Monthly Archives: January 2010

Managing Expectations: Luke 4:21-30

Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This very day, what word has God given you to fulfill?

That’s the question I ended with last week. This week’s gospel begins by repeating the same verse with which last week’s gospel ended: Jesus has just read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, recounting God’s promise to set free the captives, bring good news to the poor, and sight to the blind. This is good news indeed, and this week we hear that Jesus’ audience responds with approval. All spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words. He’s in his element, and the people of his hometown synagogue are pleased and proud to have him home and to hear that this son of Joseph turned out to be something special. And then it gets complicated, and then it gets downright mean.  All in a single day.  Perhaps in a single conversation. Today the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing, and today those who hear it are first happy and amazed, then enraged and murderous.

Someone I know titled her sermon for this morning: “How Jesus’ friends try to throw him off a cliff.”

How indeed? Who knows what might have prompted Jesus’ change in tone when he second-guesses his hearers and says doubtless you will say to me “Doctor, cure yourself!”? What is clear is that Jesus realizes that he needs to “manage expectations,” to use a good sales and marketing term.

Jesus manages expectations by reminding them of a couple of well-known stories from scripture. First, the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarepath. This is a lovely healing story, but the widow at Zarepath was a foreigner, an outsider. The same is true with the story of Naaman the leper.  There were many widows in Israel during that terrible drought years ago, but Elijah chose someone outside Israel. There were plenty of lepers in Israel when Elisha was around, but he healed a leper outside Israel. In the original stories, the focus is not the foreignness of the widow or the leper. But Jesus appropriates the scriptures to make his point that his mission is to reach out to those on the edges, those beyond cultural and religious norms. God has sent me to bring good news to the poor and set the captives free, and I’m not just talking about you, says Jesus. You don’t get a special benefit because we went to the same high school.

Ever since Cain and Abel, something in our humanity wants us to be special. Not just loved, but loved more than someone else. In the case of the people of Nazareth, God’s radical inclusivity takes them by surprise. Remember the story about the day laborers in the vineyard? The master invites them to work different numbers of hours during the day and then pays them all the same. The ones who worked more hours are outraged. This scene in the synagogue is not so. The people think the Good News is just for them, and when they realize the boundlessness of God’s redemption and hope, their own cultural and religious boundaries take over, and they drive Jesus out of town.

The people of Nazareth fall victim to a grave misunderstanding; they think that if the Good News isn’t just for them, that they are excluded entirely. It is only by understanding that God’s radically inclusive invitation is for everyone that we ourselves can fully accept that invitation. The fact that Jesus came for all, and that his healing life-affirming ministry was for foreigners and gentiles as well as the people of Israel, does not mean that he is not there for the people of Israel. But when his own people respond in anger and insecurity, they close themselves off, just as we close ourselves off from the experience of God’s grace when we are driven by anger or insecurity.

This is our annual meeting Sunday—in many parishes, Annual Meeting Sunday is also called “Parish Mission Sunday.” For us, this Annual meeting mostly means that the sermon is a tiny bit shorter than usual and that we all have a delicious brunch and some great presentations to look forward to.  Today’s gospel is a perfect springboard for reflection on the mission of this or any parish: With his all-embracing love, Jesus is always, always calling us to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone.

I’ve talked before about being influenced in my formation as a priest by aspects of the English parochial system, where the parish is not a building or even a particular group of people, but a geographic area. The parish church is there for the whole neighborhood.  The church is present for all who come through its doors, regardless of what they’re doing there or where they came from. The church is present for all who live in the neighborhood even if they never come through the church doors. In the same way, our church here on Harrison Hill is here for all who pass by and all who pass through, not just Episcopalians, not just people who have a certain preconceived notion of church that matches ours.

The idea that the church first and foremost “takes care of its own” is as old as the synagogue at Nazareth and probably older. The fact that Jesus disagreed almost got him thrown off a cliff. But Archbishop William Temple was being faithful to the gospel when he famously said: “The church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” In other words, the mission of the church is to those outside the church.  How is God calling us to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone, and join Jesus outside the church?

This very day, what mission has God given us to fulfill?


