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A Deep, Bloody Gash

tower-and-crossRCL Year C
Proper 11
July 21, 2013

Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15=28
Luke 10:38-42

A few years ago, our Bishop held an anti-racism workshop in Alexandria. For some reason, I couldn’t go, but I remember thinking that we were a little behind the times. That racism was an old issue that we’d tackled and pretty much solved. Why weren’t we looking into the future and righting a new wrong? Hadn’t we brought racism out into the open, exposed it and squashed it over the last 50 years?

How naïve I was. Around that time, the first African American President of the United States was elected. I believed the divisions of the campaign and afterwards were only the usual political ones. But the criticisms grew more personal and mean, and finally it was clear that some of the underlying resentment and distrust and rejection was mirroring the division between races. Some people didn’t like President Obama because he was black. The race issue was still alive. And, to be realistic, two generations is probably too short a time to change the attitudes of thousands of years. A good lesson as we seek to put to rest other kinds of prejudice.

I can’t help but think that the polarization we’ve seen in the last several years has come about partly because racism persists among us. Beneath the wave of racism runs the ocean of fear. Thirty states have passed laws similar to the stand your ground law in Florida. These laws are based on fear, not reason, and racism is one manifestation of fear.

I’m not a lawyer. I can’t comment on the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin; I wasn’t in the courtroom and don’t know all the evidence presented. The whole thing is a tragedy in the deepest sense of the word. If the judgment rendered was fair within the law as it’s written, then I pray that law, and others like it, will be scrutinized wherever they exist, for the motives of those who wrote them and for their implications and effects. So let’s look at the problem of racism.

Racism. That’s a word that was more common years ago. Racist. An old, bad word. Prejudice. Not acceptable in any time. Discrimination. Not defendable. We’ve pretty much worn those words out and tossed them onto the pile of inacceptable behavior. Perhaps their meaning was too harsh; perhaps the human eye can look only so long at failings placed under too bright a light. We do what we can, we put the failings aside, believing we’ve overcome them, and we move on to the next one.

The truth is, we’ve moved too fast away from racism. That label is not acceptable anymore, so someone came up with “racial profiling.” It’s a little cleaner. It’s something that happens on the corporate level, when a company or a school is reviewing applications. Racial profiling is like collateral damage. It doesn’t usually apply at the personal level; at least, not to the person making the decision. It’s a few steps removed from mind and conscience. Collateral damage describes the reality of warfare and sidesteps the tragedy and responsibility; racial profiling describes a selection process of a board or a committee. These words have a “necessary” ring to them. Change the label, remove the action to another level, and you and I can go on to something else. It’s like black on black crime. It really doesn’t affect us. It’s justifiable out there, somewhere. Labels like these hide atrocities that should bring an earthquake in our consciences.

And then something happens like happened last year: a teenage boy, not even a full grown man yet, is shot by an adult man. Our senses are shattered. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t know it was wrong and should never have happened, that it’s a dark stain on the beautiful life God intends for each of us. And when the term racial profiling begins to be used, it helps. We can’t fully understand it, but it salves our senses to some extent. We have to force ourselves to look at the tragedy straight on and utter the bare facts: We say our future lies with our young people. A young man was killed. A young life was ended violently and senselessly. Racism played a part in this tragedy.

It’s clear that our we’ve only scratched the surface of the old problem of racism. We are left to wonder if Trayvon Martin would have been followed and shot if he’d been white and not black, all other circumstances being the same; if he would have been above suspicion for being a stranger in the neighborhood; if he would have left home that night and returned home safely.

Racism is still an issue. As imperceptible as it may be to us, it’s still a bright red flag for men who are black, and all you have to do is listen to the stories African American mothers and fathers have been telling about “the talk” they have to have with their sons teaching them how to walk, how to dress, how to look around, how to respond to confrontation – common sense to most of us but a matter of survival for black men – all you have to do is listen to those stories to know there is still a deep, bloody gash running down the middle of our great country. It’s a festering and painful sorrow that admits that some of our people do not count on the protection of our laws. That they have to be afraid of the law that is supposed to guard them.

Racism is one cause of this tragedy. I’m not saying it should have been an issue in Zimmerman’s trial because I don’t know if it could have been. I don’t deny that the causes are deep and not all on one side or the other. But we’re living in la-la land if we say racism wasn’t a factor in the encounter and that little was done to name it the wrong that it is. We’re denying our baptismal promises if we look away from this tragedy and move on to something else. If racism is, truly, still a reality in our country, then the people who write our laws have to do everything they can to write and pass laws that make it a crime for people to act violently on their fears and prejudices. And we as citizens have to do everything we can to confront our own prejudices and fears and help our society do the same thing.

Where do we start? As always, we start with ourselves. We start by speaking the truth, by admitting that we all are formed in families with their own peculiar experiences and that there’s no way our individual or corporate experience can define someone else’s experience, in this case an experience that comes of another culture and color of skin and history. We can ask ourselves hard questions about our fears and where they come from. Do they rule us, or can we break free of them?

We talk about compassion. Compassion begins with empathy, listening, touching, caring, really caring. We can never understand completely the experience of another person, but we can learn it and let that knowledge guide us in living with that person and that culture. We can create opportunities to listen to others and to express with sensitivity our own fears and the reasons for them, our own lives and experiences and histories. And we can be as sensitive and even handed as is humanly possible in writing and enforcing our laws.

PBJ Meredith, Mason, BobbySo if we are to listen and touch and care, it’s clear we have to look one another in the eye and spend time together. We are so fortunate at Holy Cross. We are right here on a street where most if not all our neighbors come out of a completely different life experience from our own. Our neighbors are close. It’s easy for us to see and touch them. It’s convenient for us to have conversations with them. And I’m not talking about offering the peace when our neighbors are in church. I’m talking about sitting at a table, sharing a meal, visiting on the sidewalk, inviting them in, having and continuing to have conversations. And then going back to our homes changed people and calling others into that awareness. Our President asked a concrete question: Am I doing as much as I can to wring bias out of myself?

It’s easy to take the comfortable way, to say we’ve moved past the problems of racism and prejudice. Maybe it takes a gunshot and a death to scare us back to reality. It’s harder to ask questions that probe our deepest fears. It can be uncomfortable. We begin with a desire to do what’s right, to leave the world a better place than we found it, in whatever ways we can. It takes being honest with ourselves and probing the whys of our fears; honoring our neighbors as brothers and sisters and caring about them. Caring enough to confront the failings and blindness and neglect of our society and calling them by name out loud. Caring enough to sacrifice something of ourselves, our time and our comfort.

If we can learn anything from the familiar story of Martha and Mary we read today, we see that both intentional action and deep, honest reflection are required. Action without reflection can be shallow, misdirected, short lived. Reflection without action can be so deep and still that it goes nowhere, benefits no one.

If you didn’t hear our President’s talk Friday to the press core, pull it up on the internet and listen to it. He opens a window through which we can glimpse the experience of the black man in our country. It’s not what we want to see. And we, hand in hand with the black community, can do something about it.

Will we succeed? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Some battles have to be fought over and over; they’re lost several times before they’re won. The roots of racism are deep and many and complicated. History, guilt, blame, experience form the tangled root ball of fear. Each does its part to feed the tree of racism.

But no good is ever lost: God made this world out of stuff that is good. Goodness and justice and righteousness and love are the core of the universe. The prophets have told us, and Jesus’ resurrection affirms it. God’s will is that justice and right prevail, ultimately, and in large and small ways in the meantime. The soil in which the tree grows is of God’s creating, and that soil feeds and forms the tree, too. It’s not complicated. It’s love.

