St. Hilda and Maternal Grace

Readings for the Feast Day of Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

Proverbs 6:20-23

Psalm 113

Ephesians 4:1-6

Matthew 19:27-29

There is a rich spirituality of motherhood in the English tradition. In his prayers and meditations, Anselm of Canterbury fervently addresses Jesus and even St. Paul as “dear mothers” who hold him and pray for him in the midst of his inner conflicts. And Julian of Norwich experiences each person of the Trinity and the Trinity as a whole as her “loving Mother” who holds her through her fears and unanswered questions. And before Anselm and Julian, there was St. Hilda who embodied the sacred qualities of motherhood in her life and work as the abbess of the monastery at Whitby. According to Bede, “All who knew Hilda called her mother, because of her outstanding devotion and grace.”

Hilda, who never raised biological children of her own, exemplified motherhood, specifically in her ability to hold tension and conflict with patience and prayer.  This ability is profoundly maternal. Any mother, especially any mother of more than one child, learns to be an expert at this.  I know my mom had this gift of holding tension (or at least developed it very quickly) as she prayerfully and patiently held my brother and me through our many arguments and fights growing up.

When the English Christians of seventh-century Northumbria found themselves caught in a divisive and potentially disastrous feud, they needed a mother. The Celtic Christians (the spiritual heirs of the Irish missionaries to England, including St. Patrick, St. Columba and St. Aidan) were in conflict with the Roman Christians in England (those who traced their spiritual heritage to Augustine of Canterbury and the other missionaries sent by Pope Gregory the Great).[1] Those in favor of Celtic customs held strong and deep-seated attachments to their traditions while those in favor of the Roman practices felt similarly convicted that their traditions were the catholic and therefore correct customs. So when King Oswiu called the meeting to decide which customs the Northumbrian church would follow uniformly (a meeting that would be a source of anxiety, altercation and painful division), he made the wise decision of holding it in a place of deep prayer and grace. Hilda’s abbey had cultivated a sacred space of prayer, marked by maternal devotion, and was therefore up to the task of holding the disparate parties in a way that could maintain relative peace and harmony.

Although Hilda herself was partial to the Celtic customs, which did not win end up winning the day, she held her own preferences lightly in order to keep the meeting within a matrix of prayerful openness. The maternal devotion and grace that Hilda demonstrated at the synod of Whitby are at the foundation of the English church and are qualities that are not only maternal but also Anglican: holding diversity and even division in such a way that unity is maintained, unity in diversity. This is what the author of Ephesians is talking about when he describes the life to which we have been called, which involves “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

And when Peter asks Jesus, “What are we going to get since we have given up so much?” Jesus does not say you will be given recliners so you can sit back and order others to do your bidding. No, Jesus says you will be given judgment seats: “You will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And being a judge involves holding conflicting parties in love and prayer and maternal care just as Jesus longed to hold Israel as a mother hen holds her clutch of chicks. Hilda invites us to practice the maternal and Anglican qualities of devotion and grace which help us to hold prayerfully and patiently the conflicting tensions in our own personalities, in our own lives, and in this community; and to uphold the diversity that gives new fullness to our understanding of the one hope to which we have been called: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Mother of all. Amen.


[1] The conflict revolved primarily around the dating of Easter, which differed significantly between the Celtic and Roman Christians. Although “there is always more beneath the surface of the topics discussed,” this was an important issue: Easter, the chief holy day of the church year, is the day when eternity and earthly time collide and there needed to be agreement about that day.

“Redeemer Lives!” November 18, 2017

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Deacon Alberta and St. Hilda of Whitby

It was a true joy to have the Rev. Deacon Alberta Buller join us as preacher this last Sunday. She wrote about her visit in the St. Francis Novato Newsletter: “Last Sunday, I had the privilege of serving as deacon alongside my former Anglican theology professor, The Rev. Dr. Daniel DeForrest London, at Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael.  I was warmly welcomed by all.” I am looking forward to our future guest preachers: our own Br. Rich Atkinson on Christ the King Sunday (Nov 26) and the Rev. Kogen Dito-Keith (Zen Buddhist priest) on Dec 10. I actually had some more guest preachers lined up, but I have decided to cancel them since I am realizing that my time with you all is getting shorter and shorter. I look forward to preaching this Sunday, which is Stewardship Sunday, and I have also recorded a brief video sermon about St. Hilda of Whitby (614 – 680), whose feast day is today. You can watch the video sermon here. There are also links to many more video sermons below, in case you missed them or want to hear them again. I will be treasuring all of these upcoming Sundays with you and I invite you to join me at the Marin Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service at the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael this upcoming Wednesday (Nov 22) at 7 PM. I also invite you to join Fr. Christopher Martin and me for our second Psalmathon on Saturday (Dec 2) at 2 – 9 PM. Drop by whenever and for however long you’d like. After all, what better way is there to prepare for Advent than by praying the Psalms!

