Exodus or Bust

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Morning Psalm 148

1   Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2   Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
3   Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
4   Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5   Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.
6   He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
7   Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
8   fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
9   Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10  Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
11  Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12  Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
13  Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
14  He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

 

First Reading Exodus 2:1-22

1Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

11One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” 21Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. 22She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

Devotional

Many of the movies I see have a common theme. Toward the end of the movie, there is an apocalyptic battle. At one point during the battle, it looks like the forces of evil are going to win. Of course, the tide soon turns, and the forces of good will prevail, but a skillful director will make you question the final outcome before you get to the final scenes. For example in The Return of the Jedi, it looks like the evil Emperor is going to defeat the forces of the Rebellion. But then Darth Vader remembers he is Luke’s father, and instead of killing Luke, as the Emperor commands, he kills the Emperor. (I hope I did not spoil it for anyone!)
Taking Exodus as a story, yesterday we heard of the extreme oppression of the Hebrew people. But today we get a glimpse that God is up to something. In spite of the order to drown all the Hebrew male babies in the Nile, one manages to survive. Not only does he survive, he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter to takes him to the palace to be raised. Not only that, but the daughter of Pharaoh hires Moses’ birth mother to be his wet nurse. It looks like something very interesting is going to happen with this baby.
But then we get to verse 11. Moses, who was raised in Pharaoh’s palace learn of his lineage somehow. We are not told how. But we are told he went out, “to his people.” He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Something arose in him, and he became very angry, and he killed the Egyptian. OK, so maybe this is the start of the rebellion. But no, the next day Moses see two Hebrews arguing, and he tries to settle the argument and one of the Hebrews asks him, “What give you the right make a judgment on me, Mr. Fancypants? We saw what you did yesterday, how you killed that Egyptian, and buried him in the sand.”
Moses is now afraid, and he flees for his life.
So much for the rebellion.
Sometimes we think that when God acts, the Almighty clears a wide, level path for the forces of good to travel on, but that is not the case. Often God’s most beloved servants encounter great trials on the way to their greatness. David was to be a great king, but before he could take the throne, he had to the deal with the existing King, Saul, who was trying to kill him. Many of the prophets suffered persecution, and some became martyrs. More than once Jesus had to deal with people who wanted to arrest or kill him.
We know that Moses will eventually confront Pharaoh, and that Pharaoh would eventually free the Hebrew slaves, but it would be a struggle from start to finish. There will be many setbacks.
When we experience setbacks in our walk of faith, that does not always mean we are on the wrong path. It just may mean that many others are on the wrong path, and in trying to get them to turn around, we may make enemies in the process. (Well, more likely we will be greatly misunderstood!) But, when the Word of God points us in a direction, and wise and godly people affirm that direction, we cannot be in the wrong, no matter how many people are marching in the other direction.
What do you do when encounter setbacks? Just remember, even Moses’ murder of the Egyptian did not set God back. It became a part of the story.

Evening Psalm 130

1   Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2       Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
3   If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4   But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
5   I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6   my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7   O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8   It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

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Exodus or Bust–A Daily Devotion

Today we start with Exodus. This book lies at the heart of Judaism, and you need to know Exodus to really understand the ministry of Jesus. Other people are going to be this devotion over time.