Communion setRacism is as alive and well as evil is. It may be invisible, it may be denied. Each generation will have to deal with fear, and fear manifests itself in subtle and deadly ways. We share God’s vision of a world where there is no hunger, no homelessness, no violence, no person dying at the hands of another. And we’re assured that because each one of us, each person in God’s Creation, is precious and beloved of God, not one of us is dispensable or insignificant. Each person is a creation of God whom God intends to have a life of goodness. Each of us who follows Jesus is called to be a neighbor, the keeper of our brother and sister’s life and safety. Let’s look for ways, together, to answer that call.

Love’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, can not, overcome it.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

A Night of Perpetual Ordinance

RCL Year C
Easter Day
March 31, 2013

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

lent4The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you….

The beginning of months; the first month of the year; the beginning….

The Exodus marks the birth of Israel as a people who belong to God. Yahweh’s rescue of the children of Jacob from slavery in Egypt is a first in the history of a people with their God. Never before had a god reached out to show concern for a people; never before had a god acted with power on behalf of human beings as Yahweh did that night. When the angel of death came into Egypt, Yahweh protected the people of Israel. It was extraordinary enough, that the Passover marks the day of new life for Israel, a new creation, a new beginning. It is the day of a festival to the Lord, a day of perpetual ordinance, or command.

And so the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months, the first month of the year for you, the beginning of a new life. From now on everything will be different.” And later, at Sinai, “You will be my people, the people of Yahweh; and I will be your God.” Israel was born to be a blessing to the world. The world was changed. Israel as people of faith see God’s hand in human life.

We are people of faith, too. Our faith begins with Israel’s story. It moves through the ages, and we, too, see God’s hand in human history. The Creator of all that is has always been active in Creation and always will be. And, even with all the tragedies and vagaries of human life, history moves within the will of the Creator.

There are many “firsts” for Christians. It depends on what “first” you’re looking for. The Resurrection is, of course, the dawn of our faith, although it would take a couple of generations before the followers of Jesus would define themselves as a Church. We might see the birth of Jesus as a beginning because it’s truly the beginning of the life on earth of the One who would change the world. Jesus’ teachings, individually, can be seen as beginnings because they shine a new light on Israel’s faith; they reveal God’s relationship with us in ways that had not been understood, exactly, before. Jesus’ Crucifixion can be considered a new beginning because God had not been seen to be so vulnerable before.

But tonight, in a special way, is a beginning for us. And because our religious ancestors are the Jews, it’s fitting that this beginning was born within the commemoration of Israel’s beginning. “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” It is the Passover of the Lord. And within its celebration Jesus made for us a new beginning.

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. This was one of the most menial of the duties of the servant. Guests who entered a house, and the residents of the house, were relieved from their travels by having their dusty, dirty feet washed by a servant. The task was reserved for servants and women, never would the master of the house wash another’s feet. Foot washing was one of the definitive acts of servant hood. Today we have mixed feelings about it. We might say having one’s feet washed is one of the definitive acts of vulnerability.

Have you ever participated in foot washing in church on Maundy Thursday? It can be very moving, both to be the servant and to be the guest. Jesus commands that we wash one another’s feet, that we be servants to one another. And he commands that we allow our feet to be washed, that we become vulnerable, completely open, to one another. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” That’s pretty strong. It’s something entirely new, that God would be a servant to us; that we would be servants to one another. “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” In the history of a people’s life with their god, this had never happened before.

It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But I can tell you, allowing one’s feet to be washed by a friend does not come so easily. It’s not like having a pedicure done by someone who’s almost a stranger, present in your life only at a certain time, for a specific reason, and then gone from sight and mind and experience. It’s something new.

And washing a friend’s feet? Even the feet of a stranger? It’s not like getting a guest a drink of water, or doing for someone something they can’t do for themselves. We’re put out of our normal realm of control. This is something entirely new.

And then Jesus flings open wide the door to the new beginning: He gives his friends a new commandment, that they love one another. His disciples will not be known by the symbol they wear around their neck; they won’t be identified by their religious habits or their dietary laws; in fact, there won’t be a big book of rules they follow. All rules will be telescoped into one, the rule of love. Any of the old laws that won’t fit will have to be melted and molded again in the fire of love. This is truly a new beginning. It is a night of perpetual ordinance, a command to change the world.

I wonder if we can see that Last Supper as the Jews see the Exodus. We have all the signs of newness: Love one another just as I have loved you. Wash one another’s feet, for I have set you an example. And finally, this is my body, my blood, given for you. Whenever you eat and drink it, remember me. Remember what I have taught you. I give you a new command: You will serve one another. You will love one another. I will live in you, and you will live in me. In essence, you will be my people, and I will be your God.

This is the night, the night of our new beginning. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are making a new beginning. There is nothing to separate us, only love among us; we are servants of one another and of all people. Just as Yahweh redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, God has redeemed us from a life of slavery to self centeredness. We are washed in baptism, and we are forgiven our sins. Each time we come to the altar it’s like the first time again, a new beginning.

After we share bread and wine tonight we will take everything away from the altars and lower the lights. The church, in effect, will be bare of all the ornaments and symbols of our faith. Even the cross will be covered. We will look, this night and for a couple of days, on our own depravity. We will try to understand what it is like to have no hope of redemption, even though we know today the end of the story. In our emptiness we’ll think what it is like not to be servants of one another, to put ourselves first all the time. We’ll consider what it’s like to be drowning in sin, with no hope of holding our heads above water. We’ll ponder the implications of loving one another as Jesus loved us, as our Creator loves us, and the implications of not loving one another. And we’ll thank God that we live these couple of days as we live every day and every night, as people with hope.

This is the night, the beginning of nights. It shall be a night of remembrance for you.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

Eucharist

RCL Year C
The First Sunday in Lent
February 17, 2013

Deut. 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

The word “Eucharist” means “thankfulness,” or “gratitude.” Giving thanks is our central act of worship in the Episcopal Church, as it is in the Roman and the Eastern Orthodox churches. It’s our central act of worship because in the community of the church we learn and we practice and we become the people we are to be in the world. The Church is to be a model of God’s Kingdom, as well as we can be. Giving thanks is to be the central act of living for us. The liturgy and the practice of Eucharist are not meant for worship in church alone. We are to carry our gratitude into the world and let it form our lives. We are to be the leaven of thankfulness in a world that is often too busy to be thankful.

What are we so grateful for? You can make a list as well as I can, beginning with life itself. But specifically in the Eucharist we’re grateful for God’s action of redemption for us in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We are not doomed to live under a burden of self criticism and self interest and separation from our sisters and brothers and from God. Sin is the greatest burden of all. Knowing we cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try, knowing God has saved us from bearing that burden, is the greatest blessing of all. And so we are thankful.

To know fully our blessings we have to know well our story. Our story, the story of human life with God, begins in the story of Creation in the Garden of Eden. Very ancient people understood that we could not have created ourselves, that there is a purpose in our being, that we were created carefully and intentionally. I guess they could have said something like that over and over, but it could never have been said more clearly than in a myth, the myth of God, the Garden, Adam and Eve and the snake. Adam and Eve are certainly fully capable of wanting what they have been told will destroy them, but they know from that first act of disobedience that they are without a prayer to save themselves. It’s God who has to make the clothing for them; it’s God who will eventually provide the means of their salvation.

Israel’s story of salvation begins with slavery in Egypt. This is Israel’s story of bondage, of knowing human beings cannot save themselves. In one miraculous act after another, Yahweh shows the powers of empire that ultimate power lies with God, the Creator of all that is. And finally, it is God who saves Israel when she has not a prayer of saving herself.

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Scholars believe this was really the most ancient of Israel’s creeds. The people renewed their covenant with Yahweh every year, and they began by reciting a creed of their history with God. This is why Israel worships Yahweh. This is why Israel is God’s people: God redeemed Israel from a life of slavery that was hopeless. God did what only God could do. The story was recited over and over so no one would forget, so all of Israel would know why the children of Israel are the people of God.

