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Friday
Mar312017

Wells, Fountains and Nourishment

WELLS, FOUNTAINS AND NOURISHMENT

Jn. 4:5-42

"Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?"

In the late nineteen thirties and early forties, my parents would drive their 1932 Ford V8 sedan down to southern Illinois to visit my Uncle Hayward and Aunt Isabelle. We lived in Glen Ellyn, a suburb west of Chicago. They lived in Divernon, southwest of Springfield. Just before the Depression hit, Hayward inherited five hundred acres of farmland. Since there were no jobs to be had, he decided to farm it. He plowed with a team of horses, heated with wood, used kerosene lanterns, and pulled water up from a well with a bucket. Later on he put up a windmill, which kept the water trough full. A big improvement came when he installed an iron hand pump in the kitchen. The piece de resistance was the arrival of electricity, compliments of rural electrification and FDR. From then on an electric motor pumped clear water from the aquifer, which lies below Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri. Hayward was fortunate. His land escaped the dust storms of the 30's and avoided long droughts and overly heavy rains. For fifty years he farmed that land and did well. He added to his acreage, sent his three children to SMU and eventually built a subdivision with water and sewers on one of his sections.

Hayward had several things going for him. He had graduated from the University of Illinois as a math major. Night after night he computed on the kitchen table percentages and margins as he made his farming decisions. His land was fertile. He bought used farm equipment, and he plowed his profits back into the very chemical companies from which he bought his fertilizers. He negotiated royalties for the rights to the coal, gas and oil which were under his land. None of that would have come about had there not been water.

What drove Hayward and guided his decisions was his faith. Hayward was a devout man. He prayed at the dinner table, in the fields and in church. Every Sunday he drove to Springfield to the Methodist Church, taught the men's Bible study, and sang in the choir. Hayward didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't gamble, didn't swear, worked hard, tithed, loved the Lord, knew his Bible and was enthusiastic about his church. The Gospel was the spiritual water which assuaged his thirst, cleansed his soul and nourished his life. The Church was the vessel for that water, and all his life Hayward drank deeply from that vessel and of that water. Hayward had his faults. He thought Gov. Otto Kerner was a crook and Adali Stevenson a philanderer. Even so, he was fair and generous. Twenty-five years ago, when he died in a St. Louis hospital of farmer's lung, he was mourned far and wide.

I thought about Uncle Hayward this Monday while I was splitting wood and cleaning out the garage. There was an old iron hand pump that I had kept for years, not because I planned to dig a well, but because it reminded me of older and different times. I had come so far from Hayward and the well in his front yard. I could remember the three tiered fountain in the municipal park in Glen Ellyn. The dogs could drink from the lower level, the horses from the middle and people from the upper. I thought of the watering trough at the corner of Main and Cross street. I remembered springs bubbling up in Arkansas. I recalled touring the water filtration plant in Glen Ellyn with the scouts. We grew up, I guess. We went from clay to brass to iron to copper and now to plastic pipes. Our water is filtered and aspirated. We used to laugh at our neighbor who carried a small bottle of water in her purse, for she had a phobia about not being able to get a drink of water sometime. Now days my wife packs six ounces of Perrier in her purse, one son sucks on a bottle of Evian while watching TV and the other goes out for a six pack of Poland Springs before going to work. Like Isabelle and Hayward, we need water to sustain and refresh us. It has a biological, physical, psychological, social and metaphoric place in our lives.

I wonder if the change in the presentation of the Gospel in the Protestant churches in our country has not paralleled that of water. It seems to me that in the early part of the twentieth century religion sort of bubbled up. There were revivals and tent meetings. You got pumped up with the spirit by traveling evangelists and at central "watering holes," such as the Moody Bible Temple in Chicago. Thousands of people went to be washed in the spirit at Soldier's Field or Camp Grant in the early teens and twenties. Prosperity, evolution, social change, the Depression - all these factors processed and filtered and refiltered the Gospel. We have gone from the iron pipes of the Baptists to the brass of the Methodists and the copper of the Lutherans to the plastic of a "Crystal Cathedral" or a Megachurch. The three tiered fountain of the Episcopal Church's social strata has disappeared. Now, like everyone else, we cart the Gospel around on tape and disk like bottled water. We flavor it with feminism, liberation theology, or postmodernism. The Gospel still remains. It endures, continues, seeps out, and somehow seeks its own place and its own people. Like Jesus Christ, the Gospel continues to surprise, to transform, to cause wonder and to give life. That, of course, is what the Samaritan woman at the well discovered. And is it not that transforming and life giving power of Jesus and the Gospel that you and I also search for on our faith journeys?