Old Testament Lesson

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Exodus 1:6-22

6Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Meditation

The book of Exodus takes up where Genesis left off. The children of Jacob have settled in Egypt. Year later, they have multiplied to the point where the Pharaoh was concerned about all these non-Egyptians who threaten the status quo. “Can’t have all these foreigners in our state. We need to deal with this!” says Pharaoh. And he comes up with a solution. Enslave them! But that did not work, so he comes up with an even more radical solution—kill all the males born to Hebrew women.
Pharaoh has a limited set of tools in his box—oppression and death. Get the people under your boot, and if they won’t go, kill them.
Of course this does not work. In the movie series, The Hunger Games, one of the president’s advisers tells him to come down hard on the people. Floggings and death will bring the people to heel, he says. It turns out that he is actually working with the resistance, and his advice is meant, not to control the people, but to incite them to revolution. His plan works, and the president is overthrown.
Pharaoh’s plan did not work so well either. His hard heart led to the death of thousands of his people.
In various places, the Bible tells us that a heavy-handed approach does not work. After the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam questions his advisers about how best to rule. The older advisers suggest he lay up, and give the people a break. In order to build the temple, Solomon had to levy heavy taxes, and he conscripted many men to work on his pet project. The people were tired. But the younger advisers tell him, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’” Unfortunately Rehoboam took their advice. The result? The kingdom, which was a delicate confederacy of twelve tribes, split. Only two stayed with Rehoboam. The rest formed a new kingdom, with Jeroboam at the helm.
How do we handle problems that come our way? In a heavy handed manner, making sure others are subject to our whims, or with a lighter touch, working together with others, with the aim, not of consolidating power, but of assuring the well being of others?
Pharaoh thought he was a powerful man. But then he ran into a man who had much more power than he did—Moses. Moses was the man of God, used to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery, and to bring them to the promised land.
I hear some pastors talk, and it sounds like they are siding with Pharaoh. Their object is to win—win others to Christ, win glory for their ministry, win and be on top of the pile. That is not what God calls us to. Jesus came to serve, not be served, and when we forget that is when we start to go off the rails.

Evening Psalm

If you ever feel that God is distant, this is the Psalm for you. Our conditions may not be as dire as those of the psalmist, but we can still use these when we feel life has given us the fuzzy end of the lollipop. This is the kind of Psalm that may have been written for the Hebrew people who were in slavery in Egypt. In spite of their oppression, they trusted God. 

Psalm 102

1   Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you.
2   Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
3   For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
4   My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
5   Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
6   I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
7   I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
8   All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9   For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
10  because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11  My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
12  But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
13  You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
14  For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
15  The nations will fear the name of the LORD,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
16  For the LORD will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
17  He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer.
18  Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the LORD:
19  that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
20  to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die;
21  so that the name of the LORD may be declared in Zion,
and his praise in Jerusalem,
22  when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
23  He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days.
24  “O my God,” I say, “do not take me away
at the mid-point of my life,
you whose years endure
throughout all generations.”
25  Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26  They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
27       but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28  The children of your servants shall live secure;
their offspring shall be established in your presence.

 

 

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To Be

BeStillandKnow_1

Several years ago I visited a colleague of mine for some advice about my spiritual life. At our first meeting he said, “I am going to repeat a phrase. You meditate on the phrase. You will know when I am done, and then you can start talking.”

Then he said:

Be still and know that I am God.

And then he was silent for a minute to two. I have to admit that most of my meditation at that point was, “how will I know when he is finished? What if he is finished, and I don’t know, and I sit there not talking when he is waiting for me to start?

Then he said:

Be still and know that I am

Again he gave me a moment or two of silence to reflect on that, but this time I was thinking, “Aha! Now I know how I will know he is done. He is winding down the phrase, and when he gets to the last word, then he is done. So I won’t look a fool, waiting for him when he is waiting for me!

Then he said:

Be still and know

 

This time I was able to reflect a little on the words. Be still and know….know what? What do I know? How do I know it? What do I really KNOW? What is the knowledge that is deep seated within me? What do I know about God?

Then he said:

Be still

Being still is hard for me. I like to be doing something. All the time. I am usually reading about three books, catching up on news, writing, thinking, planning. I am not good at being still. I have always thought that life is like being on water skis. If you stop, you sink.

Then he said:

Be

One simple word. One impossible task. Just be. I always thought I was defined by what I do, not by what I am. To just be? What if what I do is not the main thing? What if it is more about who and what I am than about what I do?

These last few weeks have taught me a lot about being. Who am I if I am not doing something? My identity is so tied up in being a minister. What happens if I am not able to do 90 percent of what I do as a minister?