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption….

What Israel knows God to have done for her in leading her out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and into a land flowing with milk and honey, we know God has done for us in Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection. Every Eucharistic Prayer, the two in Rite 1, the four in Rite 2, and the three in Enriching Our Worship, recite God’s saving act in Jesus for us today and for the sins of the whole world for all time. Jesus’ words as recorded by John spell it out for us: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Receiving and giving sacrificial love is our salvation.

Our prayers use the language of sacrifice, and on a personal level, Jesus did sacrifice himself to death on the cross rather than bow to the powers of Rome and the religious leaders of Israel. But the wording of our prayers is ancient, and the symbolic language is ancient, coming from the theology of blood sacrifice and atonement. The story of the Jews relates that it was in the wilderness that the Day of Atonement was born. This was a day once a year when all the sins of the people were confessed and laid symbolically on the head of a goat. The goat was then led into the wilderness to be lost, never to return to the camp. The sins were forgiven, done away with. A sacrifice of a second goat was then made to seal the covenant, to atone for the sins. Blood was shed. It was all symbolic and meaningful in the way only symbol can express deep meaning. Atonement. Something is sacrificed to atone for sins. Something is given up, blood is shed, appeasement of the deity is accomplished. The deity is no longer angry, the people’s sins are forgiven for another year.

We don’t practice this anymore, but the language of atonement remains as symbol in our prayers. God did not require Jesus to die on a cross. God did not send Jesus into the world to be rejected and killed. Jesus’ blood was not shed to appease God so we could be redeemed. If we read the words literally, we might think so. And Jesus showed us the wrong face of God, a God who is sadistic and not loving.

But the words of our prayers do express a truth almost too deep for words. Greater love is found nowhere than in giving one’s life for one’s fellow human beings. Nowhere is the picture of forgiving love drawn more clearly than in the image of an innocent man crucified on a cross. Nowhere is the way of sacrificial love affirmed more fully than in the story of the Resurrection, an act only God could accomplish. And in accepting that love, truly taking it into our hearts, we are redeemed. We are loved, no matter what we say or do or think. We are loved unconditionally and forgiven for all the times and all the ways we fall short of living in love. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed.

“…we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with mild and honey.….” the Jews recite.

“All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption….” we pray. In Rite II we pray, “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” We remember our story, and we recite it often, lest we forget who we are and who has brought us out of sin into the freedom of knowing we are forgiven.

Finally, the context of our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is Moses’ instruction to Israel: “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you” – you see, Israel must remember that she did not acquire that land by her own efforts; the land of Canaan is a gift from God. “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you…you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you…You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time…When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…into this place and gave us this land…So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me….”

Each of the children of Israel was to dedicate the first of the harvest to the Lord in gratitude for what God had done, for God’s saving acts on Israel’s behalf. In gratitude. Thanksgiving.

And four thousand years later, that is what we do in Eucharist: we come not first to be strengthened, although that’s a good part of it. Not first to be forgiven, because we’re already forgiven. Not first to draw closer to God, although that’s a good part of it, too. We come, and we bring our offerings, in gratitude. In thanksgiving to God for what God has done for us. For giving us life and for creating us in love and for redeeming us from the burden of sin so we can live, free from sin, in gratitude. Because we could never do this for ourselves. Eucharist. Thanksgiving.

“Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” You shall celebrate.

We say we celebrate the Eucharist. Lent is a solemn season, but on the Day of the Lord we celebrate because what else can we do? There’s no burden of sin to weigh us down. We celebrate because we have everything to celebrate! We are loved! We are forgiven! We are thankful!

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

Faith, Hope and Love

RCL Year C
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This is one of the best known lines in Scripture. I think, possibly, that’s because it’s read so often at weddings. And because it’s so beautiful; in fact, the whole passage on love is beautiful. It’s one of St. Paul’s moments of clarity and poetry. He’s clear on just what the Gospel is, just what the Good News is of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and he expresses it simply and clearly so we can be clear. This is the essence of our faith. This is the core experience of who God is and who God wants us to be.

But it’s also true that we can completely miss the point. Our understanding can go only as far as our experience will let us travel and only as far as we are willing to travel. Jesus makes it plain as he speaks to the people in the synagogue that everyone is not prepared or willing to travel where truly to love will take them. The people don’t like hearing that. They don’t want to think they might not have found the answer themselves, the place where they can be comfortable. They don’t want to believe that this little hometown upstart prophet might understand better then they, his teachers, his elders, the hometown scholars.

Paul’s treatise on love is a good lesson to be read as two people make a commitment to one another and enter a life together. In essence, he’s saying nothing will ever be the same with you again. From now on, you two are one. Your love for one another will take in all the joy and all the sorrow that comes to either one of you; your love for one another will bear all the failings of the other toward you. Your own way is no longer the only way, so don’t insist on it. You will be patient, not resentful or irritable.

High standards, often too high; but we must aim high.

The love Paul is writing about is not love in a marriage or in a committed partnership. It’s not love as a parent, but these are good places to begin to understand love. For most people, making a lifelong commitment to another person is as vulnerable as any place they’ll ever be.

So let’s begin there. Let’s look at love first as something that we can’t help. Falling in love is something that happens to us. We fall in love with another person. Or we have a child, and we can’t help falling in love with that child. Falling in love is a good image. When we fall, we are in a way completely vulnerable. We fall, as if our knees buckle under us. We may find ourselves saying or doing things we didn’t plan to say or do. Our own interest is set aside in favor of the interest of a new whole, a new creation made of not just ourselves but another person, too.

Yet, we do retain a measure of control. We can decide to walk away, as painful as that may be. Our reason can take hold, and as we see our loss of power, we can run from it. There may be lots of reasons for a decision like this, but one can be that we want to hold on to our control. We resist being vulnerable. We don’t want to be hurt. Turning away is a possibility, anyway.

The kind of love St. Paul is writing about is love that calls for that kind of vulnerability. It’s not limited to the love of partners or husband and wife or parents; even those kinds of love are given with some degree of self interest. Paul is writing of the love that gives itself without judging the worthiness of the other person or that person’s response to love. No strings attached. You are no longer a person standing alone, putting your own interests first. Nothing will ever be the same with you again. Your love for all other people will take in all the joy and all the sorrow that comes to any one of you; your love for all others will bear all the failings of the others toward you. Your own way is no longer the only way, so don’t insist on it. You will be patient, not resentful or irritable. Above all, you will not judge.

We do not find this love often in our world. The Greek word for this love is agape. We name it Christ love. It’s the love Jesus gave to us, showing us the face of God. It’s God’s love for us.

Christian love or Christ love is as hard as committing yourself to another person; harder, in a way, because it’s less obvious, the promise is not as public and the requirements are less explicit and rarely expected in our culture. It’s not the same kind of love as parent for a child or as in a committed relationship, but St. Paul’s requirements are the requirements of Christ love. And Christ love renders the lover just as vulnerable. That’s why the people in the synagogue resisted it; that’s why people in every age resist it. This love requires vulnerability, and it requires that we not judge another person. Judging is like armor. We protect ourselves, our convictions, our comfortable place, by judging the degree to which others agree with us. Christ love requires that we shed this armor. And when we shed that power to judge, to withhold love, it’s as if we shed all our defenses and stand, finally, on ground level with all Creation. The irony is that with our loss of power we gain the most powerful force in the world, that force that God continues to pour into the world, that life Jesus gave so we could know that pure love for one another. This is the love we are called into. And as St. Paul writes, without it, we are nothing.

