Monday, January 14, 2019

God Upon the Waters

Baptism of our Lord
Year C--appointed scripture can be found here

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At Como Zoo and Conservatory, there is an indoor play area for young children that includes a water feature. In a miniature lake, little plastic boats bob about--keeping company with rubber fish meant for feeding a fiberglass seal. A wheel, inset into the wall, can be turned to create rain—rain, which feeds the stream that trickles into the lake. As children splash, parents hastily pull up their sweater sleeves in a vain attempt to keep them dry.

Depicted on the wall above this feature is a sun, and arrows tracing the water cycle—water in the lake evaporates, clouds form and rain falls, the rain flows into the stream, and the lake is fed.

Turn the wheel, turn it again…the rain falls, and the water runs.

And children begin to internalize a scientific truth—all water on this planet is interconnected.

The last time I was at Como Zoo, the wheel that caused the rain was broken. Children made futile attempts, turning and turning and turning the wheel, eventually given up in frustration. The stream was dry, and the lake was filled with those fore-mentioned rubber fish, floating on their sides. The scent of the chlorine, overly concentrated in the shallow basin, filled the air.

And, from this another lesson is learned—what happens when the water cycle is interrupted and contaminants find their way into our lakes and oceans.

Climate change, contamination, overfishing, storm run-off from farmlands and cities--our human activities have harmed this essential resource.  But, as we continue to grow in awareness of the harm we’ve done—more and more people are seeking ways to mitigate the damage and heal the earth.

Amongst these peoples, you will find theologians, scientists, farmers, and fisherfolk, children and the aged, indigenous peoples and migrants to these shores—all sharing the purpose and the intent of being active participants in the healing of what one of our liturgies refers to as “this fragile earth, our island home”.

What brings this diverse set of people together is the collective knowledge that water is essential to our survival. But, not just the survival of our bodies—but our very being. Because in water we find the story of our survival and our salvation.

Let the psalmist sing,

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.


We cannot understand God, or our salvation, without understanding the centrality of water. The breath of God over the waters of creation; the flood out of which a new creation was salvaged; the crossing of the Red Sea; water springing forth in the desert; Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan--when we tell the story of water in scripture, we tell the story of God’s great love for us as part of God’s creation.

When we encounter water, we cannot help but encounter God—hear once again the words from Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”, says the Lord.

This understanding of water as a facilitator of our encounter with God is reflected in the liturgies of the Church,

In the Orthodox tradition, with specifics dictated by geography, the baptism of our Lord is marked by a ritual immersion of a cross,

During the ceremony, the cross is dipped in water, recalling Christ’s immersion in the Jordan River. Blessed oil, or Holy Chrism (Muron), is poured into the water from a dove-shaped container, symbolizing the appearance at the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father proclaiming to all that Jesus is [God’s] Son. (https://armenianchurch.us/the-lord/nativity-and-theophany-of-our-lord-and-the-feast-of-the-naming-of-jesus/ )

In another, slightly less orthodox tradition, one of my colleagues has introduced a practice of incorporating waters from around the world into baptismal liturgies performed at her church. Whenever members of the congregation travel, they are careful to return with containers of water from wherever they’ve been—Hawai’i, the English Channel, the Ganges, the Cape, the Bering Sea, Lake Michigan, the Jordan River--waters from around the world have found their way into the baptismal font. This serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of the waters of the earth, and of our human connection to each other and all of creation.

In the baptismal liturgies of the Church, water is the means of initiation into the church and immersion or sprinkling is a ritual of cleansing as we mark our passage from death into new life and are connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus as well as to the household of God which serves as Christ’s body in the world.

In the Anglican Church of Canada the baptismal liturgy includes our commitment to care for creation with the question, “Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?” The congregation responds with the familiar words, “I will, with God’s help.”

And here, in the Episcopal Church in the United States, the process of prayer book revision will pay heed to the recommendation that “understanding, appreciation and care of God’s good creation be explicitly incorporated in the Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation and Ordination liturgies.”

We are baptized with water, sacred water.

Knowing this, is it any wonder that many of our clergy and laity have found a calling to climate activism and the conservation and preservation of water? From Northern Minnesota to Hawai’i; Marrakech to Tokyo; Flint to Standing Rock—members of our tradition have spoken, marched, protested, and lobbied for access to clean water and for climate justice.

For these Episcopalians and Anglicans, advocating for the waters of this Earth is a natural extension of the baptismal covenant—it is advocacy and action grounded in scripture, and rooted in our tradition and understanding of how we live out our baptism. To be clear, baptism, taken seriously, has consequences—for us as individuals and for this world as a whole.