What happens when our calendars are cleared, and we are advised to stay home? There is no shortage of people telling us what we ought to be.  What happens when all the voices are quieted, when all the meetings are cancelled? What happens when we cannot visit friends, shop, volunteer at the food bank, sing in the choir, attend committee meetings, or socialize with other church members? What kind of Christian are we when those things are taken from us?

That day, when my colleague said the word, “Be,” I had to wrestle with these and other similar lessons. It reminded me of a retreat I was on several years ago. We were told at the front end to NOT talk about work during the weekend. It was really hard meeting a new person and not asking them where they worked. We all had to find other things to talk about, and I was surprised how hard that was.

The day I heard the word “Be” helped me see one thing very clear. Of all the things I just am, this is foremost. I am a child of God. You don’t have to do anything to be a child. You just are one. Being the child of my parents was something I was, not something I did. As a child of my parents, that entailed certain things on my part—mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and other various chores—but even when I didn’t do them, I was still their child.

You are a child of God. Through all that might happen the next few weeks, never forget that. That is more constant than taxes, stew or even death—and as Easter approaches, especially death!

 

Grace and Peace

 

Murray

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Titian and Touching

Noli-me-tangere-titien

Noli Me Tangere By Titian

This was painted around 1514 and hangs in the National Gallery in London.

You can find the painting on the internet at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/titian-noli-me-tangere

The scene is taken from the Gospel of John, where Mary sees Jesus in the garden. Noli me tangere means “Do not touch me,” in Latin.Here is the full passage.

John 20:11-17

 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

 

This passage has puzzled scholars over the ages. Why does Jesus tell Mary she cannot touch him? Some say because she could not handle the glory of his resurrected body. Others say that she needs to reorient her way of relating to Jesus. She can no longer relate to him as a man. Now he is a resurrected being, and she needs to relate to him spiritually, echoing the words Jesus spoke to the woman at the well: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

 

Let’s talk a look at the painting, and we can see how Titian handles story.

 

First, we look at Jesus. Mary thought he was the gardener, and Titian has Jesus holding a hoe in one hand, to make her mistake more understandable. In Mary’s left hand is a bowl of ointment, which Mary came to use on Jesus’ corpse.

 

Between Jesus and Mary is his white death shroud. It acts as a barrier, emphasizing the distance between them. It is a death shroud, and death is the great separator.

 

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The painting has two great arcs. You can see it in the black line on the painting on the side. The first  starts at Jesus’s right foot, where you can clearly see the nail marks. If follows the trajectory of his body, which is bent toward the white castle on the hill. Titain is showing the trajectory of Jesus. The line starts at his body, then moves out to the town. It covers the hill top, where people live. Mary may want to cling to Jesus, but the arc of Jesus’ life takes him to all people. If Mary clings to Jesus, she keeps him from doing what he was sent to do—be the salvation for all people.

 

 

 

 

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The second arc is actually more of a bend. It follows the end of Mary’s cloak, runs through to her arm, and then takes a sharp turn upward at her hand, and follows the line of the tree, up to heaven. The sharp change in the trajectory occurs where Mary is withdrawing her hand from grasping on to Jesus.

 

The interesting thing here is that the angle takes her up to skyward, following the tree (Tree of Life, perhaps?) up to heaven. If her hand was reaching for Jesus, instead of bent upward, her trajectory would be more earth bound. In the John passage here, Jesus talks about having to ascend to his Father. In her obedience to Jesus, by not touching him, by not clinging to his earthly body, she has set her trajectory toward heaven.

Noli-me-tangere-titien2 hand

It may seem strange that Mary must let go of Jesus to gain the salvation that comes through him. Are we not supposed to cling to Jesus? Yes, if by that we mean to be near him, to follow him, and to give our lives to him.