I want to be clear that giving love unconditionally does not make us a door mat. Our love of ourselves must still keep us from being used, and if we are used, what’s going on is unhealthy and not the love God calls us to give. Christ love wants what is good, what is whole, for others. Allowing a person to abuse you is not what is good for the abuser or for the one abused. The most loving thing you can do in a situation of abuse is to speak the truth, and if necessary to walk away. The love Paul writes about is not a dependent kind of love.

It has been written that the most basic instinct of human beings is self preservation, survival. There’s truth in that; the ones who survive are the ones most fit and most determined to survive. But survival cannot be equated with living. I believe that more basic than instinct is essence. Beneath all our instincts, all our emotions, everything of ourselves that we show to the world, is our essence, the essence of the goodness and the love of God. We are made in love, and we are made to love. We may deny it, but we can’t shed it. God is love, and God created us in God’s image. Survival, yes. But underneath that, sacrificial love. The love that gives itself, even life itself, for another, is the love we are made to give. If only we’re not afraid to give it. But our survival instinct fights it.

Sacrificial love? That kind of vulnerability is bound for pain. If we think the everyday consumer kind of love is the kind of love we’re called to give, we don’t understand. Settling for a consumer kind of life only brings a deeper hunger that’s never satisfied.

In sacrificial love someone will turn on you. Someone will desert you. Someone will die. Someone will disappoint you or hurt you. All this came to Jesus, too. But God’s promise to us is that sacrificial love is the only way to real life, life in all its fullness. That’s why Jesus taught and healed and gave himself: so we could know Christ love. So we could see the way to life. God is hoping we won’t be able to resist that love, that we will let it change us, and that we’ll give Christ love to the world.

C.S. Lewis writes about love in the same way as Paul, using different words:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
— C. S. Lewis

I can agree with him until the last three words. I don’t think God ever gives up hope or trying to bring us to that fullness of life that a vulnerable heart brings. I’ll leave the unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable part to God because I believe nothing is irredeemable. And when we find we can’t give Christ love perfectly, Jesus has already taken up the slack. We must aim high. Our decision is how soon or how late we want to shed our armor of self protection and give ourselves to that love, to know the life we were made to live, life in all its fullness.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

Fear Not….

RCL Year C
The First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 13, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you….”

There are at least three prophets, writing in three distinct times in Israel’s history, whose writings are included in the book named for the first of them: Isaiah. The first Isaiah, Isaiah of Jerusalem, is known for his railing at Israel for the ways the people had turned away from Yahweh. He’s hard on them for oppressing the poor and cheating one another and taking the land of farmers who couldn’t pay their debts. He’s a prophet, after all, and this is what God called him to do at this time in history. The words of First Isaiah are still good in our time.

The prophet whose words we read today is Second Isaiah, Isaiah of the Exile in Babylon, two centuries later. His commission from Yahweh was not to preach hell fire and brimstone to his people, even though everyone thought their exile was of their own doing, punishment for their bad ways. This prophet was called to comfort God’s people, to tell them God had not deserted them, that the time of their punishment would come to an end, to assure them of God’s great love for them.

I have called you by name, you are mine.

In all your troubles I will be with you.

You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Do not fear, for I am with you.

This is the prophet whose portion of the Book of Isaiah begins, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem….See, the Lord God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

This is the prophet who promises Israel that Yahweh has not forsaken her, that her God redeems her from the more powerful nations, and then says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights: I have put my spirit upon him….”

This is the prophet whose Servant Songs inspired the early Christians to see in Jesus the anointed Servant of God, the Suffering Servant, whose prototype is Israel.

Second Isaiah, a prophet of the Exile in the sixth century before Jesus. Our prophet today of God’s love.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

If I worked all day and all night for the rest of my life, I couldn’t imagine words of love more tender than these or words that express as well our relationship with God.

Our Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus’ baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit in bodily form like a dove to God’s Son. If we listen, we can hear the echo of Isaiah’s words:

“I have called you by name, you are mine…my servant…in whom my soul delights: I have put my spirit upon him…You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I wonder, as Luke was writing this, did he hear in his heart Isaiah’s words? Did he see in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s promises, the redeemer of all God’s children?

Seldom do the lessons prescribed in our lectionary come together like they do today. And our Epistle underscores the essential nature of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of both love and fire.

But right in the middle of all these words of love and redemption we hear John the Baptist’s words about Jesus:

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I think this must be one of those passages that inspire hell fire and brimstone preaching. These words don’t leave much room for argument. John seems to have his prophesy sown up tight. But we are bound to read his words through the lens of the Gospel. I guess the easiest way is to believe Jesus brought a Gospel of hell fire and brimstone, but we know better. And we know also that the easy way seldom leads to the Truth. We look beneath the surface to find the hidden gold, the place where John’s words connect with the Gospel of God’s love.

To be made in God’s image is an inestimable honor. To be chosen and called by God witness a trust that we human beings resist by feeling we are unworthy. But always Israel’s call, and now our call, are to be understood not as a summons to privilege but to service. Service as people made in God’s image to people made in God’s image, to the world God so loves. A weighty responsibility, and one we cannot hope to begin alone, under our own steam, so to speak.

And that’s where John’s hard words come in: The calling is to service, and to serve God in this world is tantamount to stepping onto a battleground. To live in trust of God’s love is to show, as best we can, that love to one another. It is to confront prejudice, abuse, oppression, poverty, discrimination, power, bullying, popular ideas and practices that call us to be accepted in the world. It is to turn away from the easy way of closing our eyes and holding our tongues and sometimes just being lazy. To live out God’s call is to enter the fray and insist on the just and loving way. It’s unpopular. It’s dangerous. Jesus was hung on a cross for it.

We’re all made of wheat, and we all wear chaff. We have to believe that, made in God’s image, the chaff is just a covering that is unwanted, really, and that we can shed if we choose to. Shed it right on the threshing floor to be burned.

I looked up the verb “thresh.” It means to separate the seeds of a harvested plant from the straw and chaff, husks, or other residue. But it also means to examine something exhaustively. To examine exhaustively. That’s a constant process we are called to enter into. To examine with the winnowing fork of the Gospel every day our vision, our motives, our habits, where we’re comfortable, where we’re uncomfortable – and why. That’s the only way we’ll find the chaff we have to shed to become the people God made us to be, truly to live as people made in God’s image.

It’s a hard process. It can be painful. It means questioning our attachments, our desires, our fears, finding all the waters that keep us from living in God’s love and giving God’s love to others. Finding all the fires that make us fearful. It means confronting the fears that shedding that chaff raises in us, our fear of ridicule, of not being accepted, our fear of losing friends and maybe losing a battle. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God…your Savior.”

The only way we can do this is to remember what Isaiah told us: Fear not…I am with you. And when we shed that chaff on the threshing floor and stand there in our most vulnerable state, we remember that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came to Jesus and gave him all he needed to live faithfully. And the Holy Spirit has come to us and stays with us and guides us and inspires us and challenges us to be the people God needs us to be in God’s world.

The question that haunts us is: What if I fail? What if I give in, can’t stay the course? God’s love for us is stronger than the waters of failure and the fires of fear. That’s the promise of the Resurrection. Nothing, nothing can separate us from God.

In the great scheme of things, our lives are short. Do we want to spend them all covered with chaff, so God’s image is shaded from the world? The great scheme of things is God’s scheme, the scheme of love and redemption. Each one of us matters. Each of our lives matters. Every minute, every word, every deed is of great value.

We might fear – whatever! But God has given us God’s ultimate assurance: I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. I am pleased with you, my precious and good creation.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

Should We Celebrate?

christmas-crecheRCL Year C
Christmas Proper I
December 24,25, 2012

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….

Last week we received a meditation from Bishop Owensby about the killings in Newtown, Connecticut. He wrote that some people had asked him if we should call off our Christmas celebrations to honor the grief of the people of Newtown.

