he himself lived apart.  He lived a life of great mortification, in prayer, fasting, and vigil, and in the manual labor of the garden.  The vegetables he grew around his monastery were said to be quite superb.

The Garden in County Kildare was created as a national park and dedicated by Irish President Mary McAleese in 1999 as part of the celebration of the new millenium.

May St. Fiachra be with you in your gardening tasks this summer!


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Sermon for Proper 7C: How do we recognize Prophets?

The Lessons for Proper 7, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42 and 43, Galatians 3:23-39, St. Luke 8:26-39

How do we recognize Prophets?

In our readings from Scripture today, we have situations in which it was quite easy to recognize God’s messenger … Elijah, the Prophet of the God of Israel, just before going out to spend his time in the desert cave described in today’s reading from the First Book of Kings had, as our reading tells us, slain the false prophets of Baal, the god of the Sidonians, in a sort of battle of prophecy. It was pretty clear from the outcome of that contest that Elijah was a man of God.

I assume that the Gerasenes would have recognized the man freed from demonic possession and, because of his miraculous healing, would have recognized him as some how special, perhaps even as a prophet as he told them about what Jesus had done for him.

Paul assures us in his letter to the church in Ephesus that the gift of prophecy is an on-going charism of the Holy Spirit and that throughout the church “some [will] be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry….” So, how do we recognize Prophets?

First of all, I think we need to know what we’re talking about, what we mean by “Prophet”, before we can know how to recognize them….

Contrary to popular misconception, prophets are not seers, diviners, fortune-tellers, or predictors-of-the-future. Niels Bohr, the physicist who pioneered quantum theory, once said, “Prediction is a very difficult art, especially when it involves the future.” But that is not what prophets are about. They are not concerned with the future, although from time to time they may pronounce God’s warnings or promises. The prophets’ concern is with the present. One definition says that a prophet is

Someone who is the mouthpiece of God. He stands between God and man to communicate to man the word of God. When the prophet spoke as the mouthpiece [of God] he was inspired … The prophet, though, is not a puppet or a mindless repeater of what he hears. Instead, he retains his own will, mind, and thoughts as he speaks for God. …. A prophet is God’s servant and messenger.

It is frequently said that the prophet’s job is not “foretelling”, but “forth-telling.” The prophets’ concern was and is to speak God’s word to the people of the prophets’ time. Prophecy is the word of God addressing today, not tomorrow!

In our hymnal is a piece entitled God of the prophets. It is designated particularly for use at ordinations, but perhaps we ought to look at it more often. In it we are given a pretty good description of the role of the prophets’ heirs and this may help us recognize the prophets of our day and time. If you would like to follow along with me, pull out a hymnal and turn to Hymn 359 (as found in the Episcopal Church Hymnal 1982).

Verse One says this:

God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ heirs
Elijah’s mantle o’er Elishah cast
Each age for thine own solemn task prepares
Make each one stronger than the last

“Each age for thine own solemn task prepares” Here is the first mark of the prophet; preparing for … and doing … the work of God in his or her own age, in the here-and-now.

Verse Two:

Anoint them prophets! Teach them thine intent;
To human need their quickened hearts awake
Fill them with power, their lips make eloquent
For righteousness that shall all evil break.

“To human need their quickened hearts awake” The prophet is one who recognizes and calls to our attention the needs of those around us. It is hoped that the prophet will speak with “eloquent lips,” but that’s not always a sign of one who speaks for God. Moses, who clearly spoke for God, you may recall, had a speech impediment, while Adolph Hitler, one of the most gifted orators of modern times, clearly did not speak for God.

Verse Three:

Anoint them priests! Help them to intercede
With all thy royal priesthood born of grace:
Through them thy Church presents in word and deed
Christ’s one true sacrifice with thankful praise.

“Christ’s one true sacrifice” David Watson, in his book Called & Committed: World-Changing Discipleship (Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL; 1982), suggests that one test of prophecy in the Christian world is to ask of it, “Does it glorify Christ?” Says Watson, “The prophecy may not mention Christ by name, but does the whole message honor and glorify him? This is always the Spirit’s primary work.”

Verse Four:

Anoint them kings! Yea, kingly kings, O Lord!
Anoint them with the Spirit of thy Son;
Theirs not a monarch’s crown or tyrant’s sword;
Theirs by the love of Christ a kingdom won.