Instant Encore

Can’t get enough of all that beautiful music from our Celebration of Ministry? Well, go ahead – give your favorite a second listen or a well deserved encore.

Passacaglia in G Minor – Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

Andante in C (K. 315) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Arietta from Lyric Pieces (Op. 12, No. 1) – Edvard Grieg

Love bade me welcome from Five Mystical Songs – Ralph Vaughn Williams

Sicilienne Op. 78 – Gabriel Faure

Laudamus te from Gloria – Antonio Vivaldi

Songs Without Words

“What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”
– Felix Mendelssohn

Hmm.. It sounds like Felix slept through a few grammar lessons – he was a child prodigy, after all. What he means to say is that the messages in his music are definite and unique in their own right. Words are unnecessary and would probably insult the emotions of his song. He is writing from the perspective of a Romantic period composer of absolute music. This is an academic term to describe music written for the sake of music. No text, choreography, imagery, or music video. Just music written from the soul for the performer and listener to enjoy. Mendelssohn wrote a series of untitled miniature piano pieces throughout his life for the middle class, living room pianist in 19th century Europe. The prelude and offertory this Sunday, January 31 come from these Songs Without Words books. The title is a tribute to his belief in absolute music and an little attack on its arch nemesis: program music. This, as you can expect, is music that has words. This includes any piece based upon a story, event, or any other extra-musical event from opera to the latest #1 pop song to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Even though most music falls under this category, the quest for musical meaning is still valuable today.

proclamation and grace: Luke 4:12-21

Give us grace to answer the call of Jesus and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.

Most of us are in need of the grace we pray for in the collect for today: Give us grace, O Lord, … to proclaim to all people the Good News of salvation.

Many people share with me that they pray to understand what it is that God would have them do, what their purpose is in life. We all have different ways of thinking about this, but I think we have a basic, human, longing to do God’s will, and to have some assurance that we are in fact doing the right thing. That’s the good news part of today’s opening prayer: God’s will is to answer the call of Jesus. The bad news is that one of the ways we answer Jesus’ call and do God’s will is to proclaim the good news of salvation.

When I’ve lead the Catechumenate—a long word for the process of preparing adults for baptism or reaffirmation of baptismal vows—I always ask folks early on to talk about which of the five baptismal promises they most struggle with. The answer, without exception, is always the one about proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

And yet being a Christian is all about proclamation. Some of you may consider this very bad news. Fear not. ‘Tis the season for exploring what it means to proclaim the good news.  Listen for it during these Epiphany Sundays. Today’s readings are all about proclamation.

The reading from Nehemiah provides the first recorded description of worship in the Bible. The context for the book of Nehemiah is a time of recovery, and a time of rebuilding. (Sound familiar?) The people of God, reunited after a time of exile, are rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. They are in need of hope and purpose. They find hope and purpose in structure—the structure of the physical temple itself and the structure of their community. They find hope and purpose in gathering together.

And so they wrote down a description of worship: how to stand, how to read, how to listen, how to respond. It’s all proclamation.

The proclamation that happens in Nehemiah’s story is a two-way street. The scripture is read, and the people say Amen, Amen. The scripture is interpreted and the people weep. The scripture is understood, and the people are told: “Go, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared.” This closing proclamation is a gift of hope in hard times, and reminds us that worship sends us forth to continue to proclaim Good News through action.

Proclaiming Good News is not a private act. It is a community experience. Even though the reading from Nehemiah doesn’t describe a gathering of Christians, it does describe the worship experience that is the basis for our worship. Someone once said: “there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.”

And so in Luke’s gospel Jesus begins his public ministry by going to the synagogue, standing up as part of that community, and proclaiming the word of God. When he comes to the synagogue, he follows a pattern established five hundred years earlier.  Except for one twist. Jesus—this young unknown, untrained by any rabbi—has the audacity to end his reading saying “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus has a clear sense of his calling: to set captives free, to bring good news to the poor, and to give sight to the blind. He is also able to link his call to God’s plan of salvation. Imagine if we had that clarity. Imagine if Christa finished today’s reading from Nehemiah saying “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”!