We all have grieved with that community and with those families. We have grieved for the tormented young man who caused the horror, and we’ve grieved for his family. We’ve shed tears for the families whose children were brutally killed. The shadow of the tragedy – the tragedy that really is so many tragedies, so complex are its interweaving and its implications – hovers around our celebrations this Christmas season. Our hearts will be a long time healing; our prayers will be a long time ceasing for the people of Newtown. Should we not celebrate this Christmas?

Five centuries before Jesus was born Israel had been conquered by Babylon. All the political, religious and economic leaders of Jerusalem had been marched off to exile in Babylon – and that exile lasted a good fifty years. It’s hard for us to feel the hopelessness the Jews felt as captives in a foreign land. No place to worship, nothing familiar in language, religion, customs, surroundings. Just the bleak hopelessness of captivity in a foreign land. Twenty-five hundred years later the exile in Babylon doesn’t even need the explanation of place or time; The Exile, with a capital T and a capital E, is the standard for utter devastation and hopelessness. Really, The Exile can be a metaphor for the helplessness of the human condition. In that time Isaiah’s call from God was to give the people hope that a savior would come who would turn their darkness into light. A Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. In the time of grief the people received a word of hope. God’s people would not grieve forever.

Five hundred years later, Israel was again in slavery, this time to Rome. She still longed for a Savior. She knew, somehow, that she had no hope of saving herself. Into that dark time a child was born, and all who believed in him saw in him a sign of hope.

And that’s how it is, isn’t it, today, too? We in the United States don’t live under the oppression of another power; ours is a more subtle condition of slavery. People in every generation begin again the battle between right and wrong, light and darkness, good and evil. And somehow, we know that, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how hard we try, we are caught hopelessly in the human condition of self interest. The divisions between human beings persist: competition, resentment, prejudice, pride, anger. There are battles to be fought anew in every age, in each individual one of us, and there are abuses and neglects and tragedies, too. We still are in need of a Savior.

Into this glorious paradox of human life, 2000 years ago, a child was born. The early Christians brought all their centuries of longings for someone to save them into their celebration of Jesus’ life. A child was born, and he grew to have such a perfect understanding of who God is and of who God made us to be that we call him the only Son of God, the very image of God. He grew to be so perfect in his love for the world that he was crucified by the world because the way he showed to life was too loving, too vulnerable, to survive in a world of self interest.

But in the birth of that child Christians have found hope all through the ages. He was an ordinary baby, born to an ordinary couple. His birth was unusual only in that he was not born at home – the story goes that from his very beginning he had no place to lay his head, no home. A stable in a town not his own, a donkey instead of a nurse, a manger instead of a cradle, on a dark, ordinary night. This is the child we call the Son of God. The miracle is that God breathed God’s self right into the oppression and the sinfulness, the homelessness and the poverty and the helplessness of our human condition. With no special advantage, the child grew into the one who shows us what it is to be fully human.

And Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is the most beautiful celebration the human mind can imagine. If it’s not literally true, the symbols tell the truth of the human heart. The miracle of God, the Creator and the Master of all that is, coming to live in the very lowliest of human places is a story whose fullness cannot be captured in our limited language. It’s a glorious miracle whose truth can be told only in imagery: the symbols of a star shining bright, heaven and nature coming together to sing, lowly shepherds lifted up by angels to be honored as the first visitors to see the Christ Child. Heavenly royalty reaching into the ordinary human condition to meet in an unknown town among a people in slavery. An ordinary night became a night of wonder.

I imagine the angels and God could have grieved that holy night over what was ahead for the child, how cruel the world would be, how hopeless his time on earth would seem, the tragedy of the human condition. But all the hope of Israel was alive that night – as it is today! God comes to us in the worst, the lowest, the most hopeless places of our lives. After all, God created all that is, and God hangs in there with us. No celebrations at the birth of the Christ Child? That would be to give in to despair, to let evil have its way and kill our hope in God’s promises.

And so tonight, we celebrate. Every day we celebrate, even when we celebrate in the midst of tears! God has come to us in every place God can find us. In our joys and in our sorrows. In our hopes and in our pain. In our strivings and in our failings. Yes, in the very worst we can do and think and say. God is with us, forgiving the breach between who we are and who we want to be. No darkness can overcome the light of hope.

There are no chains of grief that can hold us, if we don’t want to be held. The promise is in the babe in the manger. God is with us in our most hopeless places – the ones of our own making, and the ones that are cast upon us. Not to celebrate Jesus’ birth is to deny the reality and the promise of God’s presence among us.

And that promise is that all our failings and especially all our sorrows will be healed. Believe God’s promise, and celebrate Jesus’ birth!

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…and there shall be endless peace…justice…righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

No Snow in Fort Worth

tower-and-crossRCL Year 3
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5aj
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

Advent is a season of waiting for the coming of the Son of God. It’s a season of hope. But how are we to sing a song of hope when our hearts are breaking over the world we love so much, the world God loves so much?

We’ve not in our lifetimes seen war within our own borders. We know the Revolutionary War was terrible and bloody. We know the Civil War was worse. But with our own eyes and in our own lives we’ve not seen or experienced in our homeland the atrocities to our own people that war brings.

We see and hear in the news, and the women and men of our armed forces see first hand, crimes and bloodshed – but those are half a world away. They don’t affect us the way they would if they happened to our people on our soil. We hear the news, we read the reports, but we can turn away. The work day must begin. Dinner has to be prepared. It’s time to put the children to bed. The demands of our lives are immediate. To feel the pain of the world we must decide to dwell in that pain. And most of the time our decisions are made with more immediacy to our lives.

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, has shaken us as no global news reports can. This terrible thing happened within the borders of the United States. For the most part, real danger is not part of our daily experience. We can immerse ourselves in the beauty of the world around us and enjoy our holiday preparations. It’s natural to sing songs of hope when times are good. We don’t realize how fragile, how vulnerable, our hope can be.

The other night Herschel turned on an old Andy Williams Christmas Special. It was part of the fundraising for the public TV. I was mostly in and out because I was cooking dinner, but the glimpses I had of the staging, the songs I could hear even in the kitchen struck me in a way they never had before. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a Christmas special.

Andy Williams and his three brothers sang all the songs, dressed in their holiday sweaters and caps. Silver Bells. It’s the Holiday Season. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. Winter Wonderland. I realized all of a sudden, hearing those old songs and seeing them choreographed with perfectly styled sets of snow and shops and living rooms and sleigh rides, how much fantasy there is in them. They were acting out my childhood dream of how Christmas was supposed to be, people bustling around, snow falling, street lights blinking, bells ringing, lots of packages and Christmas greetings and cheer. Even though it never snowed in Fort Worth for Christmas, it was easy to feel Christmas cheer and hope. That was the way it was supposed to be. And maybe it was, somewhere, in our hearts if nowhere else. But if it was somewhat of a fantasy to me as a little girl, it certainly is fantasy, not reality, to people in places of war, poverty, tragedy. There was no snow in Fort Worth; no bells ring in the war zone; there’s little hope in the ghetto; there can be an absence of cheer in tragedy. The songs and their images express the deep longing within the human heart for peace and good will. Even in good times, our words are more of longing than of reality. So where do we find the words to sing songs of hope when darkness hovers over our land?

The world Jesus came into was not so different from ours. There was plenty of poverty, people living on the streets; people with terrible sicknesses ostracized from their society and judged sinful and worthy of neglect; the outcasts of society reduced to begging on the streets and denied medical care and even the minimum of humane treatment. The status of women is better today; in Jesus’ day a girl did not make decisions for herself. She was considered to be worth only what economic gain a good marriage might bring to her father and the services she would provide for her husband and family. There was no reason to educate her; she would only keep house and bear children, so she should be bartered into marriage as early as possible.