Not a monarch’s crown or tyrant’s sword” Prophets are concerned with the here-and-now, but they are not concerned with the rewards of the day. Prophets are not worried about their own well-being … Isaiah, it is recorded, wandered naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years! We probably don’t have any prophets in this day who are doing that, but a public spokesperson dressed in Giorgio Armani suits and stylishly coiffed should probably be tested fairly severely before being considered a prophet.

Verse Five:

Make them apostles, heralds of thy cross;
Forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace;
Inspired of thee, may they count all but loss,
And stand at last with joy before thy face.

“Make them apostles” Every Sunday we proclaim our faith in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” without really considering what it means for the church to be “apostolic” … that word doesn’t mean that we have bishops in the “apostolic succession” (although as Episcopalians we do), nor does it mean necessarily that we preserve the “deposit of faith once delivered to the apostles” (although as Anglicans we certainly try to). It means that the church is sent … that’s what the Greek word apostoloV means: “one who is dispatched or sent out with a message. “

Who, then, are the heirs of the prophets? And how do we recognize them?

Sometimes they don’t even recognize themselves. My favorite prophet is Amos, who did not recognize his own prophetic ministry. When addressed as “prophet,” he protested: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (Amos 7:14)

The heirs of the prophets, some of them, are sitting here today. Each person in this church, at baptism, was given the commission of a prophet and made a promise (or had a promise made for them) to exercise that commission: we call it the Baptismal Covenant! Look around you, and if you have a mirror handy, look into it…. you will see prophets and heirs of the prophets! You may, like Amos, consider yourself merely a herdsman, or a dresser of sycamore trees … but you are a prophet!

Everyday, test your prophecy.

First, are you living in the here-and-now? Are you concerned about today? Or, like so many others ignoring the present, are you more worried about tomorrow, or the next day, or the week after, or some year far ahead. Remember what Jesus said: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:27,34) Live in the here-and-now and encourage those around you to do likewise.

Second, are you attuned to and responding to the needs of those around you? Or, like so many others ignoring the present and those present, like Gerasene demoniac before his healing, are you focused on your own wants and desires? Remember what Jesus said:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:36-37,40)

Live in the here-and-now and respond to the needs you see today.

Thirdly, do your words and deeds glorify God in Christ? St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are a reminder to us as well: “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) Live in the here-and-now, responding to the needs around you, in a way that reflects well on the faith you profess.

Fourth, consider this: for what reward do you do what you do? In his letter to the church in Caesarea Philippi, St. Paul sets himself before us as an example of one who “press[es] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14) For what prize do we strive? Financial rewards? Security? Status? These are not the rewards promised by Christ for those who follow him. Remember his words: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Live in the here-and-now, respond to needs, glorify Christ, and strive for the rewards of the cross.

Finally, take all of that and go out into the world ! Be an apostle; live the life of one who is sent. Remember the Great Commission given us by Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all people.” (Matt. 28:19) Remember his words to the Gerasene man in today’s Gospel: “Return to your home [town], and declare how much God has done for you.”

You are the heirs of the prophets. Do as they did. Live in the here-and-now, respond to the needs around you, glorify God, strive for the rewards of sacrifice, and encourage others to do the same. And if you feel unequal to the task, remember what Paul wrote today’s epistle: “… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God.” And remember the declaration in today’s Psalms:

Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

You are the heirs of the prophets and to you has been given the grace and power to do all that they did and more. Now go, and do likewise! Amen.

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Sermon: There’s a Crack in Everything (for St. John’s Day)

At our late service on Sunday, June 24, 2007, the local lodge of Free and Accepted Masons will be joining the congregation. Masons do this once a year in many locations. On what the church calls “The Nativity of St. John the Baptist,” which Masons call “St. John’s Day,” they gather as a lodge and attend church together at one particular place. Because I am a member of the local lodge, I’ve been asked to host this corporate worship event and have invited my brethren to join the congregation. We will use the lessons of St. John’s birthday commemoration instead of the regular lectionary texts: the Gospel lesson is the story of John’s birth, Luke 1:57-80. In addition, we are also baptizing a little girl named Hannah.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Birth of John the BaptistThe commemoration of the birth of John the Baptist is sometimes called “the little Christmas” because in celebrating this feast we are celebrating Christ’s Incarnation.