 

The Beatitudes of Baptism

“Lord, give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” Amen.

In Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town, one of the main characters Emily Webb dies and enters an afterlife in which dead souls sit and stare blankly into nothingness, indifferent to earthly events. Emily wants to relive one more day of her earthly life before permanently taking her seat in this detached afterlife. She is given this opportunity and, as she relives one particular day (her 12th birthday), she realizes the beauty of each moment and she sees how blind humans are to the wonder that is all around them. She finally can’t bear it anymore and says, “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Then she looks at the Stage Manager and asks him, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager answers, “No.” (pause) “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” Then Emily says, “I’m ready to go back.” And then she takes her seat permanently in the afterlife, where she will grow more and more indifferent to the things that she once loved.[1]

As Christians, we (fortunately) believe in an afterlife that is much less dull than Thornton Wilder’s. However, his play is effective in challenging us, in a sad and somewhat troubling way, to be present, to find joy and wonder in all of God’s works and to realize life while we live it, because most people don’t. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some. And those are the people whom we celebrate today, those saints and poets who learned to see the holy blessedness and wonder of every moment, who realized life while they lived it— every minute.

And the Gospel we just heard reminds us that we don’t celebrate the saints by putting them on a pedestal and idolizing them. We celebrate them by learning how we can emulate them in our own lives so that we can realize our own life while we live it. That’s why the Gospel does not give us a list of saints whom we can only dream of imitating in some meager way. In the Gospel, Jesus provides us with certain characteristics of those “saints and poets” who have realized life while living it: humility, vulnerability, thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity and peace. These characteristics are called the Beatitudes. I like to think of them as “Attitudes that help us Be,” attitudes that help us be present to the fullness of being human, attitudes that help us be receptive to and grateful for the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works. Jesus concludes the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are you,” thus inviting us to adopt these same characteristics ourselves, inviting us to adopt these Beatittudes, these attitudes that help us be here now.

There is much to celebrate and be present to in this moment right now: the 60th anniversary of this beautiful congregation named after Jesus Christ our Redeemer, whose love redeems and liberates us so that we can be fully present to each other, to Christ among us, to the simple yet profound act of eating a piece of bread and drinking a sip of wine; so that we can be more fully present to our neighbors in Glenwood, San Rafael and the world; so that we can be hospitable as we can make room for others in the mansions of our hearts. Let us be present now to the ways in which this community has been a gift to each of us, over the years.

Today, let us also celebrate and be present to the welcoming of a new member into the Body of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. As a sacrament and symbol, baptism works on multiple levels, brimming with many rich layers of meaning. I encourage you all to read about baptism in the Catechism within our Book of Common Prayer on page 858. Baptism is a sacrament by which God adopts us as his children. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called the children of God!” Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection; it is birth into God’s beloved family the Church; it is a symbol of purification and forgiveness of sins and it is new life in the Holy Spirit. Baptism is also the most tried-and-true way that we receive and start to become fully present to the gift of our belovedness in God’s eyes.

Baptism is the most tried-and-true way that we receive and start to become fully present to the gift of our belovedness in God’s eyes. My message and invitation to this community (Redeemer) for over a year now has been “Find your deepest freedom in your belovedness.” Your Redeemer (your Liberator) loves you and frees you by his love so that you can be your true self. We receive that love through the sacraments. We enter into the flow of God’s love at baptism and we grow in that love through the Eucharist. In other words, Baptism is our entrance into the river that flows into the very heart of God; and we give ourselves over to the currents of the river every time we participate in the Eucharist.

The beginning and foundation of Jesus’s ministry was a profound experience of his belovedness in the Father’s eyes. At his baptism, Jesus was drenched by love and grace as a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At our baptism, we all entered into that same belovedness, we all became God’s beloved sons and daughters. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called children of God.” Even if we don’t feel any goose bumps or warm fuzzies, we are still caught up in the love of God through Baptism and the Eucharist. As our Catechism says, the sacraments function as “sure and certain means by which we receive grace.” Through baptism, we can be fully confident that we are drenched in God’s love and sealed by his grace forever.

And today is the day of Ryan Cutchin’s birth into God’s belovedness. Obviously, God already loves Ryan tremendously, more than any of us can ever know. But today, we perform a sacrament that functions as a “sure and certain means” by which he receives the gift of God’s grace and love so that there can never be any doubt that he is part of God’s beloved family now and forever. [I learned that the Gaelic meaning of the name “Ryan” is “Little King” which is appropriate because today he shares in the royal priesthood of Christ. Today, Ryan becomes a little Christ King.]