 

But there is another way people cling to Jesus. Their clinging is meant to hold Jesus in place, to limit him. We are supposed to follow Jesus. Sometimes we cling to him to keep him place, which means, if he can’t move,  we don’t have to move either. Jesus had left Mary once, when he died, and now that she had him again, she didn’t want to lose him. So she hung on to what she thought was Jesus’ physical body. But Jesus had other, greater ideas. When he was on the earth, he was always on the move, and in his post-resurrection state, he still will not stay still.

 

In other words, it is important we let Jesus be Jesus.

 

 

 

 

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Did Ye Get Healed

Van-Morrison-Quote-Sometimes-when-the-spirit-moves-me-I-can-do

 

In 1987, the singer Van Morrison, best known for his song “Brown-Eyed Girl,” released an album called  Poetic Champions Compose which included a powerful song called, “Did Ye Get Healed.” You may be surprised to see that the title of this sermon does not come from the King James Bible, but from Van Morrison. According to critics, this song signaled the commitment of his music to a more spiritual direction.He sang:

I begin to realize

Magic in my life

See it manifest in oh, so many ways

Every day is gettin’ better and better

I want to be daily walking close

And what he found in his life, he wants to share with others.

I want to know did you get the feelin’

Did you get it down in your soul

I want to know did you get the feelin’

Oh did ye get healed

It is fitting that he signaled this with a song about healing. He sensed that the people who came to his concerts were in need of healing, and he wanted his music to be a place of spiritual healing for them.

The church is supposed to be many things, but above all it should be a place of spiritual healing. This should be a place where the world weary people can come, and find healing. We should be a place where we find healing for the on-going wounds of life.

 

Unclean Spirit

The first person Jesus encounters is someone with an unclean spirit. We don’t talk much about unclean spirits these days. Back in Jesus’ day they didn’t know much about mental health. They just knew that some people had problems. Today we would not say someone had an unclean spirit. We might say they  have a mental illness, or a personality disorder, or an addiction.  We understand a lot more about how the mind works today, and we don’t try to drive demons out of people who suffer from personality disorders or mental illnesses.

But we don’t need to throw out this passage just because we don’t treat these symptoms the same way Jesus did. As I was writing this, a group of people were hanging out on the stoop just outside my door. It was clear that most of the people there had some sort of mental health issues. Now I am not a doctor, or a therapist, so I could not do anything to take away their various issues. I cannot cure them. But does that mean I have no hand in their healing process? No.

We have to remember that healing does not always imply cure. A cure is when you no longer have the malady that is afflicting you. Yesterday I had a cold. Today I do not. I am cures of my cold. An article in the magazine Psychology Today says, “Curing means “eliminating all evidence of disease,” while healing means “becoming whole.” You can cure without healing, and you can heal without curing.”

Mark describes the man as having an “unclean spirit.” I said that we don’t use that terminology these days, but too often the same sentiment is there. We see people who are mentally ill, and we turn away. We are afraid of some of the mentally ill people. When, for example, we talk about gun violence as being a mental health issue, that just gives you more reason to be afraid of the mentally ill. Like it or not there is a stigma attached to mental illness. That is unfortunate because it means that some people who have treatable mental illnesses, like depression, or bipolar disorder, are afraid to seek help because they are ashamed of the stigma attached.

So how can the church have a healing presence with people? If we cannot cure them, as Jesus did, what can we do? We can be a place of healing, a place where we do not stigmatize, do not brand people as clean or unclean. We can treat them like we treat any other person. We don’t have to avoid them. And the fact is, the majority of mental illnesses are things that are more easily hidden, like depression, or unresolved guilt, or grief. I wonder how many people in our congregation suffer from depression. From my experience as a pastor, and as someone who once worked in a behavioral health ward, I can tell you it is probably a lot more than you think. We can be a healing place by accepting people, and providing support for them. We can do away with the shame that comes from mental illnesses, and understand that people who have mental illnesses do not have moral faults, and they don’t deserve their illness any more than a cancer patient deserves to have cancer.

 

Healing the Masses

The next incident involves Jesus, Peter’s mother-in-law, and then all sorts of people who were sick.