Both holidays are feasts of light. The birth of Jesus is observed on December 25 at the time of the winter solstice, while the birth of his forerunner is observed six months earlier at the time of the summer solstice. A popular custom in many countries on this day is the kindling of “St. John’s Fire,” a huge bonfire which symbolizes Christ the Light. As the fire burns, the celebrants dance and sing around it. One commentator refers to the singing as “an indispensable part of the festivities.”

Perhaps that is because John’s birth was greeted by his father, Zechariah, with a song of praise to God. You remember that Zechariah was informed by the angel Gabriel that he and Elizabeth would have a son in their old age but Zechariah wouldn’t believe the angel, so he was deprived of the power of speech until it came to pass. In today’s Gospel then, we heard the story of his tongue being loosed and his first words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel….” the song of praise which has become the church’s morning song, sung at the Daily Office of Morning Prayer for many centuries.

It has been said that the releasing of Zechariah’s voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. That veil or curtain has been described this way:

The curtain before the Holy of Holies was “40 cubits (60 feet) long, and 20 (30 feet) wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand, and wrought in 72 squares, which were joined together; and these Veils were so heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to manipulate each…..” (Brian Schwertley, God’s Commentary on the Finished Work of Christ, Part 1: The Torn Curtain (online), citing Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.)

The purpose of such a heavy curtain was to separate the Shekinah or divine Light of God from the people who were considered by Jewish tradition as unfit to see it. Only the High Priest could enter the Presence. According to Luke, the temple curtain tore during a time of darkness:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. (Luke 23:45-46)

The sun’s light failed, but the divine Light of God poured into the dark world in dramatic fashion. The rending of the Veil then symbolizes the coming of that Light, and though nowhere near as dramatic, so too does the loosening of Zechariah’s tongue. Like the rip in the heavy temple curtain, Zechariah’s recovered speech is a crack allowing light to shine in the darkness.

As I thought about that, a song came to mind. Not a religious song, per se, but one that I find loaded with religious meaning. It is by the Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen and is entitled Anthem. These are the lyrics

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove She will be caught again
bought and sold and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs; the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed; the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood of every government –
signs for all to see.
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

The birth of John the Baptist was a crack in the darkness, one of those cracks in everything that let the light get in. He was to be the voice crying in the wilderness, the prophet who would condemn those “killers in high places say[ing] their prayers out loud,” the thundercloud they had summoned up whose rolling boom announced the coming of the Light. They had been asking for a sign and the sign, John the Baptist, was sent.

One commentator has suggested that John marks a division between the old and the new:

John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary’s arrival he leapt in his mother’s womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. (Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, online)

I believe this author is on the right track, but I would suggest that rather than a boundary between the old and the new, John represents a break in such a boundary, a breeching of the barrier, a crack in the wall through which the Light began to show.

We have all been radiated by the Light which John announced, and like John we have the mission to extend that Light to the ends of our world, the end of our abilities, and to the end of our time. Jesus told his followers: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) What this means is that you and I have ministries like John’s, and ministries even more important than John’s. John was born to make known the coming of Jesus. We are born for the remembering of his life, death, Resurrection and Ascension. We are born to announce that he lives today and gives new birth and new life to everyone. We are born to break open our world, to be the cracks in everything that let the Light of God shine in.

The Baptist was given the name “John” by divine command. The angel had said to his father, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (Luke 1:13)

In the Bible, naming is part of the creative process. In the first chapter of Genesis, God calls each element into being and gives it its name:

God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. *** God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:3-5,9-10)

Genesis tells us that humankind participates in this creation. Adam shared in the creative process; we are told that he “gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field.” (Gen. 2:20)

Names disclose the reality of things. Names establish relationships and make possible communication and communion. To know a name makes it possible to address and call upon another in a personal way. In the biblical tradition, name and mission are linked. Thus, changed realities require changed names, and new realities require new names. God calls people to mission by giving a new name, for example, Abram (“exalted ancestor”) is renamed Abraham (“ancestor of multitudes”) and Sarai (“my princess”) becomes Sarah (“princess of the nations”) (Gen. 17:5) and Jacob (“held by the heel”) becomes Israel (“the one who wrestles with God”) (Gen 32:29; 35:10).