As part of his baptism, we will pray that God gives Ryan an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. With this prayer, we pray that Ryan and all of us remember and know in our bones that everything is gift. Every beautiful moment of our lives which we so often take for granted is a gift from God and an expression of God’s love for us. Baptism is how we receive this gift of love and give ourselves over to the strong current of the river that leads to the very heart of God. We give ourselves over to the river’s current by making vowing in our baptismal covenant to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We give ourselves over to the river’s current by persevering in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin, by repenting and returning to the Lord. We move deeper into the heart of God by proclaiming the Good News of Christ by word and example, by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. In our baptismal vows, we commit to cultivating the Beatitudes, the attitudes that help us be, attitudes that help us be fully present to the here and now, to the beauty and wonder of each moment and to our belovedness in God’s eyes so that we are free to be our true selves and become like those saints and poets, who realize life while living it, every minute. Amen.

[1] Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), 108.

 

“Redeemer Lives!” November 11, 2017

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Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours

Today is Veteran’s Day as well as the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier of the 4th century who converted to Christianity, became a monk and then eventually served as a bishop of Tours in France. According to legend, Martin encountered a nearly naked beggar on the streets and decided to rip his military cloak in half in order to give part of it to the cold beggar. That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing the same military cloak and telling the angels about Martin’s kindness and generosity. Martin’s little cloak soon became a relic that was housed in several churches in Western Europe. In Latin, the word for little cloak is capella, and soon, the many churches that claimed to have a piece of Martin’s capella began to be called capellae themselves. And that is actually where we get the word “chapel”! In fact, the oldest church in England (and the entire English-speaking world) is a chapel named after St. Martin: St. Martin’s Church, which was originally the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent (539 – 612). And in 1483, a young boy in northern Germany was born on the feast day of St. Martin and was given the name of the beloved saint. The boy’s surname was “Luther” and he left something of a mark on Western Christianity as well! This upcoming Monday evening (Nov 13) from 6 to 6:45 PM, I will be joining some of the preschool kids in celebrating St. Martin of Tours in what is known as Lanternlaufen. You can learn more about it below and you can also join us!

Letter from Fr. Daniel

Dear Redeemed Ones,

This last Sunday was such a joyful celebration of our beloved community. I’m especially grateful for those moments in which we were able to emulate the saints and poets by practicing the Beatitudes, those “attitudes that help us be” fully present to each other and to Christ among us. I felt that we were all fully present as Ryan received the gift of his belovedness in God’s eyes through the sacrament of Baptism, thus reminding us all of our belovedness in God’s eyes. I was reminded of last year’s All Saints Eucharist, when we celebrated on the outdoor prayer labyrinth, a few days after Carol Ann and I returned from Standing Rock ND. I felt invited to remember and celebrate the many ways that we have lived out our baptismal vows and embodied the love of God in San Rafael and the world, just since last All Saints’ Day: through the Stop Hunger Now food-packaging event, our support for the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy, Meditation services, Full Moon Labyrinth Walks, Warm Coat collection, Psalmathon, shared communion with the Tamalpais retirement community, a beautiful new message board to enhance Paula’s “message ministry,” a new robust Discipleship Group, and much more, including a renewed relationship with the preschool and the preschool families which I saw beautifully manifested during the Bishop’s Visit in September. And although I generally try not to play the “numbers game,” it is also worth celebrating the fact that our average attendance has grown significantly! For example, our All Saints’ Sunday attendance this year was more than triple that of last year! Thanks be to God!

I see hope for another 60 years ahead for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, especially after watching Bob’s excellent slideshow of the many fun-filled Redeemer memories. The Redeemer community is dearly beloved and also profoundly resilient; and I am sincerely thankful for being a part of the Redeemer story for longer than initially planned (7 months). As I believe that Redeemer is ready to begin the next phase of its journey, so too have I received a call to begin the next chapter of my vocation. I have recently accepted a call to be the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA. Ashley and I are very excited about this opportunity and deeply grateful to everyone who has supported us over the years, including all of you. Of course, we are also sad to have to say goodbye. My last Sunday at Redeemer will be January 7th, which means I get to celebrate Advent and Christmas with all of you. Appropriately, the Gospel reading for Sunday January 7th is the story of Jesus’s baptism, in which Jesus hears a voice from Heaven say, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The message that keeps popping up in my prayers for Redeemer is: “Find freedom in your belovedness.” This phrase pops up sometimes as an invitation, sometimes as a mantra and sometimes as a kind of Buddhist koan, but it remains persistent, which is why I keep sharing it with all of you. My prayer is that we all continue to find our deepest freedom, redemption and resilience in this belovedness that speaks to each of us, and to the Redeemer community as a whole, saying: “You are my child, whom I love and with whom I well pleased.”