Such a young teenager was Mary, probably scared to be entering marriage, around 14, scholars think, to an older man whom she probably hardly knew. Leaving her father’s house at an age we would never think of pushing a daughter out. And then, she finds herself expecting a child. We don’t know why she decided to walk the miles to visit her old cousin, Elizabeth, maybe for comfort, maybe for matronly teaching, maybe because she could only wonder how hard the road ahead might be, and she didn’t know what else to do, where else to go for a little while to rest and gain strength to face her new life.

Usually, Mary is depicted as happy when she sings her song to her cousin, Elizabeth. Nothing in her life looked very hopeful; yet, Luke has her sing this beautiful hymn of hope. How could she do that? Where did she find her words? I think she might have had to reach deep into her heart to find hope.

It’s possible she saw that she had a choice: she could either look into the immediate future and the circumstances of her life and fear the future; or she could draw on the faith she’d been given and hope in God’s promises. It’s interesting that her song only begins with her own condition: God has looked favorably on her! Well, in hindsight, Luke could see that, although the terrible things that would be done to Jesus are never a parent’s hope for their child. Mary looks into the coming generations and sees that those who trust in God will know God. Evil and disappointment and despair will be overcome by goodness. How? In God’s providence. Why? Because God has promised it.

And Mary’s choice 2000 years ago is our choice today. The terrible killings in Newtown; the heartbreak of a young man most likely mentally ill and bullied; the disregard of a culture that glorifies violence in movies and TV shows and video games; the abandon of a culture that allows weapons of war to be available on the street to almost anyone who can buy them; the neglect of a culture to help our own people who can’t help themselves and to support their families who are not equipped to care for them – all this brings the reality of our responsibility crashing in on us.

And the truth of our responsibility shines a light on the truth that we have choices. We can despair in the violence; we can mourn and then forget; we can allow ourselves to be paralyzed to bring change; we can give up hope. Or we can choose to hope and to act. In a world where there is so much darkness, we can draw, as Mary did, on the teachings of our faith that tell us that God is near. The world Mary hoped for has not come, yet. But God has promised that in God’s kingdom mercy will reign, the lowly will be lifted up, the hungry will be filled, the children will be safe. In God’s kingdom life will be as we long for it to be.

We ask, as the Pharisees did, as the disciples did, for signs. It would be so nice to have some proof, just some little something we could hold onto in the time when we can see so many reasons not to hope. Sometimes we can get a glimpse: in the beauty of nature, in an act of kindness, in a change of heart from resentment to forgiving. But mostly, we have to wait and trust and want to believe. We have to reach below the place of knowing to find the words to sing songs of hope in the dark times when we can see so many reasons not to hope. And as we wait we try to be merciful, we feed the hungry, and we lift up the people life has crushed, and in these actions we glimpse the seeds of hope.

We have something Mary didn’t have. We have the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. And in those things we can know the hope that, born of old, was born again in God’s Son. It’s not a Pollyanna kind of hope; it’s not a simple faith that shuts out the darkness. It’s a faith of complexity that holds us as we walk through a world where there is so much sadness and tragedy and death and reason not to hope. It’s the light that leads us through that darkness from the side of simplistic hope through doubt and fear to the other side of darkness. And that is our Advent hope. It’s the light in a dark world. It’s God’s promise that, all else witnessing to the contrary, the sin of separation between one human being and another, between the human life and God, has been conquered by God. We can rejoice in God our Savior, and we can wait in hope for the day when Mary’s hope is fulfilled. This is how we sing our songs of hope.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

Advent 3: Two days after Sandy Hook

RCL Year C
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6)
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Today, on the third Sunday of our Season of Hope, we see the threat of a dark, cold hopelessness. A 20 year old man killed his mother, 20 first grade children, six adults and himself in an elementary school with the quiet, poetic name, Sandy Hook. The town of Newtown, Connecticut, is reported to be a peaceful, friendly town. The last murder there was so long ago no one can remember when it was.

Our world is terribly, terribly broken. Our hope is shaken. The hope of 20 families and a whole town is severely shaken in one of the times of the year when hope is meant to soar and shine.

The violent killing of children leaves us without words. Anything we can say is inadequate to express our horror and pain and grief. It may still be too soon for theology, and to speak of hope, faith, prayer, healing, is to risk speaking platitudes that express only the denial of our horror. Yet, we are Easter people, people of hope, people of faith, and we must speak these words, even as we may be numb to their truth. They are the words that are beyond words, the words in our deepest hearts.

Before we speak of our faith, though, let’s look at some of the ways that we and the people around us may be reacting in this tragedy.

One way we can react is moving our focus away from our pain – and I don’t want to imply that denying deep pain is unnatural or inhuman. In fact, it’s, on the surface, a survival technique.

“Well, things like this happen every day, all over the world, in Sudan, in Africa, in the Middle East.”

“There were terrible massacres in the 1990’s in Eastern Europe.”

“And what about the Holocaust? Children were hunted down, taken out of school, marched off to camps where most of them met death.”

There’s truth in all of this, and we protect ourselves with these thoughts. These defenses can be a way station, a place to gather our senses, to stay for just a little while. We just have to know that they, in the end, will do us more harm than good if we allow them to numb us forever to human suffering. Facing tragedy can make us more aware, more sensitive, to the suffering of others.

There surely is anger. And with anger at the situation comes anger at God. How can God “let” this happen? Where is God? Is there even a God who cares what happens in the world?

The world God has given into our care is broken. We know that. Terrible things happen, and our first thoughts may be to question God and ask “Why?” As usual, there is no answer to “Why?”, only that freedom to act always brings its own danger of misguided action.

Where is God? Again, we can’t say this lightly, but we hold on to the deep trust that God is right in the middle of each family’s grief and pain, that God feels all they feel, and that God is active in ways we can only imagine, to bring healing.

Last Sunday we sang that great hymn, “Crown him with many crowns.” One line witnesses, “…and ye who tread where he hath trod, crown him the Son of man; who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast, and takes and bears them for his own….”

And so, anger is real, and we are not to be ashamed to feel it or to speak our anger. And when our faith seems not to be real, we still hold to it, grasp it, even as we risk unbelief.

Prayer is always response. The problem at a time like this is that we find ourselves without words. What do we say to God? What words, what faith, can possibly make any difference in this horror? Well, I think that prayer without words may sometimes be the best form of prayer. Knowing we can’t tell God anything God doesn’t already know; knowing we are without hope of doing anything, ourselves, to bring healing; knowing we probably don’t even know how to pray, we just open ourselves in silence to the God who knows our needs, and the needs of the world, before we ask.

One way to pray without words is with images. We might form a picture, say, of a family being placed in God’s loving, healing arms. Or our prayer may be Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or “The Shriek.” This helpless horror, an artist’s image of ourselves, is what we might offer to God.

Or our prayer may be boiling colors of angry red and orange or purple and black, explosions of gunshots, images of death that we can form only in our imagination. These angry images may be what we offer to God. And the angry images may be the expression of angry questions, and we offer these to God, too.

Or there may be just a blank palette of nothing, like the formless void and darkness that covered the earth at the beginning of Creation. We may not be able to name the darkness, the emptiness, within ourselves; it may feel like a void, like there’s nothing there. We may only be able to hold out our hands and offer our painful silence to God.

And then there’s the very real and not unusual phenomenon of not being able to pray at all. Probably many of the families in Newtown are finding themselves in this place, and it would not be strange or shameful for some of us to find ourselves unable to pray, too.

Many years ago I read some books about grief and loss. I don’t remember which author it was, but this one had lost a young son to cancer. She wrote that in the time after death you are numb, unable to support yourself, and that the people close to you hold you up. In a way, they live for you so that at some point you can live again, too. Prayer is part of that support for those who can’t pray – even if it’s prayer of anger or helplessness or nothing.