In the story of the Baptist’s birth, the name given Gabriel is confirmed by his father: “John” (Yohanan in Hebrew) which means either “God is gracious” or, simply, “God’s grace.” And, indeed, John’s mission is to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the ultimate expression of God’s gracious light for all humankind. As the Evangelist John says:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)

So names are important, John is born to be the forerunner, the harbinger sent to announce the Light of God’s grace in the coming Jesus, and is given a name to signify that mission. Today, we baptize Hannah M________ S________. Hannah is a Jewish name similar to John; Hannah means “grace.” Let us pray that God will give her, and all of us, the grace to shed the Light of Christ in our world, for indeed, we are all born for the remembering of Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. We are all born to announce that he lives today and gives new birth and new life to everyone. We are all born to break open our world, to be the cracks which let the Light of God shine in. Amen.

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Such a Small Thing ….

Cold Virus This is a virus which causes that malady called “the common cold”. There are about 200 varieties of these things. They range in size from 20 to 250 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

Such a small thing … but one of these little bugs grabbed hold of me on Tuesday and hasn’t yet (on Friday) let go. I feel awful!

Such a small thing … but so incredibly disruptive of one’s life. Good heavens! Sneezing, coughing, runny nose (when it is completely stopped up and doing nothing), sore throat, headache, listlessness.

Such a small thing …

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The Multiverse

About 18 months ago I was writing another blog, which I have since abandoned.  In December of 2005 I wrote the following post on that blog:

The MultiverseThe Multiverse

Last month, I read a physics book, Schrodinger’s Rabbits: Entering The Many Worlds Of Quantum by Colin Bruce. This month, I am making my way through Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. A comment I read in the latter just last week has been turning itself over and over in my mind: “According to quantum mechanics, the universe evolves according to a rigorous and precise mathematical formalism, but this framework determines only the probability that any particular future will happen – not which future actually ensues.”

Bruce had built on this concept of quantum to argue in favor of the so-called “many worlds” (or “multiverse”) model of reality. In a nutshell, this idea suggests that there are an infinite number of universes: for every potential outcome of every action (however improbable), there is a reality which embodies it and the consequences which flow from it.

A long time ago I read a lot of books about process theology. If I recall all of that reading correctly, process thought holds that God’s role in creation lies in God’s giving of the initial aim to each “energy event” as it begins to create itself. God’s initial aim is an ideal series of eternal objects (or “possibilities”). God is the One Who Calls, the initial energy event who calls all other energy events forward to greater complexity or beauty. God offers novelty and also limits, thus making growing complexity possible. Because the creation is free, however, the universe moves from the ideal “downward”. The ideal is that possibility for this energy event at this moment that will lead it (and reality as a whole) to greater complexity and intensity of feeling, which process thinkers define as beauty or enjoyment.

Something about the “many worlds” vision fostered by quantum physics and its basis in probabilities seems to me to dovetail with process theology’s understanding of God’s creative activity. I’m not sure yet how these two fields of study intersect, but the multiverse and God’s infinite capacity for goodness and granting freedom to the creation just seem to me to be complementary …. in any event, this is the sort of thing that occupies my idle moments of theological reflection.

I still don’t understand string theory, branes, and all that, and I’m not sure I really understand Whiteheadian process thought and process theology … but I’m still convinced there is a convergence (or at least an intersection) between these fields.  It’s still the thing that occupies my idle moments of theological reflection.


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Ecclesiastical Pica – PS

An online dictionary adds to the definition of “pica” ….

“pathological craving for substance unfit for food” (such as chalk), 1563, from M.L. pica “magpie,” probably translating Gk. kissa, kitta “magpie, jay,” also “false appetite.” The connecting notion may be the birds’ indiscriminate feeding.

In fact, the bird’s scientific taxonomy is “pica pica”.

Magpies are considered thieves. In folklore, magpies’ penchant for picking up shiny items is thought to be particularly directed towards precious ones. Could that be what’s going on in ecclesiastical pica? A bunch of episcopal magpies trying to pick up shiny, precious objects (in this case called “parishes” and “dioceses” and the tithes and offerings of their members)? Some have suggested as much, but I would not be so cynical as to do so….

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