With Much Gratitude, Love and Blessings,

Fr. Daniel +

“Redeemer Lives!” Nov 3, 2017

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Happy Feast Days of All Hallows and All Souls!

Church of the Redeemer and Glenwood definitely know how to celebrate the Feast of All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), as we proved once again this last Tuesday. What most people probably don’t know is that Halloween is the first day of the Church calendar’s Fall Triduum, which includes the Feast of All Saints (Nov 1) and the Feast of All Souls (Nov 2), days in which we commemorate the saints of the church as well as loved ones who have departed. The Celts considered these days to be the “thinnest time of the year,” a season when the veil between time and eternity can easily become transparent. The Fall Triduum invites us to reflect on the reality of death while also reminding us that in death, life is changed, not ended; and even at the grave we make our song: “Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.” In fact, the Fall Triduum even invites us to laugh in the face of death, which has now lost its sting, thanks to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, the practice of trick-or-treating remains in tune with the spirit of the season as we laugh, play and eat candy while surrounded by ghosts and goblins and other bizarre creatures.

Our celebration of the Fall Triduum continues this Sunday as we commemorate Redeemers’ 60th year and welcome a new member (Ryan Cutchin) into the Body of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. We do all of this all under the umbrella of “All Saints” and “All Souls,” as we remember all the saints and beloved souls who have kept Redeemer alive and well over the years; and as we look forward to a new generation of saints who will help us share the love of the Redeemer in San Rafael and the world for at least another 60 years!

The Name Above All Names

Eight weeks ago, we began our journey through the book of Exodus, which recounts the dramatic story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, their subsequent journeys through the wilderness and the establishment of a covenant with their God rooted in the Torah. Throughout this journey, we have been attending to the names in Exodus, since we learned that in Judaism, the book of Exodus is called Shemoth, which means names.

We first considered the name “Moses” which means “drawn out from the water.” We saw Moses live up to his name by delivering the Israelites from slavery and drawing them out from the waters of the Red Sea. This drawing out from the waters reminds us of our own experience of being drawn out from the waters of baptism, a sacrament that has historically been connected to the naming of a child; and a sacrament that we will perform together here next Sunday, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of this congregation; and a sacrament of which I remind you nearly every week when I asperge you all with holy water.

I also connected Moses’s name with a very important image in the Hebrew Scriptures: the rainbow, which was drawn out from the waters of the receding flood to stand as a promise of God’s love and protection. Moses lived up to this aspect of his name every time he reminded his people (and at times even had to remind God) of God’s love and protection. I invited us to reflect on how our individual names and our collective name (Redeemer) call us to embody the rainbow of God (the promise of divine love and protection) in San Rafael and the world.

And the way that we reflect on this most effectively is through prayer and action. First, we pray and make ourselves at home in God’s presence just as Moses did at the burning bush, where the Name of God was revealed (Eyeh Asher Eyeh). We learned from Moses’s early mistakes that faith without action is dead, but action without faith can be even more dangerous. However, once we receive direction in prayer, we need to get up off our knees and take action, moving forward in faith and courage, even when the obstacles might seem insurmountable. Our role model for this bold and prayerful action was the Hebrew character Nachshon who, according to Jewish midrash, stepped into the Red Sea before the waters parted. Nachshon’s name refers to a “stormy, tidal wave” and he lived up to his name when he walked boldly into the dangerous waters and stirred up a tidal wave of freedom and deliverance. How are we being called to take action like Nachshon? How are we being called to live up to our name: Redeemer?

We then journeyed through the wilderness with the Israelites and learned again the meaning of the name “Israel,” which means “struggles with God.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls these struggles with God “genuine covenant interaction,” interaction that often includes honest complaining and kvetching. And according to Exodus, how does God respond to our complaining? With grace! With grace that saves a kvetch like me. Moses says, “Draw near to the Lord for he has heard your complaining.”

When we read about Moses making water come out of a rock, the Rev Wendy Cliff invited us to do a little spiritual dowsing, asking us, “Where is God calling you to find water, to lead those who are thirsty to renewal and hope?” She reminded us that we all have the authority to lead others to deep spiritual refreshment. We have this authority and responsibility by virtue of our baptism. And some of us have responded to Wendy’s invitation to support her beautiful ministry at Braid Mission which offers hope, love and refreshment to youth in foster care. I hope we can continue to support Braid through our time, talent and treasure.