So in celebration of the baptism of our Lord, let us remember the Wwter that is part of the water cycle, water that is taken from the tap, or the stream, water that existed at creation, water through which we’ve come, water that remains with us still.

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.


Amen.





Monday, January 7, 2019

Epiphany

Scripture appointed for today can be found here

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Midrashic Magi Number 4

We tend to think of biblical interpretation as something that experts do. Translators who can parse the Greek and Hebrew, theologians whose interpretations are informed by Barth and Buber, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who can unpack the historical context.

But, biblical interpretation is something we all do.  Think about it, Christmas pageants, the marking of doorways at Epiphany, the weekly sharing of bread and wine--all of these are interpretations which bring the scripture to life within our context and give us an opportunity to experience in real time a story which emerged in ancient times.  But, that doesn’t mean these interpretations are accurate.

Our annual Christmas pageant is a prime example--it is a mishmash of Luke and Matthew’s infancy narratives with the occasional dinosaur added to the traditional mix of stable animals and a donkey that doesn’t actually exist in the Bible. But, that doesn’t make this telling of the story wrong, what it does do is tell us that we are constantly engaging with scripture with our imagination. And, the use of imagination in interpreting scripture is a valuable part of our tradition!

The tradition of telling stories about stories in the Bible is an ancient one. In the Jewish tradition these are called midrash aggadah. Some of them they add commentary “between the lines” of scripture. Others give names to biblical ancestors the Bible has left nameless. Still others, wrestle with questions of right and wrong when the Bible presents a particularly thorny text.

And, even tho’ these stories aren’t scripture, many of them have been given authority within our own tradition. The donkey in the pageant was never in the Bible, but you CAN find it in the protoevangelium of James; the three kings were not kings, at least not until Tertullian and Origen said so in the third century. Yet, here we are—enjoying creative interpretations and re-imaginings that seem essential to our understanding of what the Bible says, and yet were never what the Bible said!

This does not make these stories wrong however—rather it enriches the biblical story in ways that spark our imagination and deepen our faith. Stories about stories in the Bible, in some ways, are as essential as the biblical story itself.  

Think about how children play—their wonderings and imaginings, their pretending and their dreams. Battles between good and evil, epic quests, and tales of salvation are the bread and butter, day to day, of childhood—and are essential to the development of self-understanding. Our imagination is a gift we have that, well used, helps us to understand the world and our place in it. So, bring on the inaccurate donkeys!

Speaking of inaccurate donkeys…let’s talk about the three wise men.

Scripture does not give them camels or even names. I have no idea where the camels came from, but I can tell you that they were given names in the 8th century. This is also when the teachings of the church ascribed countries of origin to each Magi— Balthasar from Ethiopia, Melchior from Persia, Gaspar from India. Their provenance helped our ancestors in the faith to understand the universalism of Christ. This is a Christ for all, a baby whose birth transforms not just one place but all of creation.

Many of us came to know the magi not through the biblical text, but through the hymn that begins, “we three kings of orient are”. But, they were not kings nor of Orient, they were something akin to astrologers. But, the third century church ascribed them kingship—heeding to the psalm, “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.”

So, given the already well accepted elaborations on the text, allow me to introduce you to Midrashic Magi Number 4…

In the latter part of the 19th century, a man named Henry Van Dyke wrote a short story called “the other Magi” which features the journey of a fourth magi.

You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man?

Have you ever heard? And with this, the story commences and we are introduced to Artaban, the other magi.   

The essayist tells us that Artaban is an astrologer—and, in his careful observation of the stars, he sees portents of a new king. Inspired by his discovery, he shares the news with his fellow magi and they decide to seek out this new king.

Artaban’s journey begins like that of the other magi. However, his pilgrimage soon takes a turn as Artaban is delayed, again and again, by people in need. Each time, sacrificing one of his treasures, treasures he’d reserved for the king, in order to save others. Van Dyke’s text is flowery, but poignant,

How could he stay here in the darkness to minister to a dying stranger? What claim had this unknown fragment of human life upon his compassion or his service? If he lingered but for an hour he could hardly reach Borsippa at the appointed time. His companions would think he had given up the journey. They would go without him. He would lose his quest.

And yet, he stops, and the man’s life is saved—but this is just the first of the many encounters that will delay Artaban, the other wise man,

So I saw the other wise man again and again, travelling from place to place, and searching among the people of the dispersion, with whom the little family from Bethlehem might, perhaps, have found a refuge…yet, in all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and comforted the captive

Over the course of his journey, Artaban is not only delayed but he sacrifices all of his treasures—first a sapphire which he sells when he provides care to the dying man; then a ruby which he uses to bribe Herod’s soldiers and save the life of a child; and then, a pearl...  

For thirty-three years he has pursued rumors of the King and has kept this last of his treasure to offer in worship of him. At last, he draws near once more and finds himself at the foot of a hill, a hill called Golgotha. At last he will meet the King!

But, at the foot of a hill a girl is held captive—and Artaban pauses once more.

The pearl is enough. And she is set free.

And this is where Artaban’s journey ends. He has no gift left to give the king he long sought. The sapphire given for the sick, the ruby for the persecuted, the pearl for the captive—leaving nothing for the King.

Yet, Artaban’s failure in the story proves his success, for, in giving to those in need he has given to Jesus the Christ. The story concludes with Artaban’s realization that in serving others he has indeed met Christ,

" I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the
least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me._"

And, thus ends the story of the “other” wise man.

A story told NOT for biblical accuracy, but to reinforce the biblical teaching that revelation is interconnected with liberation. A teaching we heard today, proclaimed in scripture! Revelation cannot be separated from the work of liberation.

So, no, the story of the 4th wise man is not biblical—but, then again, neither are the camels. My hope is that this story will inspire you to consider the gifts you might bring in service to others. The gifts you might share to serve God through serving God’s children. On this Epiphany, I pray that our imaginative interpretations may be a vehicle for our own transformation--leading us to discover Christ and our calling once more.

Amen.

(all quotations are from the Project Gutenberg e-book of "The Other Magi") 

Christmas Eve, A Draft

Good news; but if you ask me what it is, I know not;
It is a track of feet in the snow,
It is a lantern showing a path,
It is a door set open.

-G.K. Chesterton    1874-1936

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2018

As I prepared for tonight, I stumbled upon a Christmas poem written by poet, theologian and wit, G.K. Chesterton.

“Good news; but if you ask me what it is, I know not;
It is a track of feet in the snow,
It is a lantern showing a path,
It is a door set open.”

I puzzled over his words, and initially passed them over, but then I remembered something.

I remembered, how I once got lost in the woods.

I remembered, the deer trail I had followed assuming it was the path.

I remembered, how afraid I felt upon realizing that I had no idea which way to go.

I remembered, the immense sense of relief I had when I heard a noise that sounded like cars in the distance.

I remembered, the joy I felt when I finally found my way home.

I had found my way. I was safe. I was lost no longer.

And, so his words,

“Good news; but if you ask me what it is, I know not;
It is a track of feet in the snow,
It is a lantern showing a path,
It is a door set open.”

Good news indeed! Because, what a relief, what a relief, to find a way out of the wilderness!

But not simply a way out, a way towards. A way towards a place where we shall all find a welcome, a welcome in the midst of the ineffable, all-encompassing love of God.

Held this night, in discrete human form.

And, so tonight guided by the light of the heavens, we will follow the shepherds to the One who will lead us all--lead us out of the wilderness and into that new creation where all shall be welcome.

And, what a night it is! To find ourselves, once again, welcomed into that great and holy mystery which is the Word made flesh for the love of all.

The path is clear, the door is open, and you are welcome!

You are welcomed, just as you are, to be part of this night in this place and to experience the relief that comes when we have been found!

So welcome!

Welcome, you who are lost.
You who are weary.
You who are lonely. Welcome!
You who are joyful.
You who are grieving.
You who are fearful. Welcome

Welcome!

Because this is your night, the night when all of our hopes and all of our fears converge into one infant breath. Tonight, we have been shown a way--a way out of the wilderness and into the life to which God has called us.

Glory to God in the highest, indeed! We have been given a way! A way to live, a way to be, a way upon which we can find ourselves part and parcel of God’s hope for all creation.

So, let us rejoice, because God in human flesh has transcended the heavens so that we might know the way of love. We have been given a way on this holy night when the stars guide us, once again, to a baby. A baby born into one small family, in a small room, in a small town—a baby whose size belies the earth shattering, heaven quacking difference that his birth has made.

On this night, our greatest fears give way to the greatest of hopes.  

“For the grace of God has appeared”

And, in the face of such grace, we fall to our knees.

We fall to our knees to worship, in truth, the good news that has been born anew.

Born anew on this night of exultation.

This night that changes everything.

This night, when the long wait has come to an end and a new life has begun.

Begun in the dark of a stable, where a woman wonders at the baby upon her breast.

Newly made, a mother.

Newly made, a child.

Hush, be still.

Peace, be still.

“to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”

The Messiah fusses to be held. The Savior roots in his sleep.

Hush, be still.

Peace, be still.

Nothing will ever be the same.

And together we shall find our way.


Amen.

God Upon the Waters

Baptism of our Lord Year C--appointed scripture can be found here +++ At Como Zoo and Conservatory, there is an indoor play ar...