Like the Samaritan woman we often seem to get things only half right. The Samaritans had split off from the Jews, but shared common patriarches, much of the Torah and faith stories. But there was a chasm of disagreement over places of worship. Both Jew and Samaritan looked for God's revelation in a Messiah and the power of God's spirit within their lives. So it is with you and me. Often we yearn for a greater faith and for a clearer freedom in our knowledge of and relationship to Christ. Our vision is shaded, sometimes by sectarian differences, but more often by secularism, the pressures of our failures and the stress of our work. My Aunt Isabelle was never able to thoroughly enjoy her faith and her family because she resented having to live on a farm, wanted to get away from it, and then when her husband died refused to leave it. She was like the woman at the well. Her vision was clouded by her background and her emotions. She could not celebrate what she had before her.

Often the story of the woman at the well is used as a missionary text, to reveal the Church's mission to the Gentiles. Perhaps that is correct. But it is also a cautionary tale of the split within our own lives and families. How often do you encounter a situation where the children or grandchildren of the faithful have wandered away from their parent's faith and not found a satisfactory one of their own? Over and over young adults come to the Church seeking to drink from a well which will assuage a long pent up thirst.

So too, you and I often thirst for the water which will end our thirst and which brings eternal life. In our frailty and weakness we often try to assuage our need with excessive eating, drinking or other compulsive behaviour. Sometimes we look for comfort by having multiple children, multiple spouses, multiple employers or multiple tasks and responsibilities.

This Lent slow down. Allow yourself to be centered and focused. Let yourself have a little space from your compulsions and desires, your demands and stresses. Like the Samaritan woman, face Jesus Christ and listen to His message. Allow yourself to meet and feel the calming and orienting power of God's spirit. You can do that through prayer, reading, meditation and through coming to the Lord's table. By receiving His body and blood, you are reinforced and reconnected to His life and His love. The well of Christ and the Gospel is deep. Its water is wholesome and sweet. Today, this Lent, drink of that water and encourage others to join you. As the woman at the well said to her family and friends, "Come and see...." Amen. - Fr. Gage 

 

 

 

Monday
Mar132017

A Bit of the Old Nick

A Bit of the Old Nick

JN 3:1-17

It rained like crazy one day last week. Like Ben, my Black Lab who died years ago, I love bad weather. My mother was the same way. She was a Swede, and Dad always said she had been born on the prow of a Viking boat, heading into a storm. So, bad weather is not a problem for me. I pulled on my favorite Topsiders and waded out. These are wonderful shoes. I got them up at Booth Bay Harbor in Maine, and have had them for ten years. Of course, the water came right through them! My faithful all weather shirt was also drenched. I retrieved the New York Times and the Stamford Advocate, which I read before coming to work. But I couldn’t read them because I had to change my clothes. Then there were a series of phone calls, and I was off balance for the rest of the day.

We all have routines and patterns of behavior that we follow and depend on. They are the ways “we have always done that.” Those routines and patterns, personal and societal, are called “mores” and “folkways.” Mores are the rules and regulations, laws and requirements. Folkways are more informal, family traditions and ways we order our life. How we dress tends to be a folkway. Women wear high heels. Men don’t (except in Texas). The shoes you walk in will vary according to the culture, geographical area and function of what the wearer is doing.

All of this is pretty obvious until you begin to notice that men and women yearn to have a closer relationship to that which is the “Holy Other.” When men and women are called or pulled in by that which is part of the mysterium tremendum, part of the compelling force in and behind life, then things get very, very serious. We all have a desire to live in harmony with life, to find “the right relationship” to how things fit together. The Book of Job, for example, deals seriously with that problem. For the Hebrew, for the Jew, the overwhelming question was “how do you live in a right relationship with God?” For the Jews the answer was in their history and in the prophets. Their history spoke of God’s leading them to a promised land. Their prophets, like Isaiah, spoke of justice, mercy, humility and faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The sole repository of this information was The Law. Now The Law was not just the Ten Commandments; it was the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and it was called The Torah.