As destructive wildfires ravaged through the North Bay, we read about God’s relentless invitation to be in friendship with each of us. God persistently invites us to be friends with him, just like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by continuing to pray and serve those in need, especially our neighbors up north. And last week, the book of Exodus invited us to remove our masks and open our eyes to see the image of God shining gloriously on each of our faces. We all are part of what Desmond Tutu calls the “Rainbow People of God.” Each of our individual faces makes up a part of God’s beautiful Rainbow of Love. And each of our names calls us to embody that love in our own unique way; and we learn how to do that through prayer and service to the poor. And we all have the power to do that by virtue of our baptism.

We all have the power to be God’s Rainbow in this world; the power to be the Church of the Redeemer that San Rafael needs us to be; the power to liberate others by proclaiming the love of God; and to power to discover our own deepest freedom in our belovedness. By virtue of our baptism, we all have this power.

Yesterday at the Diocesan Convention, I had the privilege to speak with and listen to the Right Reverend Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion; and in fact, in any mainline denomination. She recalled the words of a Pentecostal minister who preached a farewell sermon for her in Philadelphia before she left to be the Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts. The Pentecostal preacher told Barbara to stand up and said to her, “If you don’t remember anything else I have said today, remember this: the power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you!” Bishop Barbara then said to all of us at the Convention, “Let that be our watchword for everybody and everything that we need to do in Christ’s Name to bring in the just kingdom of God: The power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you!” By virtue of our baptism, we all have the power to bring in the just kingdom of God in the Name of Jesus Christ.

And that brings us to our readings this morning. (That was all basically a review of the last 8 weeks, but don’t worry the sermon is not going to be much longer.) The reading from the Hebrew Scripture this morning contains the most important name of all, for Christians. The Name above all names. Although the reading is no longer from the book of Exodus (Names), it still continues the story of the Exodus and includes many colorful, familiar and crackjaw names: Moab, Nebo, Pisgah, Jericho, Naphtali, Ephraim, Negeb, Zoar, Beth-Peor, and our old friends Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and Pharaoh. But by far, the most important name, is the name of the son of Nun: Joshua. Joshua “was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him.” Indeed, the power behind him was greater than the task ahead of him, which was a daunting task indeed: to conquer and possess the Promised Land.

Moses was the Redeemer who liberated and redeemed the children of Israel from Egypt but he could only take them so far. The people needed another redeemer to bring them into the Promised Land. And why is the name of Joshua the most important name in the book of Names and in all of the Hebrew Scriptures? Because that is the name that God chose to give to his Son who offers redemption from sin to all people and who leads us all into the Promised Land, the just kingdom of God. Joshua is the English translation of the Hebrew Yehoshua, which means “God is my Salvation.” Yehoshua is abbreviated to Y’shua which in Greek becomes Iesous, which in English becomes “Jesus.” Jesus is the Redeemer who empowers us all to be God’s beautiful Rainbow of Love in this world. Without Jesus, our baptism is impotent and meaningless; but with Jesus, we are empowered by our baptism beyond our imagination; and the power behind us is indeed greater than the task ahead of us.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus (Yeshua) explains how the Hebrew Scriptures are consistently pointing to him; in this case, in a Psalm (Psalm 110) in which King David says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand…’” Once again, this does not mean that our Jewish brothers and sisters are no longer the chosen people of God. They are indeed; and their readings of the Hebrew Scriptures remain valid. What it does mean is that, through Jesus Christ (through Yeshua HaMoshiach), we all can participate in that chosenness. And in light of the Gospel of Christ, we can look back at the Hebrew Scriptures and see that our participation in the choseness of Israel was part of God’s intention all along.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, we are also the chosen people of God. The Name of Jesus Christ is impressed upon us at our baptism so that we are empowered beyond our imagination to live up to our collective name here (Redeemer), to see and be the image of God in the world, to embody God’s beautiful Rainbow of Love, to bring in the Promised Land, the just kingdom of God, knowing that the power behind us is greater than the task ahead of us. May that be our watchword here in Redeemer for everything that we need to do in Christ’s Name to bring in the just kingdom of God: The power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you! Amen.

Walking Around Shining Like the Sun

 

In a few weeks, many of us will greet a variety of familiar and perhaps frightening faces at our door, ranging from Wonder Woman to Spider Man, Darth Vader to Harry Potter, Jon Snow to Donald Trump. I’m talking, of course, about Halloween, when children of all ages dress up and wear masks in order to take all your candy.

Whether you’re 9 years old or 90 years old, wearing masks and taking on new personas can be a fun and liberating experience. Some of us do this everyday in more subtle ways when we hide our true selves behind superficial roles and identities. We might hide our true faces behind our job titles: “I’m a lawyer. I’m an accountant, doctor, student, teacher, priest, etc.” or our social roles: “I’m a mother, a brother, an uncle, a grandfather, etc.” or even behind our social media identities and profiles. And although those are appropriate ways to present ourselves to the world (and they’re partially true), they’re not really who we are. And if we remove all those titles and facades, then who are we, really? And the answer can be so powerful that it actually starts to make sense why we continue to wear our masks.