Jesus goes to Peter’s house, and there he finds Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. So Jesus heals her. Next we see what happens when your reputation as a healer starts to get out. All sorts of people start showing up, with all sorts of complaints. And there is not telling who will show up.It can, in fact, get overwhelming. After Jesus healed all those people, word got out. And that is when he is able to travel throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message of God’s love. They knew he was serious because he was practicing what he preached.

The kingdom of God is among us, and we know it because of the people who are healed. That is true among churches today. People know when they have encountered something real. And they will show up for that!

 

Lepers

Next Jesus encounters a leper. If there was anyone who was an outcast in his day, it would be lepers. When lepers encountered people they had to shout out, “I am a leper! Stay away!” Now the reason for this is not what you think. People were not necessarily afraid of catching the disease. Under the law, anyone with a skin disease was unclean. And if you touched them, you were unclean. That is why the man in the story says he wants to be clean, and not healed. According to the world, he was born with a disease that permanently made him an outcast. He did not choose to have leprosy. It chose him, and in so doing, it made him a pariah.

So the leper says, “If you chose, Jesus, you can make me clean.” There is a lot packed into that request. If you chose, you can make it so that I don’t have to shout at people to stay away from me when they see me. If you chose, you can make it so that people can touch me, can put their hands on my shoulder for encouragement, can give me a hug. If you chose, you can make it so that I am no longer an outcast, a pariah. You can make me human again.

I love the next sentence. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” And then he said to the man, “I do choose,” and he made the man clean. The leprosy left him. The stigma was gone. No one else would give this man the time of day, but Jesus reached out and touched him.

While we have made great advances in understanding the disease called leprosy, unfortunately we still have people who are considered outcasts by society, or worse yet, by the church. Some churches demand you have a certain level of faith before you can join. Or that expect you to believe some pretty specific things before they accept you. More liberal churches see their conservative counterparts as outcasts, while conservative churches often see their more liberal counterparts as unacceptable. This morning we are going to have communion, and sometimes before Communion, I say, “This table is open to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, which means that they realize it is Jesus who saves us, we don’t have to save ourselves, and since we are saved by Jesus, we might as try to do what he asks us to do.” For me those are the basic requirements, and we realize that people are in very different places on the spectrum of what that means. Some people here have been on that journey for a long time, and know pretty much what it means to believe in Jesus as a savior and to follow him. Others are beginners in that process, and are open to learning, while others thought they knew what that meant, but are going through some spiritual changes, and are challenging their old beliefs.

I have already spoken about the mentally ill, but some churches exclude people who are just different, eccentric.

I wonder who is excluded here? We do have a pretty big table here. I was talking with another pastor, and she said that churches often exclude people based on their economic status, but then quickly looked at me and said, “Not your church, of course.” I have to admit that made me proud. But I wonder who would not find a welcome here?

 

Healing Presence

That is an important question, because the church is supposed to be a healing presence in the world, just as Jesus was. This should be a place where people can come to find healing. There are various models for the church, and too often the model is the Church as a Business. I tend to think of the Church has a hospital. Of course I have heard one person say that the church is the only hospital that shoots its wounded. I pray to God that we never do that.

Probably most of you don’t think of yourselves as someone who is wounded, or who needs healing. But the fact is, we all suffer at least a little of what Hamlet called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We all get bruised along the way. We all need a healing touch, a touch of grace, a touch of love.

Many, if not most of us need some kind of healing. Our nation needs healing, for we have some deep wounds within our national soul. Perhaps you heard this last week of the increase in anti-semitic incidents throughout the country. What brings people to that kind of hate? I read of a woman who ran over a 14 year old girl, because she was Mexican. What kind of disease brings that kind of hate? And how can it be healed?

 

Now here is the good news. It is Jesus who heals. We are not required to heal every hurt person who walks through our doors. But we are to provide a place for them to find healing. And while we are not the ones who heal, often we are agents of healing. When someone feels rejected, an outcast, and we accept them, that can be the beginning of what Jesus is doing in their lives to heal them.