Certain scholars specialized in studying the Law and in trying to interpret it, which they did sometimes by referring to the prophets. These men were called rabbis. Those who were “strict constructionists” and very conservative were the Sadducees. The more liberal were the Pharisees, who wanted to make things applicable to every day life. Arguing, reasoning and studying were part of what they did and how they lived.

Now there was a man, named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night and told Jesus that he knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God; for no one could do the things Jesus did unless sent from God. (A very flattering opening gambit.) Jesus speaks of being born from above. Nick rhetorically counters that one can’t re-enter the womb (a typical rabbinic rhetorical device – starting from the literal facts). Jesus replies that what is born of the Spirit is spirit and what is born of the flesh is flesh. One who is born of the Spirit and believes in the Son of Man (Son of God) will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

What Nick is being told is that the old mores and folkways, the old patterns of behavior that Israel has followed, that the Jews have followed, that the rabbis have taught – The Law – is not enough. Belief in the teachings of Jesus and in Jesus as the Son of God is the key to living a meaningful and holy life and is the key to entering the kingdom of heaven (which is in effect having a right relationship to God both now and hereafter.) In the storms of life the old shoes for the pilgrimage of faith don’t work.

Our job during Lent is to re-examine our understandings of the nature of Jesus and His teachings and the extent to which we have incorporated them into our lives and to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This process and experience is not a casual or “sometime” thing. Some years ago I was celebrating at noon at St. John’s, when a figure appeared at the back of the sanctuary. He was stooped and lame. I bid him come in and later talked to him. We became friends. His name was “Nicholas.” Nick was a former professor at Stanford, Harvard and Yale and also an international consultant. “I used to commute on the Concorde,” he once told me.

Nick’s health was rapidly deteriorating, and he was in and out of Stamford hospital, where I saw him and gave him communion. Nick had been highly successful as a “rabbi,” or expert in areas of finance and management. He had mastered the mores of our capitalist society. Nick married and divorced three times and had four adult children, with whom he had a very tenuous relationship. Each of them had been damaged by the divorces. Nick and I talked through those relationships, and he began to see where he had failed and the damaged he had done. He realized that he had neglected the area of faith and his relationship to God. Nick’s values, perspective, orientation and life turned around. He changed. Nick still was an expert in his Torah or ways of life, his management expertise, but he realized that he needed something more profound. He needed Christ as well.

Nick’s health tanked and his son took him out to Napa, California, where he died. The son invited me to do the funeral. My knee blew out and I could hardly walk. My son, Chris, out of the blue called up and said, “I’ll take you out.” We flew to San Francisco; I took my cane, wore a pair of sturdy shoes, and did the service. I told the family that I came out because Nick had changed. He had come to terms with his failures and blindness and was sorry. He greatly loved his children.

I turned to leave and started towards the car. The youngest daughter ran down the hill and threw her arms around me. She looked up and  asked if Nick really loved her and knew that she loved him. I told her “Yes,” and said the same when the older daughter ran down the hill and threw her arms around me! She asked the same question. I backed both women off and said to all four adult children, “I came out here to honor your father.” A man of learning, he had missed what was important, repented and learned again. In the processes through the love of God he was able to express his love for his family. He was, pardon the expression, “born again.” Was it the power of the Holy Spirit? Well, you see, my son, Chris, took me out to California and brought me home. So small miracles do happen every day.

The Nicodemus in the story from The Gospel of St. John continued to be a rabbi, paying attention to the mores and folkways, The Law, but he added to that his discipleship to Christ. He was there at the Crucifixion and prepared Jesus’ body for the tomb (in accordance with The Law). At the same time Nick recognized Jesus as the Son of God and believed in Him.

So too, you and I during this season of Lent are called to examine our assumptions and patterns of behavior, our mores and folkways, how we do things (as a parish, corporately, professionally, personally, and familially) and how we integrate Christ into the core of our being. Sometimes we need to make changes. Sometimes we need new shoes for our pilgrimage of faith. Sometimes we discover that we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Sometimes repentance is called for. But always, always, you and I need to worship and to let the Holy Spirit work God’s will in our lives.