In today’s reading from Exodus, God is very aware of the power of his true face. He says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” The glory of God’s face is so potent that human life itself is consumed and extinguished by its very presence.  God, in a sense, has to mask himself in order for Moses to see Him and not die.[1]

In the following chapter in Exodus (Ex 34:29), Moses descends from his mountaintop theophany at Sinai and returns to the children of Israel, who become afraid of him. Why? Let’s look at Exodus chapter 34 verse 29 because “the skin of his face shone” or “sent forth beams.”[2] Moses’s face was radiating so much after his encounter with God that the others could not bear it. So Moses, out of compassion for them, put on a mask. Moses’s face shines like the sun so intensely that Moses had to walk around with a mask in order to keep others from looking away or running away. Unlike trick-or-treaters, Moses wears a mask in order not to scare others, because his true face was apparently overwhelming and intimidating in its radiance. When we take off our masks, who are we, really?

When it comes to today’s Gospel, one might say that the Pharisees and the Herodians were wearing false masks by complimenting Jesus when really they were just buttering him up in order to trap him with their question about paying taxes.[3] They knew if Jesus said yes to paying taxes he would risk losing support from the people, but if he said no he would risk treason against the state. The Pharisees say something to Jesus as they’re buttering him up that is actually profoundly significant (and is very much lost in translation). They tell Jesus, “you do not regard people with partiality.”[4] The Greek, however, when translated literally, reads “You do not look at the masks of people.” Most translators interpret this as a colloquialism, which means, “you are not partial.” But that’s not what it says. It says, “You do not look at the masks of people.”[5]

Jesus responds by essentially saying, “Yes, you are right. I do not look at the masks of people. I look through the masks.” And what does Jesus see when he looks through the masks?

Jesus answers their question about the taxes in such a way that he intrigues the crowd and flummoxes the Pharisees.  He acknowledges the “face” and “image” of the emperor on the denarius coin and says, ““Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Not only does Jesus answer their question, he also teaches them (and us) a potentially life-changing truth. I’m not talking about a call to separate church and state, or to resist the government. I don’t think that is necessarily what Jesus is talking about either. One of the earliest interpretations of this teaching is from the African Church Father Tertullian (160 – 220 AD) who interprets Jesus as saying, “[Give] the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on humanity, to God.” Jesus is teaching them (and us) what he sees when he looks through our masks: He sees the image of God.

Jesus essentially says, “You are right. I do not look at the masks of people. I look through the masks and I see the image of God. I see the skin of your faces sending forth beams. I see you all radiating with divine life. I see heavenly potential in all you, but I also see you smothering it at times with your attachment to your masks and your false images. Let go of all of that. Let Caesar have it. Then you will start to see what I see: the image of God impressed on your face as your face and on the faces of all those around you.” Just as Caesar put his face on the coin so God put his face on us. Our face is the image of God. It’s actually overwhelming if you think about it; and it makes me realize why we tend to wear masks so often.

In Louisville, Kentucky, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton “stood in the center of a busy shopping district, and was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that” everyone he saw was radiating with the image of God. He wrote about the experience, saying, “It was like waking from a dream of separateness […] There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where [no] sin […] can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.[6]

Thomas Merton experienced in Kentucky what the children of Israel experienced when they saw the beaming face of Moses when he came down Mount Sinai and what the three disciples experienced when they saw Jesus transfigured on top of Mount Tabor. It’s an overwhelming experience and perhaps one that we cannot experience too often lest we be overpowered by all the beauty. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Truth must dazzle gradually [lest] every[one] be blind.”

In perhaps his most famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. It is in [this] light…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[7]

I invite us all to practice seeing the image of God in each other’s faces, even in the faces of strangers. We don’t have to be creepy about it, but we can be intentional. And I invite us also to be aware of the masks that we put on at work, at church, even perhaps on Halloween. Sometimes it might be appropriate and necessary to put on masks like Moses did, but when we do, let us remember not to smother the image of God beneath our masks. And let us remember that God sees the “secret beauty of [our] hearts…where [no] sin […] can reach” and that God invites us to see that in ourselves and in each other. Even today. Even now.

Horns-of-Moses-2

 

[1] In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai explains how the people in the Torah were able to have visions of God without dying when he said, “All the prophets looked into an opaque glass (seeing but a reflection of the Divine), but Moses looked through clear glass” (Yevamot 49b). According to the rabbi, the prophets saw God through opaque glass, which suggests that they were seeing reflections of themselves and therefore seeing God within themselves. Moses saw through clear glass, but it was glass nonetheless. The glass was masking God and protecting Moses from God’s raw and all-consuming glory.