* * *

I began this morning by reflecting on today’s collect. Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation. So I want to close by sharing something about collects in general and about this one in particular. For those of you who are wondering, Collect is just a weirdly pronounced Anglican word for a prayer that collects the themes of the day and ties them together into an expression of good Anglican theology. A long time ago, someone told me: if you want to understand the theology of the church, read the collects. (You can find them beginning around page 211 of the prayer book.) In almost every collect, the words themselves affirm that God gives us the grace to do what God asks us to do. You can look it up: God gives us the grace to do what God asks us to do.

What call from God do you need God’s grace to answer? What word has God given you to fulfill? Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.

This very day, what word has God given you to fulfill?

Colin Mawby

For centuries the repertory of sacred chant known as Gregorian Chant or Plainsong has enjoyed a special position in the liturgy of the Western Christians Church. Its fortunes have fluctuated both in popularity and method of performance, but it has continued to inspire people of every generation to prayer. That is true of our own age when Gregorian Chant, after a period of relative neglect, is once again demonstrating a unique ability to speak to contemporary hearts.

For a composer, the chant’s rich variety of moods and moods provides a generous reference point from which to explore the inherent prayerfulness of the music: a ready-made liturgical ground-plan is on offer.

In Gregorian Calendar I have used the chants, both fragments and entire melodies, to create a series of pieces for use throughout the liturgical year. I hope that organists of all abilities will find in this book music that, with its roots in the spirituality of the chant, is truly music of prayer.”

This excerpt is from the forward to Gregorian Calendar for organ by Colin Mawby, the most famous English composer, scholar, and conductor of sacred music alive today. The history of chant begins before the birth of Christ in the synagogues and Middle Eastern countries. For the past several weeks I have included pieces from this work in our services for the appropriate season – modern settings of the chants Jesus himself probably sang. We proudly continue this rich tradition of plainchant in our Thursday evening Compline service and Sunday Eucharist.

Start Now

A sermon preached by Kerlin Richter on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

Jesus, as you did in Cana of Galilee take the old water of our busy lives and turn it into gospel wine.

In the gospel of John, this miracle of water into wine is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. We open with John’s beautiful poem of incarnation: the litany of the Word, in which the Word is made flesh and dwells among us. Then we get to see what this incarnate Word does. He is baptized by John, and calls 3 disciples, all in the first chapter. But then the next thing that happens, and I here I do love John, is that Jesus after getting baptized and ready to start his public ministry doesn’t go into the desert to fast and wrestle with demons, he goes to a party.

This is a wedding feast, presumably family friends since his mama is there. We don’t know a whole lot about these people except that their hospitality and generosity outstrippes their means, which is a flaw I can respect. This is the opposite problem of the banquet giver who has the feast all prepared and has to go out in the streets to find people to celebrate with.

it seems that these are the two basic stories of the whole world, either not enough to go around or, an overabundance and no one to share it with. hunger and loneliness are each in their own way equally tragic.  And the kingdom of course is where there is enough for everybody who shows up and a family to share it with.

So this is the starting point.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t ready yet. He was still in that tender place between call and action.

He might have known what he had to do he just wasn’t quite ready to get started. Or maybe he had no idea what this was going to look like, this new life of radical relationship with God. He was full of the Holy Spirit, had three guys already following him around. You can imagine the level of expectation from them at least. “all right, we found the Messiah!! can’t wait to see what he is going to do.”

This is the in breath before the song. Who knows what he was waiting for, maybe for the time to “feel” right. Or God to speak clearly again.

What do you do if you have heard the voice of God telling you to go.

Go where? Do what?

Like standing at the top of a diving board. with your toes hanging over the edge, the moment just before you stand up and speak, before you walk across the room, or pick up the phone. Once you have made the hard choice to do something to follow a call there is a certain peace and perfection of the imminent vision which is completely ruined by beginning.

Your imagined journey is never the same the real road beneath your dusty feet.

We all know that the only way to keep your plans intact is to never start.

And maybe Jesus isn’t quite ready to go there yet. Maybe he wants to savor his call a little more, ponder the route, talk it over with his new friends, maybe come up with a stratagem.

Maybe he wanted to start with something more impressive than helping out with refreshments the wedding reception of some poor friends of him mom?.