Let us go forth, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

-Fr. Gage

Wednesday
Mar082017

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

Matt. 17:1-9

Last Epiphany

The last time I preached, I talked about epiphanies, particularly the religious epiphany in which one has an insight into that point at which time and eternity intersect, or past, present and future meet. Today I want to talk about transfiguration. In Greek the term is metamorphosis and means transformation, or re-forming.

I spent 18 years working at St. John’s over at the corner of Forest Street and Main Street. If you look at the Tiffany window over the altar, you will recognize that it depicts the transfiguration story, which is told in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is high on the mountain and in the lower panels are Moses, who represents the Law and Elijah, who represents the prophets. Their reappearance was a sign of the coming of the Messiah. Peter, James and John, who wanted to build shrines for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, are present in the other panels. The window is cast so that when the sun hits it fully, the glory of God bursts forth in a dazzling spectra. This is a powerful window,

 Now I want to tell you a story, which I will set over against the story of the transfiguration. Some of you have heard the story before, but it may be worth retelling. When I was a boy, growing up as a Methodist in Illinois and Kansas, people often talked of “mountain top experiences.” Those were experiences that moved you in such a way that they changed your attitude, values or ways of thinking. They often came when people went to a revival or to a camp meeting preferably held on a hill. The conscious and subconscious model for such an event was the story of the transfiguration. In l955 I worked at a Methodist conference center, which was on top of a mountain in Arkansas. On the side of the mountain was a huge sheet metal cross with dozens of light bulbs. At night the caretaker threw a switch and the cross shone brightly and you could see it for miles around. In the west, lay the local town, Fayetteville, home of U. Arkansas. At the foot of the mountain was the section of town in which the Black people lived. It was a lovely town and the streets and utilities crisscrossed the town in an orderly fashion. The Black section was an exception. The paved roads and utilities came up to that section, stopped and then continued on the other side.

One hot summer evening I sat on a bench near the cross. A conference of the United Methodist Women was in session. These were powerful souls who raised huge amounts of money and supported such good causes as hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, etc. Oral Faubus was the governor and about to be indicted for receiving kickbacks. Eisenhower had passed the public accommodations bill, which ended separate drinking fountains, bathrooms and allowed Blacks to eat and stay in the same places as white folk. Little Rock and the civil rights movement lay ahead. As I looked at the sun sinking slowly in the west, the leaders of the conference came up and stood next to the cross. They were talking about the public accommodations bill. As they looked down at the Black section of town, one said to the other, “I’ll treat them as equal when they come up to our level.” I was stunned. The imagery of the dispossessed at the foot of the cross upon which Jesus died for our sins was traumatic. “How,” I thought, “can they come up to our level if we don’t reach out and put in roads and utilities?” I walked away from these well-meaning but morally obtuse women. The women were locked into their old folkways, their own patterns of thinking. Christianity and faith for them was in a state of “stasis.” It was static. It was a stolid way of doing things.

Much can be done with my story. We can cavil against hypocrisy, racism, elitism, etc. The “sin” of the two “church ladies” was similar to that of the disciples, who wanted to make monuments to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. They wanted permanence, to keep the old ways. But the power of Jesus Christ, and the power of the cross is the power of the glory of God. It is the incredible force of transforming and retransforming change. God’s glory is the dazzling Holy Other, the Mysterium Tremendum. It is the awesome power that bursts forth in creation and recreation. It is a cosmos changing power. As John Polkinghorn points out, God’s power is in the creative randomness behind and over above the fixed ways of doing things, which we see in the laws of physics. It is the light and movement that is behind the void in the cosmic black holes, which Stephen Hawking has projected. It was on the mountain that Peter, James and John realized that God was present in Jesus - that He was the Christ - that God’s presence and power was superhuman, beyond comprehension, could not be contained in the box of our limited imagination, memory and reason. God’s power bursts forth and can only be described as “His glory.”

Julia Ward Howe had a sense of that when she wrote in l861 what we now call The Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.”

Now “sweet Julia” was a righteous abolitionist and the verses she wrote that I left out were blood curdling. But Julia grasped one essential fact, and that is that in Jesus (who was not by the way born in lilies) God’s glory was His power and was bursting forth. Like the disciples, Julia’s politics, her moral folkways, were tying down the dynamic power of Jesus Christ. Her abolitionist sentiments, though valid, were, like those of my “church ladies,” putting God in a box. And I realize now, to my chagrin, that my civil rights views and my horror at the “church ladies” were to some extent also my mores and folkways, my way of putting God in the box. I saw the power of Jesus in terms of civil rights, and not in the deeper sense of the power constantly to reform peoples’ lives and to renew their souls.