[2] In the Vulgate, St. Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew verb karan (“send forth beams”) as a form of the Hebrew noun keren, which means, “horn.” So, according to the Vulgate, Moses grew horns after seeing God. This misunderstanding contributed to the absurd and frankly anti-Semitic idea that Jews had horns. Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome actually depicts the prophet with horns.

[3] I have heard many sermons condemning the Pharisees for their devious ways. Not only do I find that condemnation banal, I actually find it problematic in that it can and has led to Christian anti-Semitism, since the Pharisees are often seen as the predecessors to the rabbis, who have shaped modern Judaism.

[4] The first verse of Mishnah Avot conveys a similar idea: “Be deliberate in your judgment” (Mishnah Avot 1:1)

[5] The Greek word for mask is actually prosopon, which the Church Fathers eventually used to describe the three “persons” of the Trinity. οὐ γὰρ βλέπεις εἰς πρόσωπον ἀνθρώπων. ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropon

[6] Merton, Thomas, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 53-55.

[7] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.

“Redeemer Lives!” Oct 20, 2017

Click here for “Redeemer Lives!” Oct 20, 2017

Time for Diocesan Convention!

Just as the Bishop’s Committee meets once a month to pray and conduct the business of the church so too do Episcopalians of the diocese gather once a year at Grace Cathedral for Diocesan Convention to worship and conduct the business of the diocese. This year, Diocesan Convention is Friday Oct 27 and Saturday Oct 28 and the theme is Holy Women. One of Redeemer’s holy women (Carol Ann) will be serving as the Lay Delegate for our congregation. We are all invited to attend the Convention Eucharist on Friday Oct 27 at 7 PM in which the Right Rev. Barbara Harris will be preaching. She is the first woman in the Anglican Communion to be ordained a bishop. You will not want to miss her preaching! Also, we are all invited to a Question and Answer session with Bishop Barbara Harris on Saturday Oct 28 at 10:15 AM. It is important for us to gather together as Episcopalians of the diocese once in a while to remember that our congregations are not isolated monads, but rather essential small groups that comprise a much larger church. Please consider attending one or both of these events. You will not regret it. You will likely be enthused, inspired, humbled and honored to be part of such a cutting-edge diocese and such a thriving and vibrant church!

God’s Relentless Invitation to Friendship

The readings this morning can be interpreted as conveying a wrathful and violent God hell bent on consuming and burning down a city or a people that reject or offend him. In Exodus, as the Israelites worship the golden calf, God says to Moses, “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” In Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet, the king (who is often understood to represent God) becomes deeply enraged with those whom he initially invited to the party and orders his troops to burn down their cities. This interpretation of a wrathful and fire-y God is deeply troubling, especially as many of our friends, family members and loved ones are suffering tremendous loss and trauma as a result of the many devastating wildfires that are burning through the North Bay. Fortunately, we know that this ‘fire-and-brimstone’ interpretation of a wrathful God is not only superficial but also antithetical to the God who is revealed to us in a loving, self-giving and vulnerable healer and teacher named Jesus of Nazareth. In light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we see that these readings are actually about God’s relentless invitation for each of us to be in friendship with him.

As we continue reading through the book of Exodus, we see God as vulnerable and deeply hurt by his people’s rejection of him. Moses reminds God of God’s loving commitment to his people by doing some very effective “name-dropping.” Remembering that the book of Exodus, in Judaism, is called Shemoth, the Book of Names, we are wise to look at and attend to the names mentioned, especially in Moses’s dialogue with the divine. Moses says to God, “Remember your servants and your friends, Abraham, Isaac and Israel; and remember the promises you made to them.” This is where Moses again lives up to his name (which means “drawn out of the water”). Like Noah’s Rainbow that was drawn out of the water after the flood, Moses functions as a living reminder of God’s promise to always love and protect his people, no matter what. Moses and the Rainbow remind us and God of God’s promise of love and protection; and Lord knows we need a reminder like that now, in the midst of all the devastation here in California.

Moses reminds God of his love by specifically naming his friends Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Abraham’s name means “Father of many people.” Do you remember what Isaac’s name means? Isaac means “laughter.” Do you remember what Israel means? Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God by the river Jabbok. Israel means “struggles with God.” So by dropping these names, Moses reminds God not only of his intimate friendship with these patriarchs but also of his commitment to his people in times of joy, laughter, disbelief and struggle. Now we might be wondering, “Wait a minute. Isn’t God all knowing? Does God really forget his love and actually need reminding?” If we are wondering that, then I would remind us that this is the Bible’s poetic and engaging way of communicating, through narrative, God’s relentless commitment to God’s people; and God’s consistent and persistent invitation for us all to enter more deeply into friendship with him. Through baptism, we are all children of Abraham, Isaac and Israel and even if we temporarily snub or reject God, God remembers his commitment to us. God remains faithful because we are children of his closest friends and he longs to grow in friendship with us as well.

