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The Beauty of Marriage

 

A rewarding part of my ministry over the years has been helping couples prepare for marriage. I often begin our conversations with some rhetorical questions. My goal is to help couples think about marriage in a deeper and more reflective way. One question I almost always ask is this: Given what we read in Genesis, does this mean that marriage is naturally permanent? I choose these words carefully. Some people respond by saying, “why, yes.” But then, I point out two difficulties arising from a ‘yes’ answer. The first is a practical one. If marriage is naturally permanent, then why do they come apart? Given that they do, isn’t it better to recognize our fall from Grace? So, even if God created marriage as gift that was meant to be permanent, our exile from Eden has surely altered God’s created reality.

Second, if we believe that marriage is naturally permanent, then why do we have sacramental marriage as a liturgical rite? For it symbolizes a grace-enabled transformation. Acknowledging this about the marriage rite, and recognizing the effects of the Fall, leads us to a further insight. Permanent marriage may have been the Creator’s original intention for us. And so, we can still see a reflection of God’s purpose even in our fallen state. For we yet have an inclination to seek enduring marital relationships, even if we cannot—on our own—achieve permanency. These three observations, first, about the Creator’s intentions; second, about the effects of the fall upon us; and, third, about the sacramental remedy for our fallen condition, fit together to shape our Christian view of marriage. Recognizing these three components helps us live toward and into the beauty of God’s hopes for us, in a world still marked by our fall from Grace.

These observations can help us appreciate an important Gospel episode. Pharisees come to test Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful,” they ask, “for a man to divorce his wife?” Their question has layers of meaning. The varied circumstances of human life in this world are often more complicated than God’s revealed law can completely cover. So the Pharisees would recognize that human law even when it is based on divine law often goes beyond it. They make this clear when they refer to how Moses granted permission to divorce. As we know, not every aspect of God’s revealed law has proved everlasting. Think, for instance, about dietary laws in light of the Gospel. And so, when the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is lawful, they are not necessarily asking about the Creator’s intentions, nor about God’s abiding will for Israel. Instead of inquiring about what is good and beautiful, they ask about what is permitted. And this is why Jesus’ response to them is so important.

That is, Jesus does not accept, nor does he feel bound by, their narrow assumptions. His way of responding to them helps us recognize a central principle within Christian ethics, and Anglican Moral Theology. When someone asks if something is “allowed,” notice the limitations of the question. Asking if something is legal, or if it is permitted by custom, is different from asking if it is right. And sometimes, it is little more than asking if I can ‘get away with it.’ Therefore, when the Pharisees ask if divorce is ‘allowed,’ Jesus steers them back to the better question, which is this: What does God want of you? What choice best reflects God’s will, and God’s hopes for you?

We should always remember how Jesus challenges our inclination to fall back upon what is familiar and known, and upon what is socially accepted. The latter may give us insight. But it may also mislead us and keep us from aspiring to the beauty of what God hopes for us.

 

This post is based upon my homily for October 7, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The above images are once again by James Tissot, from his series of images covering the Old Testament, many of which are preserved in the Jewish Museum, in New York City. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of God’s Unpredictable Gifts

 

 

In two medieval manuscript images, Rudolf von Ems nicely illustrates the situation. Moses is frustrated ~ and who wouldn’t be, at such a moment? He’s trying to lead a bunch of lamenting and back-biting Israelites through the wilderness. Wailing and weeping, his people long for their old homeland, and for its cucumbers, melons, and leeks. But they seem to have forgotten an inconvenient fact ~ that they were slaves in the old country. They don’t acknowledge God’s mercy in having led them out of Egpyt, on their journey to deliverance. And, during their exodus, they complain about God’s gift of the manna. Like snow coming down from above, bread descends from heaven allowing them to eat every day! Their criticism provokes God’s anger to be expressed in a curious way. After the manna, God later sends down quails for them to eat, as the second image imaginatively portrays.

In the face of these complaints, all Moses can do is throw up his hands in prayer. And God answers! God tells Moses to gather seventy elders and leaders at the tent of meeting. The Lord then takes some of the Spirit resting on Moses, and puts it on the seventy. When God’s Spirit touches them, they prophesy. God’s Spirit is made evident in ecstatic utterances and trances.