The transfiguration window at St. John’s is in the right location. It is over the altar where the thanksgiving of the body and blood of Jesus Christ is celebrated. It is in that sacrament and in His body that we are transformed over and over again. With Jesus Christ we are not only transformed but we are challenged to show forth His glory to the world. As the body of Christ, we are called not to be static, to build monuments simply to the past, to commit the idolatry of place and group, like the “church ladies” and Peter, James and John were tempted to do. Rather we are called, to be “living stones.” You and I are called to be part of the dynamic of God’s constantly changing, creating and recreating power in our own lives and in the lives of others. Our Church, our buildings, our parish are not to be static and dedicated to stasis, Rather you and I are called to be centers which display His glory and which evoke change in the lives and souls of ourselves and those outside our walls.

I see glimpses of God’s glory, of His changing power, in occasional epiphanies. Now and then there is a transfiguration in the life of a family and child at baptism, as we have one today. There is the glory of God in a wedding. Relationships are transformed. I see an occasional transformation in the face of a child when he or she has a moment of recognition in worship or church school. There is transformation in acts of outreach and compassion. You can see it sometimes at the communion rail or at the healing rail.

The story of the transfiguration, and the window over the altar, remind us of the power of the glory of God which is an incredible, unimaginable gift given to us through Jesus Christ, and which you and I receive in the sacraments and in the life of faith as the Church. My prayer for you this morning is that you continually allow ourselves to be transformed, to be transfigured. I pray also that you share the glory of God and that transfiguration with those around you through deeds of compassion, stewardship and love.

Amen.

Tuesday
Jan312017

Who Cares?

WHO CARES?

The Beatitudes

Matt. 5:1-12

 

Like many of you, I am a Great Depression baby – born right in the midst of the worst economic catastrophe of the 20th century. There have been countless recessions in our life times, and we have just dug out of the Great Recession. There have been seven major wars in our life times. We are just winding down one of them – a 10-year war. There have been countless natural disasters. My wife was born right before the hurricane of ’38 and remembers many hurricanes that touched Old Saybrook, where her grandfather built a summer cottage. You and I weathered hurricane Irene and hurricane Sandy. How many of you can remember other major disasters – if not here, then in your country of origin? For me the first really big disaster was the flooding of Kansas City in 1950 when half of the city was wiped out.

Mankind is resilient and endures, as the author, John Steinbeck, pointed out. Oddly enough, our society has always had a civic religion that is formed by optimism and the common heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition. When things have been tough, troubadours and songsters have tried to lift our hearts. This past weekend out of the reservoir of my memory  the song by Vincent Youmans keeps ringing in my head.

“When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout, there’s going to be a great day. Angels in the sky promise that by and by there’s going to be a great day.” I thought of those lyrics, when I read the Beatitudes from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. It is strange how we make connections.

The Beatitudes really are an outrageous statement of faith and hope. They also carry serious ethical implications. In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents a timeless message to a timely audience: the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the outcast, as well as to the rich, the satisfied, and the admired. The Gospel of Matthew moves from the literal perspective of the Gospel of Mark. Mark speaks of literal poverty. Matthew broadens the meaning of poverty, “poor in spirit,” and places our lives in the experience of the Church. Even so Matthew is never far from the literal meaning of “poor”, “hunger”, and “mourning.”

To be a priest is to confront and receive pain. For years I have been confronted by the poor, the homeless, the grief stricken, and the outcast. Their plight cuts me to the quick. My discretionary fund is always empty. Affordable housing is scarce; unemployment is high; the vagrants are ashamed; the bereaved hurt. Last year in Connecticut 16,000 people lost their homes and had to stay in shelters. Thousands more were forced to sleep outside or in their cars. Last year in Connecticut 3,000 children were homeless. What can I possibly say to people? “You should have planned better?” “You didn’t try hard enough?” "That's life?" "Things are tough all over?"