When Mary tells him that the wine has run out she doesn’t tell him how to fix it, she doesn’t even tell him to fix it, she just says “they have no wine.” [By the way, this is great parenting, – don’t nag or fuss or tell your kid what to do, simply state the situation and leave the rest up to them.] so that’s all she says

“ they have no wine.”

You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice. “Mom, this isn’t the time. This isn’t how it is supposed to begin. This is my thing, so don’t tell me when to start, ok?”

Of course Mary hasn’t said anything but that they are out of wine.

See what Mary knows, as a mother, is that the time is never right, and if you wait for a perfect beginning nothing will ever get done. She knows that once you are on your way there is another kind of splendor in the real, in the doing. It is a rustier, more worn and tattered beauty, but it has been begun. In the company of people who will add their own imperfection, their own misunderstandings, and their own shabby glory. They will do it wrong, and they will save it,  and they will screw it up, and they will be beautiful, and they will add things you never thought of. and that is the rub of incarnation. when you are a part of this world you have no choice but to do your work here in this world.

If you wait until your inner vision perfectly matches this messy world, you will miss it all, because it ain’t gonna happen.

Welcome, Word, to our untidy reality.

So you start when the need in front of you is in your power to fill, no matter how “important.” I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us would prefer the cool and dramatic calls.  There is a church that I pass on my way to the library that has a sign that always provides challenging theological morsels for my walk. They had one over Christmas that said something like don’t get about tickle me Elmo, Get Jesus! I took turns reading it tickle me Jesus, or picturing the look on a small child face when they unwrapped a First century Palestinian Rabbi when they had asked for a red giggling toy.

This summer, though, they had up for a couple of weeks, Don’t impress people, impress God.

The big question that comes to my mind is, “what precisely do they think will impress the creator of the entire universe? The one who came up with the whole idea of space and time. I think wanting to impress God could lead to a lifelong standstill. While the neighbors might ooh and aah over your latest lawn ornament, God herself knit you together in your mother’s womb. oh yes, but almighty did you see how good I was today? If we are looking for things that will impress God, I am concerned that we will have to look a very long time for the right thing. The other really disturbing image is a God who has a list of impressive and not impressive people. The love of God is really really big.  None of us are unimpressive enough to be outside of that kind of love, nor are we ever going to get that far above our brothers and sisters. Seems like a bad game. Just saying.

Jesus’ public ministry begins appropriately enough surrounded by people who don’t have enough, he starts with need and thirst and radical transformation.

So how do we want to be transformed? Who wouldn’t mind a miracle. Here I am lord, change me. Make me organized, out of debt, with a better job, less stress, and maybe 10 pounds thinner. These are the sorts of transformations we try to enact on ourselves, and already now by the 17th of January we have given up most of them. so come on Jesus, help a sister out, right?

If God needs us to liven up this party that we are living today, what changes will he need to make in us?

Chances are it will be more a need for us to be broken open; to weep with the world when we listen to news reports from Haiti; to hold every other wounded, messed up person you meet, in love and gentleness. To lose our ability to hold grudges and live in fear.  to forget ourselves, to shake off our pride in what little we have done; to no longer try to fill ourselves to escape the pain of a hurting humanity; to no longer hoard the wealth we have been entrusted with; to say yes to the needs in front of us.

Imagine it just for a second:

Like the water in the cool stone jugs of ritual and history, habit and place, when we are transformed, our best is still yet to come.

We are transformed so that we may begin our story of ministry.

The good wine for our celebrations is just now being drawn from the stony jars of our past. And some people may say to us what the steward says- why did you wait this long to be glorious?

There was perfectly good wine before. oh, but what can we become when let ourselves be transformed by the love of Christ-??

Now that wine, will change the world,

that wine will need new wineskins,

that wine will poured out, and shared among friends

that is the wine that is served when there is enough for everyone.

and that wine is the cup of salvation.

This whole amazing ministry of Jesus begins with him stepping into the immediate need before him. And even if this wasn’t the beginning he had hoped for, we all have to start somewhere.