To everyone’s surprise, two men back at the camp, who are not among the seventy, are also touched by the same Spirit. This is confusing! Though the two bear the same signs of God’s Spirit, it happens outside the expected pattern! Joshua voices this concern, and begs Moses to forbid the two from acting in this way. But Moses says to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

We hear a similar concern expressed by Jesus’ disciples in Mark’s Gospel. Through John, they ask Jesus to address a problem. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him.” The problem is not that someone besides Jesus is casting out demons and performing miraculous signs. For Mark has already described how Jesus commissioned the disciples to heal and cast out demons The problem is that these exorcisms are being done by someone who is not one of Jesus’ followers. The same challenge arises later when the newly converted Paul begins to speak and act as if he was a disciple and a member of the 12.

In response, Jesus challenges his disciples using remarkably expansive words: “whoever is not against us, is for us.” In this era, these words may be hard to appreciate.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 30, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The above two images are by the medieval manuscript artist, Rudolf von Ems, which illustrate two scenes from Numbers 11. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Meals Together

 

There’s just something appealing about eating outdoors. And people everywhere seem to recognize this.

So it’s no surprise that some of the most memorable scenes in the Bible involve meals outdoors. These stories provide us with images of people receiving nourishment together, and experiencing fellowship with one another. Yet, these significant occasions stand out because they center on encounters with God. Sitting down with others at a feast is a potent Scriptural image, which connects our life in this world to our life in the next. This is why Christians gather around a table every Sunday. For Jesus said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” And so, both the Last Supper, and ordinary meals, prefigure God’s heavenly banquet. We gather for meal, which we then perceive to be a holy occasion ~ an occasion of fellowship with others in God’s presence. When we gather in this way, we see glimpses of God’s expansive Kingdom.

One of the most evocative of such occasions is found in Exodus 24, in a passage that is often overlooked. After the people of Israel cross the Red Sea, in their Passover escape from Egyptian slavery, Moses gathers them at the foot of Mt Sinai. There, he reads to them from the book of the Covenant. After reading, he sprinkles the blood of the Covenant upon the altar and upon the people. To quote from Exodus, then Moses “Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up (the mountain), and they saw the God of Israel… God did not lay his hand on the chief… people of Israel; [and so] they beheld God, and they ate and drank” in God’s presence, at the top of a mountain. A shared meal in God’s presence involves seeing the Lord.

Writing his Gospel over a thousand years later, John surely had this scene in mind. Drawn by the signs of healing Jesus was doing, a large crowd follows him into a ‘deserted place.’ (Recall how often God reveals self in ‘deserted places.’) With the Passover auspiciously near, Jesus goes up a mountain with his disciples, and sits near the top. In this scene, the bread of life, the bread of heaven, comes down into the midst of God’s people in two ways: in Jesus, and in what they eat. The gathered people eat and drink with one another in God’s presence. And they feast upon the unexpected abundance of divine gifts, for which Jesus has offered thanks. Stunned by the power of his new miraculous sign, the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 29, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, and is titled, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The meal outdoors story from John is found in chapter 6 of his Gospel. (Other Sunday homilies of mine can be accessed by clicking here.)

The Beauty of Emotional Intelligence

 

In Mark’s Gospel, we hear a story about Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. It is easy to overlook a critical aspect of this story ~ the fact that Jesus chooses to travel to an area populated by Gentiles. There, he is confronted by a woman who for two reasons is ‘an outsider’: she is not an Israelite, and her daughter has a demon.

By overlooking Jesus’ choice, it then becomes easy to mishear a vital aspect of this Gospel reading. It’s Jesus’ willingness to be playful —even dangerously playful— as he enlarges our concept of God’s Kingdom. Some contemporary commentators don’t recognize this about Jesus’ journey into the region of Tyre. For they view it as a story about how a Gentile woman enlarges Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom. This follows from the way modern theologians stress the humanity of Jesus over his divinity. In other words, ‘how he was like us’ comes to overshadow ‘how he was different from us.’

This is especially true with our understanding of intellect. We associate ‘intelligence’ with skills like computing numbers and remembering information. Yet, the key to this Gospel story may lie in something different, in what is called “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is relational, and involves feelings, character and temperament. It depends on maturity, and relies on insight about what enhances or hinders well-functioning community. When we overlook these fuller dimensions of ourselves, we limit our concept of what it means to be human.

Think, for example, about humor. We assume humor depends on being witty, and making fun of people and situations. We forget that we also deal with serious things through humor. Humor approaches life indirectly, from the side, instead of straight-on. In medieval times, Christians actually debated whether Jesus ever laughed! We know he wept, but Scripture never records Jesus as laughing. Surely, we can see beyond this narrow assumption that Jesus never laughed or spoke with irony and humor.