Praying keeps the door open for God to heal, and we can do that for one another. Prayer of any kind. Words of a hymn, or words of scripture, repeated over and over, stand in for us when we have no words of our own. These, too, are prayer. That’s what Jesus was doing on the cross, reciting scripture: his scream, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was not a denial of God but a plea that even in a hopeless situation God was present somewhere and listening. And God’s response is always for healing.

So in a time that no words can touch or express, these are the only words I can speak. They may not be words that can touch your pain; I can only hope there is some truth in them. As people of faith, we are sometimes called to live our faith, to be true to it, even when we can’t believe it 100% or express it. C.S. Lewis writes that Jesus never said, “Do it if you feel like doing it.” He said only, “Do it.” Prayer is one of those things we are called to do, even when we can’t believe there’s any good in it. We are called to keep the door open for God to come to us and to people who find themselves without hope.

For in the silent, deafening scream, our faith tells us Someone hears, and eventually through our shrieking we’ll hear the still, small voice speaking words of love and comfort. In the boiling colors of anger, our faith tells us if we look well, we may see a pin point of light, and that light, maybe, maybe, will grow to hold all the swirling colors within it. And in our silence, if we keep offering ourselves to God, our faith tells us we will find the silence of healing.

So in this time when there are no words, hold on to God’s promises. Hold tight, hold on by your fingernails, if you have to. Follow the horror as it unfolds in the news. Offer it to God. Place the children and the families and the town of Sandy Hook – and the young man who began this tragedy, too – silently in God’s loving arms. And continue to pray if you can. And if you can’t, continue to come into the Church’s community. Let us hold one another up.

In the words of Zephaniah we read today:
“Do not fear…the Lord, your God, is in your midst.”

And in the words of the psalmist:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”

Emmanuel. God is with us.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

70 Million Years

gardenRCL Year C
The First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

This week there was much discussion about the age of the Grand Canyon. Is it 6,000,000, as has been believed by scientists, or is it 70,000,000 years old, as suggested by a young whippersnapper geologist from the University of Colorado? There’s quite an argument going on about it, and the two main arguers were in the same boat cruising down the Canyon, taking samples of rock on the same trip.

The new theory holds that the Colorado River was not the first one to flow through the area and carve the canyon out of the rock. There were two other rivers that did the work millions of years before the Colorado happened along to take over a convenient bed, already there, and carve it out some more. Scientists agree that the uplift in that area occurred sometime during the age of the dinosaurs, 75-80,000,000 years ago, and that the Colorado River started its journey around 6,000,000 years ago, so something had to be going on in the 70 or so million years in between. It’s all way beyond my comprehension.

What’s fascinating to me is that human beings are able to probe the past far beyond our grasp, to wonder and to search, to test and to theorize; to look into a crystal in a rock, as one person put it, and see the landscape of millions of years ago. 70,000,000 years. 6,000,000 years. I can’t even imagine that span of time. We do well to think in hundreds of years. The time geologists study, the time of the earth’s life, shakes my own imagination and goes beyond it.

And then, to look at a time line charting time as scientists understand it and to see that human beings are but a blip, only recently present on that line, we wonder more: What are we that God is mindful of us? And God has made us but a little lower than the angels!

From the beginning of human activity, I imagine, people have wondered about the beginnings of the world and about how the end will be. Predictions of the end come and go:

There was one for the millennium, and there have been others at significant turns of calendar years. There was another one last year. Harold Camping predicted the Day of Judgment would come on May 21st. When that didn’t happen, he adjusted his prophesy to be that the Rapture would occur five months later, on October 21st of last year. Old news.

The ancient Mayans placed the end of the world this month, December 12th; we’ll see what happens.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus shows us that that wonder was alive and active in his day, 2000 years ago. It seems that we human beings are inclined to make predictions within a time frame of our own limitations. Today, looking back 70,000,000 years and more, how can we presume to forecast the future within a time frame we can only imagine? Do we dare to believe that human life on earth is the culmination of God’s creative actions? Might it not be another 70,000,000 years, even more, before the end of the world as we know it? What evolutions might there be still to come?

Advent is about hope, about waiting. In order to hope, do we have to hope within a time we can grasp? How do we hope in time and circumstances we can’t even conceive of? What, then, is biblical hope, gospel hope?

Twenty-five hundred years ago Babylon was advancing on Jerusalem. The people were ambivalent, the king denied it, his court prophets ignored it. God would save Israel, no matter what came; Jerusalem would never suffer defeat. Only Jeremiah stood up and told the truth as God gave it to him: Babylon would come and destroy the holy city. All the leaders of Judah would be dragged away to Babylon in an exile that even today is held in awe and terror. Only Jeremiah believed that hope lay not in the immediate future, the foreseeable future, the future held in human grasping, but in the day that could not be calculated. Yahweh would save Israel, but not in terms Israel imagined.

Instead of running from what he knew was inevitable, Jeremiah bought a plot of land for his own. He invested in a piece of a city that was destined for ruin. He invested in God’s promise to be faithful to Israel in the long haul. Against every sign that told him Israel would lose the battle, Jeremiah looked beyond the battle, beyond the exile, into a future he couldn’t calculate in years, only in God’s faithful promise. This is biblical hope. This is Advent hope. God is present in God’s Creation. God will redeem God’s Creation. Emmanuel. God with us.

This story reminds me of another story, one you all know: In 1954 the downtown streets of Shreveport were beginning to empty out. The first signs were the migration of the population south, to the suburbs. No longer would there be neighbors to fill the pews of the church on Cotton Street. The handwriting was on the wall: decline of residential population would be foreshadow by the movement of commerce to follow the people. The neighborhood would empty out and decline. The future was more than unclear; it was all but certain. All signs pointed south. A church that would hope to survive, it seemed, would better locate where the people were.

Yet, 119 people chose to stay in the church on Cotton Street. They stayed for no other reason than that they believed the Church should have a presence, a ministry, in the inner city, whatever that landscape looked like. Looking into a future they could envision, the prospects were bleak. There was no hope for the survival of the church in anything they could see. We can only believe that in the hopeless present they found hope in something else. God calls us to invest in the present. God calls us to invest in that hope that God is invested in God’s Creation and that God is faithful through time not limited in our imagination. And therein lies our hope. It’s the Gospel hope. The Church of the Holy Cross was chartered in the hope that God calls us to ministry, that every neighborhood in the world cries out for hope, that God is present in the church’s ministry, even, perhaps especially, in a landscape that appears hopeless. And this church has been a beacon to people in and even far beyond the neighborhood, people who are abandoned, condemned, homeless, rejected – people who, like God’s Son, are in places where all hope seems to be dead. This is Advent hope. This is Gospel hope. That there is always hope for new life held within death that seems to be hopeless.

God does not call us to change the world. And God doesn’t promise to bring God’s glorious end in a time we can see. God calls us to be faithful to the hope in God’s promise that ultimately, the world belongs to God. It’s useless – and faithless – to try to calculate the end or even to believe that we can know how the end will come. What God designs will be accomplished not by our means but by God’s goodness and will. And it will be far better than we can conceive. Who would have imagined that the way to life in all its fullness, the power that redeems the self centered dreams of the world, rests in a helpless babe born homeless in a stable and in a man condemned by the world and crucified on a cross? Only the Creator of the world could conceive and reveal and provide the way that redeems the world. And that way is far beyond the imagination of us who live within Creation.

That’s our Advent hope. That’s how we can dare to hope against all the odds. That’s how we can trust in what we can’t see, as far as time may stretch out ahead of us into a time that is unknown to us. Spiritually, it is futile, and it is faithless to grasp at time. Our salvation is held within our hope.