In Jesus’s parable, we see God’s invitation to friendship presented as an actual invitation to a wedding party. After the first guests reject the invitation, the host invites everyone off the streets, both good and bad, to the wedding banquet, so that the banquet hall is packed full. When the host notices a man not wearing a wedding robe, he approaches him and calls him “Friend.” However, the man remains unresponsive and is thus thrown out of the party, “into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus does make clear that there are indeed consequences for rejecting God’s invitation and friendship. It’s not that God desperately wants friends and punishes everyone who refuses his friendship, like a violent and spoiled little boy. It’s more that God respects our free will and our choice to reject a relationship with the One who is our source of being. We remember that God revealed his name to Moses as Eyeh Asher Eyeh (“I am what I am”)which for Christians has meant that God is not just another powerful being, but rather God is Being itself or what Paul Tillich called “the Ground of Being.” So if we reject God, we are actually rejecting the gift of existence; and the Bible again uses poetic imagery to describe this state of non-existence: darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, etc.

However, the Gospel of Christ makes clear that even in the state of non-existence, God remains relentless in his invitation to friendship. That is the meaning of Holy Saturday, when, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ descended to the dead to continue extending his invitation. Psalm 139 also makes this clear when the poet says, “Even if I make my bed in hell, you O God are still there” (v. 8). God’s invitation is eternal, extending all the way to the darkest pits of hell. And Christ remains in perpetual, loving solidarity with all who suffer, including those who suffer in hell or in what feels like hell.

Although Christ’s love does indeed extend to all (no matter what), we still want to know how we can accept God’s invitation to friendship; how we can emulate God’s dear friends Abraham, Isaac and Israel; and how we can join the wedding banquet, appropriately dressed in the wedding robe.

The great early Christian theologians (St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Gregory the Great to name a few) all essentially agreed that the wedding robe represents love, specifically love for God and love for neighbor. And we embody that love through prayer and service to those in need. That is how we begin and deepen our friendship with God, by spending quality time with him, daily in prayer and consistently in service to those in need.

We formally accept friendship with God at our baptism, which makes us heirs and children of God’s buddies Abraham, Isaac and Israel. And at our baptism, we vow to cultivate that friendship by praying and serving Christ in all persons; and also by gathering here, every week, as the Body of Christ. As Anglican lay leader Robert L. Neal from the diocese of Chicago says in a little book titled 101 Reasons to be Episcopalian, “Anglicans do good deeds to increase understanding of God [and to grow in friendship with God], not out of fear or to earn admission to heaven.”[1]

The Scripture readings this morning call us to grow in friendship with God, to respond to God’s relentless invitation to friendship by praying and serving those in need. Many of our neighbors up north are in desperate need. I imagine many of them felt like and still feel like they have been in hell this last week, in the midst of these terrifying infernos. We can respond to God’s invitation to friendship by praying for them and then by taking action, taking action like Nachshon, our old friend Nachshon, who stepped boldly into the Red Sea before the waters parted. And let us also remember to pray before taking action because taking action without first drenching ourselves in prayer can sometimes do more harm than good. Remember what happened to Moses when he tried to protect the vulnerable before making himself at home in God’s presence? It did not work out well for him.

The more I have worked with professional relief organizations, the more I have learned from them how overwhelming and difficult their job becomes as a result of people who are so eager to take action and help but not necessarily willing to do what really needs to be done or to give what really needs to be given, which is most often money. So what actions are we called to take in order to help those in need, after we have first made ourselves at home in God’s presence and prayed for his direction? Are we as eager to take action, am I as eager to take action, if that means opening up my wallet?

We deepen our friendship with God through prayer and service to those in need. This is how we participate in the wedding feast and wear the wedding robe and become God’s buddies along with Abraham, Isaac and Israel, deepening our friendship with him in the midst of joy, laughter, sorrow and struggle and even during times that might feel like hell. It is in these difficult times that our friendship with God often grows stronger and deeper as we remember, in the words of St. Paul, that “the Lord is near.” And it is St. Paul’s closing words to the church in Philippi that perhaps most beautifully describe how we can respond to God’s relentless invitation to friendship by praying and serving those in need. He says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on [taking action and] doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and [your friendship with God will deepen and grow, because] the God of peace will be with you.” The God of peace will be with us. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Louie Crew, 101 Reasons to Be Episcopalian (Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg PA, 2003), 9.