When a church practices hate, they have no healing presence. When a church practices active discrimination, they are not a healing presence. When a church is more concerned about who it excludes, instead of who it includes, it is not a a healing presence.

But when a church stands against hate, against discrimination, against exclusion, and when it stands for love, for acceptance, and for inclusion, it becomes a healing place for others. It becomes a place where people can experience the healing presence of Jesus. Like the people at a Van Morrison concert, who sang, did ye get healed, we could ask that question of the people who come through our doors. Did ye get healed?

Posted in Church, Church Growth, Communion, Compassion, Growth, Healing, Jesus, ministry, Mission, Musings, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Relationships, Sermons, Social Justice, Social Ministry, spirituality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope for the Holidays

1200px-Georges_de_La_Tour_-_Newlyborn_infant_-_Musée_des_Beaux-Arts_de_Rennes

George Latour, The Newborn Christ, c. 1645–1648

 

I wonder what Mary and Joseph saw when they look into the eyes of their newborn child. What did they see in the eyes of Jesus? On the one hand, they knew this was a special child, a child like no other, who had a destiny formed by God. Did they see the future shining in their baby’s eyes?

On the other hand, Jesus was just a baby. He wiggled and squirmed, and cried and cooed like a baby.

I remember looking into the eyes of my children when they were born. My daughter was first, and I saw many things in her eyes, but the major thing I saw in her eyes was hope. I thought, even just after her birth, what her future would be. Would she do well in school? Would she have boyfriends, some of whom might break her heart. Would she go on college, and would she marry and have children of her own. Would she be the first female major league baseball player? Ok, that one was a longshot, but hey, a father can hope!

I saw all that and more in her eyes.

I saw hope.

Tonight, we look into the eyes of the Newborn Jesus ourselves, for this child was not just born to Joseph and Mary; he was born to all people. We can all gather around the manger and look into the eyes of baby Jesus. We can see the hope in those eyes of his.

This is a time for hope. I could list all things that are wrong with the world, with our country, with our community, but I won’t. I want to talk about hope tonight. Because I think that exactly what the world needs tonight.

 

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that hope is being able to see that there is light, despite the overwhelming darkness. Hope is what gets us through the hard times. Hope is the light we carry inside of us. It is a passion for what is possible. It is an expectation that things can change, and that the world can get better. A parent hopes that their children can have a better life than they had. Someone in pain hopes for a day when the pain will pass. The prisoner hopes to be free, the lame hope to walk, the poor hope for wealth. The oppressed hope for a world where justice reigns. Hope is the opposite of despair. When we despair, we feel powerless, but when we hope, we feel the power of faith within us.

 

Jürgen Moltmann wrote, in his book Theology of Hope, “without hope, faith falls to pieces. It is through faith that a person finds the path of true life, but it only hope that keep them on that path.”

 

The Bible tells us that Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, so I ask you, “What are your hopes for the coming year?”

 

May they be high hopes. But if we are to hope, we must hope actively. When we hope in something, we invest in it. I had hopes that my child would have a good education. I didn’t just sit around and just hope passively. I bought her books, and read to her every night. I encouraged her to ask questions, and tried to answer them when she did. I was an active parent in her school. I actively followed through on my hopes with action. I was actively hoping.

 

 

Are you hoping the world can be a more beautiful place? Then actively hope for that, by singing, or painting, or writing or whatever you can do to create beauty. And if you are not the type who can create beauty, do what you can to support the people who are able to bring beauty into the world.

 

Are you hoping for the world to be a more joyful place? Then spread joy. Smile at the person at the DMV that just told you it will be a two hour wait, because I bet yours will be the first smile, and perhaps the only smile they see that day. Do the things that bring you joy, and invite others to do them with you.

 

Are you hoping for a more peaceful world? Then actively hope for that by doing your part to bring peace to this troubled world. Find someone who holds a totally different opinion on religion, or politics, or social issues, or music, or on whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and get to know them—not to convert them, but to understand them. Leave the comfort of your familiar surroundings and reach out to create a bridge of peace with someone.