Appreciating how Jesus uses playful humor helps us understand his interaction with the Canaanite woman, and how he is compassionate rather than rude in speaking with her. The story displays the beauty of his emotional intelligence instead of a limitation in his perception of his vocation.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 9, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The Egyptian Arabic manuscript illustration above is credited to Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rabib (1684).

The Beauty of Delight

 

Periodically I’m struck by the sudden power of familiar words ~ of words which we are so accustomed to hearing that we hardly attend to them. Last week it happened when I was praying the opening confession in (daily) Morning Prayer. After referring to what ‘we have done and left undone,’ we express our repentance, and ask for God’s mercy. There then follow some remarkable words, which we say to God. With them, we identify why we ask for God’s mercy: it is so “that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.”

I’m sure these words stood out to me because— like many of you—I am still grieved by the horrible Pennsylvania report, charging dozens (if not more) of Roman Catholic clergy with sexual abuse. Even bishops and cardinals have been involved. And then, on the heels of that troubling news, came word that two men close to the President were now convicted felons. And, one of them has implicated the Commander in Chief regarding immoral and possibly illegal activity.

This leaves me wondering about us as a people and nation. How and why have we strayed so far from walking in God’s ways? And then, remembering the words of the confession, I was struck by this realization: maybe it’s because we no longer delight in God’s will. To seek and accept God’s will; to respect and be obedient to it ~ these are fundamentally different from delighting in it. And this may be the key.

In what do I delight? In what do you delight? Probably it is someone or something you love. I recognize this right away when I see a cute picture of one of my grandchildren. I love them. And I greatly delight when I see them happy, having fun and being creative. Closely related to this kind of delighted appreciation for someone or something we love, is joy. We joy in those in whom we delight, and we love them through joyfully delighting in them.

But we face a challenge here. For we live in a culture in which we have lost our appreciation for the important difference between passive feelings, and acts of virtue. If delight, love and joy are merely feelings, and feelings we hope that others will evoke in us, then we have sold these virtues short. For, in the spirituality and ethics of our great tradition, delight, love and joy are noble acts.They are not just feelings, because practicing these virtues builds character, both within ourselves and in our communities. Thomas Aquinas is remembered for saying that “joy is the noblest human act.” How true! He meant that we choose to take joy in the Lord, and in God’s merciful Providence. This helps us delight in God’s will, and live in God’s love.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 26, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The photo above is of my good friend Stuart, who takes great joy in fishing every day for lake trout, and who delights in catching and releasing them.

Literal, Figurative and Mystical Beauty

 

How we move and act, when we celebrate and receive communion, communicates something just as important as the words we use in the same context. Our actions communicate that we take seriously Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel. For Jesus says, “…my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” By how we move and act in our Eucharist together, we show that we know his words are true. Our actions display our belief that we have life in him – that we now share his own life with our Father in heaven.

Along with many Christians we know that bread and wine consecrated in the Eucharist become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This links us, as Anglicans, with Lutherans, the Eastern Orthodox, as well as Roman Catholics. For we all recognize that what we receive in our hands and through our lips is no longer simply bread and wine, even if they may still taste like bread and wine. Something happens in the course of the Eucharistic Prayer. And it happens when we pray in obedience to Jesus’ command, “do this in remembrance of me.” What happens is a real change in the bread and wine, so that they become the risen body and blood of our Lord. And this is the key. For the real change in the bread and the wine happens so that there then can be a real change in us.

We need to notice what many of Jesus’ first followers did not understand. His words are multi-layered, and have at least three meanings: Jesus’ words first have literal meaning; his words also have figurative meaning; and third, his words have mystical meaning. With his words, Jesus tells us he is giving himself to us, and that he is giving himself for us. Jim Janknegt’s painting, The Bread of Life, reproduced above, beautifully captures all three meanings.

Jesus’ words to us are at first literal, in the sense that he really means for us to eat and drink, and that what we eat and drink will really be him.

But Jesus’ words, in addition to being literal, are also figurative or metaphorical. For Jesus was not speaking of his earthly physical body and blood when he literally meant for us to eat and drink him. He was referring to his yet-to-be-revealed, risen, heavenly body. Because – as it soon became apparent – he did not leave his earthly, physical body behind for us to partake of. And so, he means for us literally to eat and drink his heavenly body and blood.

And, in addition to being literal and figurative, Jesus’ words are also mystical. When we literally eat and drink his heavenly body and blood, we abide in him – we live in him and he lives in us. When we eat and drink his risen body and blood, we have eternal life with him in God. And we will live forever in the fullness of life, in a state of blessed flourishing. Having refused Satan’s temptation, Jesus does not turn stones into bread to feed himself; he turns himself into bread to feed the world.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 19, 2018, which be accessed by clicking here. Jim Janknegt’s painting, The Bread of Life, is reproduced here with his permission. His many paintings can be seen on his website, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of the Bread of Life

 

Several biblical images related to the bread of heaven are beautifully illustrated by Peter Koenig in a painting titled, For the Year of the Eucharist.