So, What if years from now they tell the story of your work here on earth starting with tomorrow? Maybe you have heard the voice of God calling softly that you are beloved and now you are waiting for further instructions.

Here they are: start here – start now.

Beyond Words

And a voice came from heaven: You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

I began and ended my day Saturday at the First Annual Heart of Wisdom 12-hour Chant for Peace at St. David’s.

What got to me was how much can be done and said with hardly any words. We westerners are very, very wordy. Everyone leading hours of chant was told before hand that participants would be handed out cards at the beginning of each hour with the chants being used that hour. I was envisioning, you know, a neat little stack of cards with a whole bunch of words on them each hour. Well, when we from St. David’s submitted our words we were told, very, very politely, that they were expecting just a few lines of chant from each group for each hour. We had carefully selected over a dozen songs about peace. When I got there yesterday for the first chant of the day at 8:00, led by a Buddhist group, I was handed one slip of paper with about twelve words on it. The group chanted those dozen words over and over again for an hour. No explanation, no instruction, no interpretation, nothing added in italics….and yet the experience was beautiful and powerful, complex and profound. When it was our turn later in the day, we led four simple Taize chants, including one that none of us knew that Deacon Katharine taught herself five minutes before we were to start, and lead beautifully!

The whole experience left me thinking about how many words we use every Sunday to instruct, explain, and interpret the mystery that is God’s faithful and loving presence in our midst. What I should do right now is sit down so we can just chant for the next ten minutes.

Today’s story of the baptism of Jesus brings together a few key words, some lasting images, and far-reaching implications for how we join and follow Jesus, all without using nearly so many words as I’m going to use in the next few minutes.

Why was Jesus baptized? If he is the Son of God; why does he participate in the baptism of repentance offered by John the Baptist? Did he have sins that needed to be washed away? Jesus no more had sins to be washed away than all the babies and children being baptized in churches all over the world on this baptismal feast day.

I think some of you know Bishop Mark MacDonald, who was rector of St. Stephen’s, downtown, in the late 1980s. Because of Mark’s work with native American groups throughout North America, his theology and spirituality is formed by a relationship to land and to creation. He led a retreat at St. John the Evangelist where he talked about how when Jesus went into the Jordan River, he baptized the water, making all water sacred. The next morning a dear lady named Barbara who was at the retreat announced to all of us at breakfast that when she’d turned on the shower that morning she said: “Good morning, God, it’s nice to see you!”

If we share this understanding that Jesus baptizes the water itself, water takes on a new meaning and becomes symbolic of God’s presence in all of creation, and of our responsibility to care for all of creation.

Both Jesus and the water are transformed by the encounter. Jesus was baptized in order to lead us through the waters of baptism. When we step into the waters of baptism, either literally or figuratively, we step into waters where Jesus has stepped before us. Jesus goes before us into baptism in the same way that he goes before us in love, in service, in healing, in suffering, and in death. Jesus’ presence in the water of baptism, the water of life, is a sign to us that he is our wordless companion in our suffering, in our joy, and in our own striving for peace in the world and for peace in our hearts.

In baptism, we join the family of God and we take on the family name, and we continue the ministry and the presence of Jesus in the world. And this is what the church is called to do. This is why we have a church: to continue the ministry of Jesus in the world. How do we do this? My friends, this is one of those times, thank God, that we have an instruction manual. It’s called our baptismal covenant, it begins on page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer.

Many traditions talk about their faith—words again. What we are called to do in our baptismal covenant is live our faith. Forget about the words, the instructions, the doctrines, and think about being Jesus in the world, about staying connected, as Jesus did, with all of creation, with all who suffer and all who rejoice.

Yesterday at the Chant for Peace, the last fifteen minutes of every hour were spent chanting and walking in a figure 8 around the church. During the hour Katharine and I led, we spent those 15 minutes leading the group in the most popular Taize chant, ubi caritas, which literally translates: where charity and love, there is God. It was a wonderful experience to be walking our faith in this place, literally walking our talk.

When we live out the promises we make in our baptismal vows, we live out the new identity that we celebrate today as we celebrate Jesus’ identity and make it our own: You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. We, too, are God’s beloved; with us God is well-pleased. Perhaps those are all the words we need.