 

Are you hoping for a more loving world? Then actively hope for that by loving your neighbor, and by loving God. Volunteer at a school, and get to know some kids. Find someone who has no family, and invite them into your family. Volunteer at a Food Bank, an emergency shelter, a soup kitchen. Be a foster parent, or a big Brother or Big Sister. Give to hospital that treats children, or to a non-profit that feeds children overseas.

 

Do you hope for a world with healthier, more joyful relationships? In the world where too many people spend too much time with their eyes on their phone, where 1000 of our closest friends are found on facebook, where we have lost a sense of community, actively hope for a less isolated society by joining a group of people doing something you like to do. Gather together with friends more often, and increase the circle of your friendships by inviting more people into your life.

 

Instead of just worrying about things, we need to actively hope. Are you worried about our environment? Then actively hope for a better world, but cutting back on the plastics you use, reduce your carbon footprint. Drive less and walk more.

 

Are you worried about our political system? Then get involved. Get to know your local elected officials, attend city council or county commission meetings. Write letters. This is an election season. Volunteer your time for a candidate, or maybe run yourself. But do these things with love and with joy, and embrace your opponents.

 

I have to warn you though. The more you hope, the less you will be satisfied with the world as it is. When you have a passion for the possible, you lose the ease of accepting things as they are.  But when you lose that, you gain an active hope in the future well being of the world. As the angels sang, Peace on Earth, Good will to all. You can only believe in their song, if you maintain an active hope.

 

As long as hope is alive, humanity will do well. And hope, real hope, is found in the eyes of a baby boy, born in a manger in Bethlehem, to two parents who had no roof over their heads for the night. In the deep dark night of despair, hope came into the world. It is found in the words of the boy who became a man, and who spoke the Word of God for all. It is found in the love he had for all people, in the joy he experienced by serving, in the pain of his death, but in the glory of his resurrection.

 

Come Kneel before the radiant boy,

Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.

 

It’s not too much to hope.

 

Posted in Christmas, Christmas Eve, Hope, Jesus, ministry, Spiritual Growth, spirituality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

sh mp

The idea of an author leaving their publisher because, “he had sold too many copies of her books,” is about as believable as an alcoholic leaving his bartender because she didn’t water his drinks down enough. But that is exactly what Susan Howatch did. That alone makes her worthy of a second look, but for me the reasons why I have read and reread her books cuts much deeper. She is the first novelist I have read who portrays clergy in a way I could appreciate, and in most cases, relate to. Too often clergy are portrayed as odious hypocrites (Elmer Gantry, Obidiah Slope) or as saccharine sweet, like Father Tim Allen in the Mitford series, which I tried to read, but finally had to put down, thinking, “No one is that good.” (Maybe that says more about me than about the books.)

But Howatch gave me a parade of clergy that I could relate to, men (and unfortunately all of her clergy characters are male) who love God and believe they are called to serve their Creator, but who wrestle with what it means to be an authentic servant of God. Her ministers are deeply flawed in many ways, but at the same time they are devoted to God, and working with God to overcome their failings. They are heroic in some ways, but all of them have feet of clay. And they are unlike in their devotion to God. Some are church bureaucrats. Some are mystics. Some are charismatic personalities. Some are Anglo-Catholic, others are Liberal modernists, and some are conservative. Monks are scattered in with bishops, archdeacons, deans and healers.