On the left arm of the cross Koenig depicts Elijah asleep, while Queen Jezebel plots his death. After lying down to sleep an angel awakens him with a gift of bread, providing sustenance for his journey. Restored, he then goes on to holy Mt. Sinai, a place associated with seeing God, and the gift of the Covenant.

At the center of the cross we see Jesus, who is the bread come down from heaven, sharing the bread of life with his friends.

On the right arm we see Jesus as the true vine, and his Father as the vinedresser.

And below we see how we are the ‘ark’ of the Church, and that we are fed with the bread of life. These few references, chosen by Koenig from among so many in the Bible, remind us of the significance of bread as a gift from God, for the life of the world.

These insights help us appreciate how, as we learn from 1st Samuel, God replaces Saul with David as the King of Israel. The Lord tells the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem, where Samuel anoints David as God’s chosen king. The name Bethlehem means ‘the house of bread.’ Of course, this same ‘house of bread’ later becomes the birthplace of Jesus.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” We know that mortals ate the bread of angels in ancient times. Yet, Jesus says that they “ate manna in the wilderness, and … died.” Unlike our spiritual ancestors, when we eat the bread of life today we shall live forever. We eat the bread of life when we gather to give thanks, in the Eucharist. And we partake of the true Vine. In every Eucharist, we join our Lord by offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, to his and our Father, for the life of the world.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 12, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The painting above, by Peter Koenig, is titled, For The Year of the Eucharist, and is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. Please visit the website for the Church of St. Edmund’s, Kettering, England, where this painting and others by him are displayed and available for viewing. Please click here for a link to it, and for further information concerning his fine paintings.

The Beauty of Desert Rest

The apostles have just returned from their mission, into which Jesus had earlier sent them. Naturally, they wanted to tell him everything they had done. Especially since Jesus had sent them out with his own power and authority. Surely, they had much to report. He responds to them by saying, “Come away to a deserted place… and rest a while.”

The wise Gospel teacher, John Shea, suggests that we should not misunderstand Jesus’ invitation to them. It’s not that Jesus was offering them what we would call R&R, or rest and relaxation. Shea helps us see how Jesus was leading them to something more profound. Jesus was inviting the apostles to go deeper with him, into the mystery of his mission. As we have often found, in the biblically sensitive work of the artist James Tissot, the image I share with you above portrays a key moment in Mark’s Gospel. Despite Tissot’s sensitivity, he titled his painting, “Jesus commands the Apostles…” And yet, in Mark’s Gospel, we clearly hear an invitation, rather than a command. Either way, Jesus was urging them to come away ~ a message we can take to heart, as well.

Shea points out two key biblical words in Mark’s story that should catch our attention. Consider first the role of ‘deserted places’ in biblical history. It was in the desert that Israel was brought into covenant with God, when they received the Law at Mt. Sinai. It was in the desert that both Israel and —much later— Jesus, were tested. Whereas Israel failed the test, Jesus prevailed. And it became the doorway to his public ministry, which made manifest God’s Kingdom in a new and personal way. As Jesus himself experienced, the desert was the place where angels ministered to God’s chosen people.

The second key word that Shea points toward is ‘rest,’ also a highly symbolic word. By inviting them to rest, Jesus was not really interrupting what he had earlier sent them to do. Instead, he was giving them an opportunity to fulfill their new vocation, and bring it to completion. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. And it was not because God was tired, or somehow in need of restoration, after six days of creating everything. The seventh day represented the sabbath Shalom, the peace that fulfilled of all of God’s creative purposes. And so, by inviting the apostles into a time of rest, Jesus was inviting them to experience the deeper fulness of God’s mission, and its presence within him. This would best happen apart from the pressures and distractions of ongoing ministry.

In the desert, they would discover the beauty of sabbath fulfillment.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 22, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Commands the Apostles to Rest. John Shea is the author of the three volumes titled, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. Here, I reference his comments in the second volume, for Year B.

The Beauty of True News

 

It may be that I was the first American ‘paperboy’ in Japan, when I worked for the Japanese newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. At least that’s what they told me when writing their story. Like many kids in the States, then and now, with whom I had few things in common, I still shared what may be a universal desire. I hoped to earn money to supplement my small allowance. And I wanted extra money so I could buy a guitar.