Now, I want to tell you a story of faith of one of "those who mourn". Mary was elderly, arthritic, bird-like, fiercely independent, proud of her $2 a week pledge. Poor, she was in the shadows of the congregation of the faithful. For years Mary cared for her husband, tending him as she had her children who died years before. When her husband died, I put my arms around Mary and told her how very sorry I was for her. She knew that Joe was with God and with her children. She could recite, "Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn." Mary was spent and heart broken. She certainly did not feel blessed, but within time she accepted Joe’s death and rejoiced in the Lord. Mary's faith was deep and a lamp by which she found her way and warmed her self.

At her funeral I quoted a passage from Ecclesiastes. I am sure you know it.

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace." (3:1-19)

This passage speaks of the rhythms of life and is somewhat comforting. It assures us that there is some balance, some order, and that life goes on. Whereas Prophetic literature tells us that God is known through dramatic revelations, Wisdom literature, such as Ecclesiastes, reminds us that God is also known through reason, understanding, and the order we see in nature and the universe.

Although Wisdom literature is very old, it probably articulates the faith of most believers and nonbelievers today. We say, "Life goes on." "These things happen." "You still got your health."

This view of life was familiar to the poor, the homeless, the grieving and the despised who came to Jesus to hear Him preach and to be healed. They were familiar with the Torah, the law, rewards and punishments, and the common sense aphorisms of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

So what did Jesus say? Did he say, "Tomorrow’s another day."  "One day at a time". "Wait until next year". NO! He said: "Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are despised."

Jesus is saying, “You have a special closeness to God. God is not far from you. You have value. You are not forgotten. You are appreciated right now -- in bad times and in good. You do not have to wait for the rhythms of nature and of history. You do not have to depend on the winds of change, nor on a series of reincarnations. God, the essence of all being, moans and groans with you in your travail. God offers His creative being, His presence, His love in the midst of your life.” This is the healing message of Jesus. Jesus speaks of the love of God, of His bounteous mercy and generosity, of the abundant joy and reward there is when one participates in God's presence, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is such an outrageous statement! To the poor Jesus says, "You are blessed". To the hungry, "You are blessed". To the grieving and to the despised, "You are blessed". This message is a reversal of our values; it flies in the face of contemporary wisdom. This message is an affront! And yet it is the message for which Jesus died. It is the message of healing then and now. It is a message we tend to deprecate, depreciate, and discount. It is a message that for 2,000 years has fed the soul and brought joy to the heart.

It is the message I repeated to Mary in her grief. “You are not alone. You are not abandoned. God is close to you. God knows and feels and shares your pain. God holds you close. God cares. You count. You are supported. You are loved. You have value.”

And isn't this the real fear and agony of the hungry, the homeless, the shunned, the bereaved -- the fact that they feel despair, abandoned, devalued, depreciated, that their lives are meaningless, that they are insignificant and don’t count?

Who among us is in one sense or another hungry? Raise a finger. Who feels a physical, emotional, or spiritual hunger? Who among us is to an extent poor? Raise another finger. Who feels a poverty of money, of talent, of love, of hope? Who mourns? Raise yet another finger. Who among us feels a profound sense of loss or grief for a loved one, a career, a dream, a series of missed opportunities? Who among us suffers disapproval, scorn, censure? Raise a finger. Who from time to time feels an outsider, insignificant, unappreciated, forgotten, overlooked, unimportant?

By now, you like me, have all your fingers raised. And when they are raised you and I have hands that are open and reaching out to one another and to God.

In our poverty, hunger, grief, outcast state, you and I are affirmed. For to be blessed is just another way of saying that we are affirmed. God in Christ counts you and me to be of value, proclaims His love, and reaches out for our hands so that we can walk with Him. That walking, that taking of God's hand is called faith. Its products are hope and charity.

This outrageous message of blessedness, of faith and hope, in the Beatitudes does not trash the importance of material necessities, hardships, or rewards. Jesus is not a transcendental Gnostic new age spiritualist. He heals. He goes to weddings. He parties. He feeds the hungry. But above all He reverses the high priority of the values of the world, with its materialism, stoicism, and hedonism. This is the ethical side to the Beatitudes, and it makes us cringe. You and I are warm and dry and live better than many in Calcutta, Haiti, or Africa. You and I laugh while others weep. You and I are full in relation to those who suffer malnutrition. You and I appreciate our status and kudos of approval. The Beatitudes censor our urge to trust in ourselves, to feel entitled, to be self-centered, to hide our poverty, our hunger, our grief, our worthlessness.