And so, what are we to do in the meantime, as we wait within the time that stretches so far in the future we can’t fathom it? We do have our part to play in hope. The past is gone; the future is yet to be determined. But today is ours, and God calls us to invest in the present. Every act of kindness, every choice of unselfishness, every setting aside of personal gain, every sacrifice for the good of another, is a glimpse of God’s future. We make choices, and our hope is not in our own goodness but in God’s action in us as we make those choices. With each good choice we become more the people God made us to be – and that is our hope in the foreseeable future of our lifetime. With each good choice the goodness of Creation is affirmed and grows in the life of the world – and that is our hope in the cosmic scheme of things. Our hope lies in the redeeming of one selfish thought at a time. Our Gospel hope, our Advent hope, lies in the trust that God holds millions of years, past, present and future, in God’s creative and loving hands.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard

What Large Stones!

RCL Year B
Proper 28
November 18, 2012

1 Samuel 1:4-20
The Song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10)
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

“…wars and rumors of wars…This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

I don’t know whether Jesus really said these words or not. Many scholars agree now that Mark wrote his Gospel after the year 70, 40 or so years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. The words Mark attributes to Jesus may express the horrible situation of the Jews in Mark’s time. Having Jesus predict the destruction of the temple, Mark might be encouraging them to look beyond the destruction and find hope in God. Christians of the first century expected Jesus to return any day, but Mark may have written with a sense that Jesus’ coming wasn’t imminent. The day of God’s rule would come – that was and in the Christian hope – but the time and the exact way it would come were uncertain. Mark was taking the longer view, the view of hope without knowledge, only faith.

Or Mark might have been using imagery, as the ancient Jews were so prone to do. He might have meant the stones of the temple, the large stones and the large buildings, to represent human practices and systems that have come to dominate human life and are actually counter to the way God intends us to live.

How many years, how many wars have passed since these words were written or spoken? Roughly 2070 years. The number of wars? Who knows? And many of those wars were waged to be the end of all wars. Are we any closer to the healing of all Creation than we were when Jesus lived? If you watch the nightly news and read the newspapers, you doubt it.

So where do we place our hope? Where can we hope to see any sign of redemption?

Every age and every super power and faith power believes the answer is held in their way of life, in their constitution, in their faith, in their ideals. We’ve just been through a political campaign and election. No matter which platform shows you some truth, all candidates hope to convince us, and I really believe that they believe, that they hold the answer, the way, the truth. Voters swing from right to left and back to right and back to left. Leaders and cities and empires and armies rise and fall. And still wars rage on, leaders argue, the powerless suffer neglect, and we seem no closer to compromise and respect and conciliation than we ever were. If we put all our hope in peace among all people – and I don’t believe we should ever, ever give up on that ideal – but if that’s where we place our hope, we’ll live in disappointment after disappointment every night in the evening news reports.

The problem at the root of all of human endeavor is the human factor: we’re self centered creatures with free will, and God has given us free reign in life. Just that.

So where do we find our hope?

The Temple in Jerusalem had been built following a heavenly vision given, as Scripture tells us, to Moses. Israel’s faith was that God had told Moses just how to build the Temple. And the Temple and Mt. Zion, where it stood, and eventually the city of Jerusalem, had become the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth came together. The place where Israel worshipped God had become the symbol of the law and the true way of life. The problem was that human ambition had gotten in the way.

Herod had expanded the second temple to be more glorious and imposing than the temple that Babylon had destroyed. But Herod was a puppet king of Rome, and his hand had tainted the temple. Within the Temple Pharisees and Sadducees argued over theology. Common people came to worship God, but they had to follow rules laid out by human beings, and they could never get it 100% right. With all of this, the Temple remained a holy place, even if it was really only a shell of the vision that Israel glimpsed in the words of Moses and in the prophets’ visions. For Jesus, the temple embodied a fallen hope, misplaced from the beginning and ending in abuse, oppression and waste. “Do you see these great buildings” Jesus asked. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Israel was missing the point.

So, we ask, what is the point? What truth does God want us to hear? If it’s not beautiful worship; if it’s not providing the most beautiful place to worship God; if it’s not following the rules of doctrine – what does God ask of us?

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, waiting for Jesus to come again, tells us: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another.” Love and good deeds. Meeting together. Encouraging one another. Touching one another. Nothing about rules or theology. Can we find hope in that? Perhaps if we thought Jesus were returning any day now, we’d get back to basics.

Let’s go back farther, more than a thousand years before Jesus was born. One woman longed to have a child. There was some self interest in it, yes; conceiving a child would take away the disgrace of her barrenness. She wanted it so much that she promised the child would be committed to God. We know that longing. It may not be for a child. It may be for peace in a relationship. Security in a home. Acceptability. Oneness with God. All of us have longings. Hannah’s was for a child. Pretty basic, as human longings go. This is the story of one woman.

And when she conceived, how did she praise God? What hope did she sing? We might guess that it would be that her child grow up to be successful or prosperous or a great leader of his people. But Hannah reached deeper and pulled out more human longings: the weak are clothed in strength; those who hungered now are well fed; the poor and the needy are lifted up. The hopes of every human being are held up to God, and Hannah trusts that God answers those hopes. Every human being matters; one woman, one man, one child.

And that’s where we look: first, that we see that God, and God alone, is our hope. And that God puts great trust in us, to see God’s hope for the world and to hold it for our own. Even when it looks bleak and hopeless, we trust in God.

And we have a part. In the peace of the world? If we were world leaders we would have a very visible part, but ours is a quieter place. We pray. We always pray. And we hope.

In justice within our own country? We take an active part by being informed, writing our elected officials, doing whatever we trust God to lead us to do. And we pray. We always pray. We hold, as the builders of the temple did, to a heavenly vision. We hope in that vision that every human being have a good life.

In the needs of our sisters and brothers? We can do a lot. We can give money to fund the church’s ministry. And we can give ourselves, the very most valuable gift we have. We can give our lives to listening and hearing and answering and touching. Each one of us can become more sensitive and responsive to the needs of others. We can reach out and touch people and love them, and in those actions we’ll show them the love of God. And in God’s love there is hope. Each one of us can do that. And we can pray, always pray, for the needs of others, and for ourselves to be instruments of God’s will that every human being have a chance, as Bill and Melinda Gates say, for a good life. We can believe that we are part of God’s work of healing in the world, part of a greater and longer vision than what we see on the nightly news.

Each one of us finds ourselves right where God needs us to be. There will be wars and rumors of wars; there will be governments and empires and religions that are grounded in oppression or that really believe they have the final answers. These are large and heavy stones, our human systems. But we are not to be misled. The answer has been given by God through thousands of years, and most manifestly in a babe born in a stable and a man crucified on a cross. No more simple or graphic images of God’s call to us, the answers for the world: love. The everyday, simple, renewing, helpless act of birth; the ultimate giving of oneself, even to death, in love.

Wars and rumors of wars? Yes, there will be, and there always have been. Perhaps every one was believed to be the war to end all wars, as far as nearsighted human vision could see. They were not the answer, and they never will be. I don’t know if war will ever end in the time of human life – that’s an area we have to give to God and hold in prayer. But the needs of the world? Each one of us is given the power and the faith to do what God leads us to do to feed those who are hungry, to clothe the weak with hope, to raise the poor from the dust and lift the needy from the ash heap. These simple actions, these acts of caring, will cast down the heavy stones of human self centeredness.

In the single human life given to help another single human life the stones of fear and need and oppression are thrown down, stone by stone. And in God’s good time the world is healed.

And we have to remember that our hope is not in our own power but in God’s. “For the pillars of the earth are God’s on which the whole earth is founded.” Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Mary B. Richard