We lived in a Japanese neighborhood, and our local contacts were almost entirely Japanese. Having grown up in Japan, and being fairly fluent in Japanese, this led me to a job in our local economy. That’s how I became a ‘paper boy,’ delivering—as I remember it—about 40 or 50 newspapers, every afternoon. Before delivery, I had to insert advertisement fliers in each copy. This could make the whole bundle rather heavy. I slung them under my left arm, using something like a Judo-belt.

Well ~ my plan worked. I was able to buy my dream, my first electric guitar. It was a brilliant red Japanese Gibson knock-off, which I wish I still had.

We all receive ‘news,’ and we count on it. Even when we are frustrated or angry about what we learn. The source of our ‘news’ may be helpful and encouraging. But often, it’s not. Rarely are our news-providers neutral about what they communicate. Various considerations, like politics and commercial interests, affect the results. Yet, in my case, as a 12 year old foreigner, I was delivering a Japanese language newspaper to neighborhood homes that were very different from mine. In the process, I was largely indifferent to what I delivered. And the recipients seemed largely indifferent to me, as compared with how they probably approached their newspaper.

Now, I share all this because what I have observed here may provide a significant clue. It might signal a small but important part of Mark’s Gospel account of when a certain King Herod hears news. And, he hears news that alarms him. Yet, those who communicated it may not have known the significance of what they had told him. And when we, in similar ways, neglect reflectively to consider what we hear, it doesn’t always work out well for us. Especially if we are not attending to nuance, or ideas, or subtle distinctions and other sensitive things that have a real bearing upon our life together.

What makes some types of ‘news’ significant, as compared with some others? Does it make a difference, to consider the source of the ‘news’ we receive? The current rhetorical dismissal of some forms of the media, as ‘fake’ news, tells us something ~ that, just because something is reported, may not mean that it is true or reliable. Also, just because ‘news’ may be true, doesn’t mean it will be reported. And even if true news is reported, this doesn’t mean that we will attend to it, or properly value what it tells us. After all, the Gospel is literally good news, and meant for the whole world and all its people. And yet, consider the extent of our own engagement with it. Also consider how many, who are only somewhat familiar with it, remain indifferent to its meaning, and to its power and purpose.

And so we need to receive, and also attend to, news that is true.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 15, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The news story with photo above is from some time in the spring of 1968.

The Beauty of God’s Beckoning Kingdom

 

Once again, I invite you to join me in some reflective imagining. Doing such helps us live into the Gospels. Stories from Scripture, and the work of many artists, can enable us to engage the Word. So here is our opportunity: We are in Nazareth! Let’s imagine that we are in the little village of Nazareth, in about the year 30 A.D. We are gathered in our local synagogue for worship on the sabbath. And, without any of us expecting it, our young Rabbi with a messianic vocation enters and begins to teach us ~ just as James Tissot portrays in the image above.

Some of us in the synagogue begin to marvel and raise questions about our experience of him. Who is this, we ask. And where did he get this wisdom? After all, he’s from our village… and no one of any account has come out of this place. Don’t we know his family? And aren’t we familiar with his work as a local contractor? So what is he thinking, presuming to teach us, his peers and fellow residents? He then responds to us, sounding more philosophical than angry. He says that ‘wise people are not overlooked, except among those who think they already know them.’ And so he can do no deed of power here, unless perhaps to heal a few needy folks at the margins of our little community.

He looks at us with astonishment. Why? Because, through him, the mystery of God’s Kingdom is being opened before us. And he is beckoning us to enter. Except that we hesitate, and come up with excuses. We find all kinds of reasons why we cannot, or will not, step out of our familiar and largely self-decided assumptions and expectations.

And so, he turns away, and moves on toward a more fruitful field, in which he will plant his tiny seeds of insight. They are like little gleaming pebbles, dropped below the surface of a shallow stream. Unless we notice their glimmering nearness, and reach down to pick them up, they will only tantalize our curiosity. And yet, they 
won’t amount to anything of value until we collect them, and carry them with us. For these are the small smooth stones that have the power to knock down what gets in the way of God’s ongoing mission ~ as we learn from David’s encounter with the Philistine giant, Goliath.

Therefore, if —like some of our fellow villagers— we doubt him… if we hesitate to accept his teaching and overlook what he does, because we discount its apparently human source… we may miss the opportunity to enter, and live into, the beckoning mystery of God’s unfolding Kingdom. This is the Kingdom that is manifest in him, through what he says, and in what he does.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 8, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, titled Jesus Rejected in the Synagogue at Nazareth.