Yes, the Beatitudes are outrageous. They do not magically give money to the poor, food to the hungry, home to the homeless, life to the dead, nor honor to the shunned. Rather, the cutting edge of the guilt they induce remind us that it is our job to deal with those literal, basic, righteous, human needs.

The Beatitudes proclaim the outrageous message that in our weaknesses -- at our most vulnerable points - God is present. God reaches out and takes each of our fingers of poverty, of hunger, of grief, of insignificance, of desperate need into His loving and sustaining hand. The Beatitudes lead you and me to the triumph of the cross, the triumph of good over evil, hope over despair, eternal life over death, a heavenly banquet over our hunger for love and righteousness. They point to “a great day,” to Gabriel and his trumpet, to our blessed life with God in Christ.

I suspect each of you knows all this in your own secret way. That is why you come to church Sunday after Sunday to share the bread and wine in the Eucharist of Christ's body and blood. As I stand at the altar and hold up the pain and sorrow, hunger and hopes of us all, you and I sense the gift of God's nearness, God's blessedness. We reach out our hands to be fed and blessed in the heavenly banquet at the altar.

It is the Gospel’s message of faith, hope and love that you and I affirm each Sunday here at St. Andrew’s and that we should share through our presence and actions with one another, and with the world. So, maybe we can be a little outrageous today and with a smile and a little humor, sing, “When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout, there’s going to be a great day. Angels in the sky promise that by and by, there’s going to be a great day. Gabriel will warn you, some early morn you will hear his horn. It’s not far away, lift up your heads and say, it’s going to be a great day.”* Hallelujah and Amen.    –Fr. Gage-

 

*Lyrics words and music by Edward Eliscu, Billy Rose and Vincent Youmans.

Friday
Jan272017

Jungle Gyms

Jungle Gyms and Mulch

Epiphany 2

Jn. 1:29-42

Do you remember the last time you stopped for a few moments and took some time to reflect on things? It probably was not too long ago. Perhaps you got a clearer impression of things, or at least a better look at them. You may have followed an insight and gone on a journey of the imagination. Often times you and I find ourselves on spiritual journeys or pilgrimages that have odd stops along the way. During this season of Epiphany you and I are invited to reflect on God’s showing forth of Himself in Jesus, the Babe in the manger. We are asked to consider this Jesus whom we will come to know even better during this new liturgical year as the Christ and the Son of God.

Some time ago I had a little time for reflecting and looking at things. My wife and I were in Fairfax, Virginia. We went down there to baby sit Faye’s twin grandnieces, Kayleigh and Madeline. One warm and sunny day we walked the twins down to the park, where there is an extensive play area. The play area is a marked off section of solid Virginia clay and subsoil. It is carpeted with cedar-bark mulch over which sit monkey bars, jungle gyms and slides, all elaborately interconnected. The equipment is an updated and reconfigured version of what I played on over sand at the Forest Glen Elementary School in Glen Ellen, Illinois in the 1940’s. Kayleigh and Madeline’s park has good, sturdy, childproof stuff. As the twins played, they were joined by eight other children between the ages of two and four, who were accompanied by a woman in her late forties. She was the overseer of the children and was sort of a combination prophet and shepherdess. With a semi-prophetic voice she would guide, cajole, form and reform the behavior of her flock. For about an hour and a half I sat and observed this scene. Periodically this Deborah-Naomi figure would intone, “NO THROWING OF THE MULCH. You can shape it, sift it, and form it. But there is to be NO THROWING OF THE MULCH.” Apparently that is the number one rule of the playground. “Not a bad rule in life,” I said to myself as Faye and I left with Kayleigh and Madeline.

Now, when I looked at the first part of today’s gospel lesson from The Gospel of Saint John, I was impressed that John the Baptist didn’t “throw the mulch.” There was no chatter, no ³”f¹s,” “and’s,” “but’s,” or “or’s.” He did not talk about “turf” or “process” or Robert’s Rules of Order. John gracefully made the transition from his leadership and baptizing ministry to that of Jesus’. History owes John the Baptist a huge debt of gratitude. John did not put up a protest or barriers for his disciples to move on and to follow Jesus as the Christ. John the Baptist didn’t “throw the mulch.” He was content to serve as the prophet-herald-precursor to Jesus the Messiah.