She wrote two series of books concerning the English clergy. The first, the Starbridge  series, centers around the goings on around the Starbridge Cathedral, based loosely on the cathedral at Salisbury. Each novel centers on a specific time and issue, theological and/or social, facing the Church of England. The first, Glittering Images, is set in 1937, and deals with the issue of divorce. Glamorous Powers is set during World War II, and centers around the mysticism of an ex-monk.  Ultimate Prizes follows a Liberal archdeacon, who is at odds with Anglo-Catholicism and Neo-Orthodoxy, as represented by Karl Barth.  Scandalous  Risks is the only one of the Starbridge series narrated by a woman, who is not of the clergy, and portrays the church in 1963  just after Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God came out. Mystical Paths follows the son of one of the main characters in 1968 as he tries to solve a mystery, and shows some of the worse sides of Christian mysticism, and of the idealism of the early 60s.  The final book in this series, Absolute Truths, as the Bishop of Starbridge tries to cope with the death of his wife. It portrays a church caught between the need to adapt to its time, but also which needs to hold on the the absolute truths of her tradition. Each of the books is loosely anchored around actual theologians and clergy in the Church of England.

Her attention to detail is fascinating, from the way she portrays accurately the misunderstanding of Karl Barth’s crisis theology in 1940s England, to her knowledge of monk’s underwear. She takes the writings of the various theologians who influence each particular book, and places it in hurly-burly of real life in the Church. No one theology is adequate to address the actual needs of the characters who espouse them, and one of the underlying messages is that the Church needs a variety of approaches to faith. But more important to the stories are the development of her characters, who all have to deal, in some way, with their flaws.  In the end most find ways to integrate the various parts of their personalities and their calling, into a healthy whole. I found their struggles encouraging for me, because most ministers have some sort of split between their public persona as clergy, and their private lives, some elements of which are not for public consumption. By fusing Jungian psychology and traditional Christianity, she shows how an ancient faith can adopt new language to help deal with modern issues of personality.

The second series, the St. Benet’s trilogy, still maintains many of the themes in the Starbridge series, but takes place in London, and many of the central characters are not clergy. Many of the Starbridge characters make appearances, but many new characters are added, including a frumpy cook, a high flying lawyer, and a male prostitute. The trilogy takes place in 1980s and 1990s and is less theological, and more psychological.

All of these novels are about redemption. Almost all the characters find salvation, but not the simplistic way of “accepting Jesus as their personal savior.” They find wholeness and healing.  Yes, many of the characters in her novels engage in bad behavior, but Howatch in more concerned with the whys rather than the whats of their sins. The people in her books are just forgiven. They are redeemed.  They find new life, and the freedom of not being bound by the things that caused their sins.

I have only two criticisms of her books. Sometimes the dialog comes off as very contrived, but that might be because I am not English, and many of her characters are stereotypical English. The other is the absence of female clergy. In the St. Benet’s trilogy we do see a wider variety of female characters. In the earlier novels many of the women are fairly helpless in the face of male dominance, but in the later novels they place a more central role.

I once spent a summer reading through Trollope’s Barchester novels. It was time well spent, but it was shame I had to go back to the 19th century to find literary clergy who I could identify with. Howatch gives me an updated version, people who are closer to my time, and to my issues as I wrestle with what it means to be a minister and a man of God.

 

Bibliography (taken from Wikipedia)

Starbridge series

  • Glittering Images is narrated by the Reverend Dr. Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recover, and to realize the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.
  • Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow himself as he leaves the Fordite Order at age sixty following a powerful vision. He then must deal with the problems of his adult children, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings”.
  • Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a lower-middle-class background in the north of England. After being widowed and marrying again, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.
  • Scandalous Risks follows Aysgarth to a Canonry of Westminster Abbey and back to Starbridge, where he becomes Dean of the Cathedral and Ashworth becomes Bishop. It is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend. The relationships, and Aysgarth’s family, closely echo the relationship of H. H. Asquith and Venetia Stanley.
  • Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of Dean Aysgarth.
  • Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much older but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we originally encountered him in the first of the books.

 

St. Benet’s trilogy

  • A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow twenty years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London, where he runs a centre for the ministry of healing. His own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after he meets Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result.
  • The High Flyer narrates the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who “has it all”. Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur, which reveal that things are not what they seem.
  • Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Graham and Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.
Posted in Church, Novels, Religious Literature, Susan Howatch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment