28 December 2014

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The First Sunday of Christmas

In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with G‑d, and the Word was G‑d. From the very beginning the Word was with G‑d. Through him G‑d made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.

G‑d sent his messenger, a man named John, who came to tell people about the light, so that all should hear the message and believe. He himself was not the light; he came to tell about the light. This was the real light — the light that comes into the world and shines on all people.

The Word was in the world, and though G‑d made the world through him, yet the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own country, but his own people didn’t receive him. Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become G‑d’s children. They didn’t become G‑d’s children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; G‑d himself was their Father.

The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son.

John spoke about him. He cried out, “This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘He comes after me, but he’s greater than I am, because he existed before I was born.’ ”

Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another. G‑d gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus the Christ. No one has ever seen G‑d. The only Son — who is the same as G‑d and is at the Father’s side — has made him known.

I love the Gospel of John. It’s my favorite book in all the Bible. There’s something fantastic about it — something that speaks deeper than the other books.

Take this opening as an example — “In the beginning…” Any person reading or listening to this passage with ears to hear would instantly be taken back to Genesis 1. John’s clearly telling the creation story, but he’s telling it in a new way. A different way. A deeper way.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote of this deeper way. Quoting from the Jewish Scriptures, he stated,

No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
what G‑d has prepared
for those who love him.

But G‑d revealed these things to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches out everything and shows us G‑d’s deep secrets (1 Corinthians 2.9-10; NLT2; adapted; emphasis added).

This is a very important passage for no other reason than the context. Often times we see the “No eye has seen…” bit quoted in posters, promise verses, and memes on social media. They give off the impression that there’s still something to be uncovered. However, Paul plainly states that the “deep secrets” of G‑d have already been revealed.

In Ephesians 1, Paul discloses what G‑d’s deep secret is. He wrote,

In all his wisdom and insight G‑d did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ. This plan (which G‑d will complete when the time is right) is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head (1.8b-10 GNT; emphasis added).

John’s telling of the Jesus story is his version of G‑d’s secret plan. From the beautiful opening to the haunting commission to continue the work (John 20.19-23), John paints the picture of all creation coming together in Jesus and being birthed into something new.

This newness, however, isn’t something foreign to us, but buried deep within us. Contrary to one of the foundations of most Western Christian thought, John states that the light of the Creator has never been removed — “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (verse 5; emphasis added). In other words, the coming of Jesus didn’t usher in something unknown or alien. It revealed what was already there, buried, as it were, under layers and layers of sin and falseness. The coming of Christ isn’t about destroying creation. It’s about birthing something buried deep within the chaos. Something we’ve forgotten.

This Christmas season, may the Holy Spirit bring to our remembrance the New Creation brought about by the Christ child. May the Spirit open our eyes to all of the ways G‑d’s Realm is established in the world. May the Spirit give us the Grace to be Christ to those we meet and to find Christ within them. May the Spirit give us the courage and strength to continue the work of Jesus by bringing Good News to the poor; releasing the captives; opening the eyes of the blind; freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming in action and word that G‑d’s favor has come.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1. Scripture quotations marked (GNT) are from the Good News Translation in Today’s English Version — Second Edition. Copyright © 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission.

2. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

25 December 2014

Christmas — 2014

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior — yes, the Messiah, the Lord — has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you’ll recognize him by this sign: You’ll find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others — the armies of heaven — praising G‑d and saying,

“Glory to G‑d in highest heaven,
   and peace on earth to those with whom G‑d is pleased.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that’s happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising G‑d for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

21 December 2014

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-38 (GNT1; adapted):

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, G‑d sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman named Mary who was promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. The angel came to her and said, “Peace be with you! The Lord’s with you and has greatly blessed you!”

Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and wondered what his words meant. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; G‑d’s been gracious to you. You’ll become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you’ll name him Jesus. He’ll be great and will be called the Son of the Most High G‑d. The Lord G‑d will make him a king, as his ancestor David was, and he’ll be the king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end!”

Mary said to the angel, “I’m a virgin. How, then, can this be?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and G‑d’s power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of G‑d. Remember your relative Elizabeth. It’s said that she can’t have children, but she herself is now six months pregnant, even though she’s very old. For there’s nothing that G‑d can’t do.”

“I’m the Lord's servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you’ve said.” And the angel left her.

I can still see the image of former President Bill Clinton on the television screen —

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

We all knew he was lying. This was just the typical spin politicians use all the time to remove the spotlight from themselves and focus it on someone else’s faults.

That the way a lot of people see today’s Gospel lesson. “There’s no way that’s true,” they decry. “It must have been a made up story to cover up the fact that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock.” In other words, we’re too smart now to believe that obviously made up story.

But as Tom Wright points out when he commented on this passage —

“The ancient world didn’t know about X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, but they knew well as we do that babies were the result of sexual intercouse, and that people who claimed to be pregnant by other means might well be covering up a moral and social offence. Yet Mary’s story is told by both Luke and Matthew, in version so different that they can hardly be dependent on one another; in other words, the story seems to have been widely known in the very early church, rather than being a fantasy invented several generations after the fact. Why would these two writers, and devout Jewish Christian congregations that passed on such stories, have done so, giving hostages to fortune in this way, unless they had good reason to suppose they were true?”2

Why would they indeed? If someone was to “make up” a story, they wouldn’t have made it so incredulous (The same goes for the stories about the resurrection. There’s a great story about a debate between Origen and a pagan king about believing the resurrection because it came from the testimony of women!).

There’s also the political aspect of this story. Gabriel states that Mary will give birth to the world’s true king. That revelation had major implications for Luke’s world. If Jesus is the world’s true king — and embodies what kingship really looks like — then that means Caesar isn’t.

That revelation reaches through time into our day, too. If Jesus is the world’s true ruler, then all the world rulers really aren’t — President or Prime Minister or Dictator, it doesn’t matter. As I’ve stated before, the story the New Testament tells is that Jesus is the true Ruler of Creation — it doesn’t matter if one believes that or not. That’s just the way it is.

All of that to say, I know we’re supposed to talk about nothing being impossible for G-d, but that’s not what struck me about this passage. What stood out to me was the beginning of the second paragraph, “Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message…” Why would Mary be “deeply troubled”? Gabriel had said to her, “Peace be with you! The Lord’s with you and has greatly blessed you!” Why was this troubling?

Maybe she thought her life wasn’t “greatly blessed” or even “blessed” at all, for that matter. I know I can relate to that. There are times when I think my life is so full of trouble — bills, emergencies, personal conflicts, helplessness, stress, rut, boredom, being taken advantage of, forgotten, unloved, etc., etc. Sometimes the day-in-and-day-out of life just seems to press on me until it feels like it’s trying to grind me into pulp. And I never have had an angel drop by to say, “Hey! You’re greatly blessed by G-d!”

Or maybe I have…

Maybe I’m just so focused on other things that I don’t see the blessing in front of me. I have a wife who loves and supports me. I have a daughter who is so caring and kind. They both help me to be a better person. I have faithful friends. I have loving furry companions. I’m healthy, have a roof over my head, a warm bed, and food to eat. I have a job that I love and I have the privilege of serving others.

Maybe, like Mary, you too may think that you don’t have much blessings in your life. On this last day of advent, let’s pause and look over our lives and, with eyes wide open, see all of the blessings that G-d has given to us. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is, ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.”

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1. Scripture quotations marked (GNT) are from the Good News Translation in Today’s English Version — Second Edition. Copyright © 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission.

2. Wright, N. T., Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone), pg. 9. Copyright © 2001, 2004 Nicholas Thomas Wright; SPCK.

14 December 2014

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Third Sunday of Advent

A man named John was sent from G‑d. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.

This is John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”

John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), “I’m not the Christ.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

John said, “I’m not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

John answered, “No.”

They asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied,

I am a voice crying out in the wilderness,
Make the Lord’s path straight,

just as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Those sent by the Pharisees asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”

John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” This encounter took place across the Jordan in Bethany where John was baptizing.

There are times in our lives when we don’t know what our place is in the world. Everyone else knows, but we don’t.

I remember, some thirty years ago now, when I was standing in my Mother’s kitchen talking about something I was learning in the Bible. She asked me, “Why don’t you go to seminary?” She saw in me that I was supposed to be something I just couldn’t see.

And then there was the time, when my daughter was just a little one, we were gathered at my Mother’s kitchen table and were talking about some theology (I don’t remember what it was) and I was going on and on about something. Any way, my daughter said, “Gosh, Dad! Why don’t you have a church?”

Another time, a friend of mine said, “You know, you would make a good priest.” Again, I didn’t see it.

For years, I just couldn’t see it. I just thought I was like everyone else except I was given the proper tools. But I had a good friend of mine tell me plainly, “No, you’re not like everyone else. Most people don’t care enough to put in the time even if they did have the tools. G‑d’s given you a gift.”

In our Gospel reading today, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem asked John a specific question, “Are you Elijah.” And He answered, “No, I’m not.”

But that’s not how Jesus saw John. As I noted last week, there are several occasions where Jesus plainly stated that John was Elijah:

Matthew 11.11-15 (CEB; emphasis added):

“I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is violently attacked as violent people seize it. All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John came. If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let the person who has ears, hear.

Matthew 17:10-13 (CEB; emphasis added):

The disciples asked, “Then why do the legal experts say that Elijah must first come?”

Jesus responded, “Elijah does come first and will restore all things. In fact, I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they didn’t know him. But they did to him whatever they wanted. In the same way the Human One is also going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples realized he was telling them about John the Baptist.

And, as we saw from last weeks Gospel reading, the description of John matches that of Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1.1-8 with Mark 1.1-8).

Lastly, speaking about the end of the Old Covenantal Jewish age, Malachi wrote, “I am sending Elijah the prophet to you, before the great and terrifying day of [Yahweh] arrives” (Malachi 4.5 (CEB); adapted).

So, in some very real but very mystical sense, John the Baptist was Elijah. He just didn’t know it.*

How often do others see in us things that we don’t see in ourselves? As indicated above, I do it all the time. All I seem to see is the falseness, the darkness. But I’m working on that.

What about you? Has G‑d used others to show you something? Has G‑d used them to tell them things about yourself? Things that G‑d wants you to do? Things that G‑d has called you to do? Maybe you can’t see them. During this season of Advent, this season of waiting, this season of preparation, think about the times that others have said things to you about what they see in you. Maybe that’s where G‑d is speaking to you. You never know…you might just be the next Mother Teresa or Mahatma Ghandi or Pope Francis or Thích Nhất Hạnh or Thomas Merton.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Or he knew that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem understood the coming of Elijah as the actual, physical person of Elijah. And his answer reflects the error of their view.

07 December 2014

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Second Sunday of Advent

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, G‑d’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
       “Prepare the way for the Lord;
       make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted G‑d to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

When people eventually find out I’m a priest, I usually get one of two questions, “Where’s your church?” or “A Catholic priest? But you’re married?” For a lot of people, the only type of priest they know of is the Catholic kind who “can’t” get married. I then usually go through something like, “Well, not a catholic priest in that way…” I might even say something like, “There are other kinds of priests — Orthodox, Celtic, Anglican, Old Catholic — and they’re allowed to marry.” It still freaks out some people.

I remember sitting at a table with a group of people when they found out that I was priest and one woman just couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She kept asking questions to another person about me and I was sitting across from her!

With the other question, it’s equally as difficult to try and explain. For a lot of people, especially in Oklahoma, the idea of a priest or minister equals a church building with a parish or congregation. Again, I have to say something like, “No, I don’t serve in a traditional church. I serve the community. I serve at my job. Plus I’ll lead a service in my home.”

Blank stares…

At one of Lindisfarne Community annual retreats, one of the other priests said, “We’re ontological priests.” And that was it. That explains it very well.

To me.

Others still look at me like a deer caught in the headlights.

As we know, ontology is “a branch of metaphysics concerned with the relations and nature of being.” So, an ontological priest is more about being than doing. As John Wesley said, “I look on all the world as my parish.” For me, that means that I’m to be Christ where I’m at — my job, my home, the store, etc. — every moment of every day. In those places, I’m to be the best example of Christ I can be and hopefully I can point others to Jesus.

In today’s Gospel reading, I see John the Baptist* in that same light. The passage states, “John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted G‑d to forgive their sins” (verse 4). Here we see that John the Baptist was like John Wesley — “the wilderness” was his parish. He wasn’t in some building running a religious business but in the world — where the people were — meeting them where they were at.

His mission, to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus, was to point away from himself to Christ. Even his baptism was only a foreshadowing of the work Jesus would do. Is our calling any different? Are we not called to point people to Jesus? Or are we to show them Jesus by our examples? In other words, aren’t we to be Jesus in the here and now?

I think the vocation of followers of Jesus today — of “Christians,” little christs — is to like mirrors reflecting Jesus to the world. Our actions, and our words, are to be as close as possible to Jesus as we can get. Of course, we’ll always fall short. I mean, when was the last time you walked on water or fed 5,000 children, women, and men?

At the same time, however, while we’re mimicking Jesus, we’re given great opportunity to point to him. “Why are you helping us with this protest against racial profiling, inequality, and injustice?” “Because of Jesus,” could be our response. “We’re all connected because of Jesus. We’re all One.”

And this Jesus I’m talking about is not the Jesus of religious fundamentalism. I’m referring to the Jesus who sided with the oppressed. Who called the outcasts his friends. Who challenged the status quo. Who opposed to the power systems of his day. Who was called the Prince of Peace. I’m referring to the Jesus of the Gospels.

As we go throughout our day-to-day lives, let’s be mindful of times and ways we can reflect that Jesus — be that Jesus to others around us. This isn’t easy work. It’s hard work. Probably the hardest work we’ve ever been tasked with. Nonetheless, that’s what following Jesus is all about. And when we do that, when we reflect Jesus to the world, we help the world prepare for its own encounter with the true Jesus. The world doesn’t need to only experience Jesus through us — it can welcome him to itself. And each time that happens, another piece of creation is transformed into the Realm of G‑d.

So, again, where can we be servants of G‑d in our daily lives? Where are the places and people who need to experience Christ? It’s there in that “wilderness” where we’ll find our parish.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

* The description we’re given of John the Baptist is quite remarkable. The reader is at once to be reminded of the description of Elijah the prophet given in 2Kings 1.1-8. It’s to help the reader see that, according to the prophecies, Elijah did indeed come before the coming of G‑dself to establish G‑d’s Realm. Elijah was the sign of the closing of the Old Covenant age and the preparation of G‑d’s Realm. We see from the description of John the Baptist that he was indeed, in some mystical sense, Elijah (see Malachi 4.5; Matthew 11.11-15; Matthew 17.10-13).