Continuing to read more of the passage this week I got intrigued. So I went back and read it in the Greek. Two things emerged that caught my attention. First of all, the passage is loaded with major Christological titles. They are as follows: “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” “Messiah” as well as the term “Holy Spirit.” Each of those titles, or terms, conveys major theological concepts: incarnation, sacrifice, salvation and the presence of the power of God. These titles and concepts are not new. Although they are found in The Old Testament, they are reformed and reworked in the New Testament gospels and epistles. Those titles and concepts have become the major tenets of our faith. The titles and concepts are grounded in Israel¹s history, experience and thought. What John the Baptist is doing is reworking Israel¹s history and tradition and reshaping a future understanding of what incarnation, sacrifice, salvation and the Holy Spirit will mean over against the life of Jesus. From this point on, the writers of the gospels will be the major sources of interpretation and the touchstones for authenticity. The Church will pound, stretch, shape, form and reform, and plunge the depths of the terms “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” “Messiah” and the “Holy Spirit” as she seeks to understand the meaning of those concepts and tenets.

The second thing that caught my attention in my re-reading of the passage is that it is dominated by two words. They are “see” and “follow.” In the context of linear time and history, the followers of Jesus (unlike the Essenes and others) are to be seekers and believers actively seeing and following in the here and now. Both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are saying that this is a special time. This is a time to follow and to explore how God has been revealed. Right now the disciples are to look at and to follow the concepts/titles of “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” “Messiah” and the “Holy Spirit.” For the disciples, now is the time for epiphany, the time of revelation and reflection. How those disciples saw and followed the titles/concepts contained in today’s passage in the Gospel of John shaped history and much of Western and world thought.

In the life of the Church each season of the liturgical year focuses upon one of the above titles/concepts/tenets. Christmas is the time for thinking about incarnation (Son of God). Lent is the time for thinking about the Lamb of God (sacrifice). Easter is the time for thinking about the Messiah (salvation) and Pentecost is the season for concentrating on the Holy Spirit (the power and presence of God in Christ). Epiphany is in a sense an introductory season for thinking about the manifestation of God in all of those titles/concepts before they are broken down into specific seasons.

Now to return to where we began. During these weeks of Epiphany you and I are called to “see” and to “follow.” We are called to look at the theological concepts/titles/tenets embedded in the life of Jesus Christ and to get familiar with them as a group. Climb on them. Push and pull. Shake them; let your mind slide up and down them. Each of us is an amateur theologian. There are systematic theologian that methodically and logically work out each concept and title. I, on the other hand, am a “random abstract” and am not systematic. I am an experiential theologian. I live with an idea, constantly working it through my experiences and observations. I constantly embrace and wrestle with the significance and life of the orthodox tenets of our faith. You can take these ideas, concepts and titles and work on them anyway you want. They are the pillars of our faith and will stand. They are firmly planted in the ground that God has created, which is the life of salvation history — the life of the Church. Moreover, since the life of the Church is the body of Christ, (changing metaphors for a moment) then the tenets of our faith are firmly grounded in the life of Jesus Christ. They have endured and will continue to endure.

Do whatever works for you as long as you “see” and “follow.” Let Jesus Christ be manifested to you and allow epiphanic moments of revelation to rise up and to guide you on your faith pilgrimage. Some, like Martin Luther King, have been inspired by the tenets of our faith and have made incredible changes in the lives of millions. Others like Luther and Mother Theresa have changed both the world of thought and the lives of others. Many of you allow the tenets of our faith to inspire, comfort, guide and sustain you as you deal with the burdens of responsibility, tragedy, loss and personal struggles. To pull, climb and slide down the meanings of salvation, sacrifice, incarnation and the presence of the Holy Spirit is what you and I are called to do not only during the season of Epiphany but also throughout all the seasons of our lives. Those tenets are planted deep in the soil and subsoil of God’s will, creation and salvation history. They stand over a defined area and a covering of the ideas, needs, concerns and demands of our religious personal and social lives. As Christians you and I are constantly called to be active in the playground of our faith, sifting and shaping our needs and ideas while climbing about on our tenets of faith. So be active in the playground of your faith. Do it with gusto and imagination, without extremism, prejudice, judgementalism and condemnation. Remember these words of caution, “No throwing of the mulch.”

Amen. - Fr. Gage.

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