Feast of Christ the King B
Forsaking All Others
Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you
the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others
tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the
chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered,
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my
followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it
is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus
answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the
world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
At the beginning of the Celebration of the Sacrament of marriage the
priest asks those to be married to declare their consent to what is about
to happen. He uses the following words: “Will you have this person to be
your husband/to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of
marriage? Will you love, comfort, honor and keep them, in sickness and
in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him or her as long as you
both shall live?” The response that allows the celebration to continue is,
of course, the heartfelt declaration, “I will.”
When I celebrate a marriage, I make an effort to highlight, what I see as
the anchor in this declaration, “Forsaking all others.” I will forsake all
others. Yes, I will forsake all others, that I might be deeply and
completely faithful to you and to you alone.
I believe that as a couple strives to live into their marriage vows they
will again and again be faced with the challenge to love contained in
these words, “Forsaking all others.”
Now ordinarily and, somewhat narrowly, most understand these words
be refer to cheating on your spouse with another. While this is certainly
part of it, I believe that the declaration that I will, “Forsake all others” is
much broader and far more encompassing than an admonition against
an adulterous liaison.
Think about it. Must not many things be forsaken to grow, and to grow
ever more deeply, in love with one’s spouse?
The first, and probably the most difficult to forsake, is the ego and its
needs. For the two to become one, the “I” must struggle to ever more
fully surrender itself to the “We”.
Before marriage, I am the center of my world. I am the decider of my
priorities. I am the one who determines all my responses, my actions,
where I commit my time, and my goals. I define my purpose for living.
Allowing the relationship to decide priorities, responses, decisions,
actions, time commitments and goals is a big stretch that takes much
practice to be brought to fruition so that the “I” might be come “we”.
Before marriage, the money that I earn is mine to do with as I want and
choose. One might expect, perhaps naively, that my claim to my money
would be impacted by the decision to marry. But money, I have often
found in pre-marital counseling sessions, is rarely on the table. In the
decision to become one, even when romance is at its peak, money is
often the last thing that gets surrendered to the grinding stone that
transforms the “I” into “we” or the “my” into “our”. Sometimes it never
happens. Often couples choose a safer course, like each contributing
50% to the common pot for the bills and expenses, thus leaving each to
hold on to the rest of their earnings as “my” money. It is not easy to
forsake a sense of financial independence and private ownership of
what I earn.
Again, as money can be used to hold separate what might otherwise
become more deeply one, so too families of origin and a primary
attachment to my family of origin can be a wedge that impedes the
formation of what is to be the new primary bond. Sometimes a spouse
in a marriage is unable or unwilling to establish a new and healthy
boundary between self and parents or self and siblings that honors and
gives precedence to the new primary bond.
I hope these few examples are sufficient for you to get my drift in the
“forsaking” which the bond of marital intimacy invites and to which it
lays claim, as something far more comprehensive than merely forsaking
You might well be wondering why I would be sermonizing about
marriage on this Feast of Christ the King or this Feast of the Reign of
In today’s gospel the kingship of Christ is brought to center stage in the
hour of His arrest, trail, judgment, condemnation, crucifixion and death.
As the hour unfolds it is a kingship that is questioned, challenged,
ridiculed, mocked and derided.
And it is in this hour that Jesus owns, clarifies, defines and takes
possession of his kingship, of his crown, his scepter, his robe and his
But you might still be wondering about a connection between the
marriage metaphor and the reign of Christ.
An ancient Greek icon, is the icon of Christ the Divine Bridegroom. The
icon is an image of Jesus in His hour – the very hour I have just
described. The eyes of the bridegroom, as beacons of the truth that is
God’s compassion, love and sovereignty, pierce and light up the soul of
the believer who would stand before it in prayer. In the representation,
Jesus stands crowned with thorns, holding the rod that is his scepter,
robed with a bloody tunic and anticipating his ascension to his throne –
The first believers understood and believed that is was in the hour of his
arrest, trail, judgment, condemnation, crucifixion and death that Jesus
celebrated His wedding nuptials with his beloved bride – the church –
his nuptials with us – his marriage to us.
It was in this final hour that Jesus faced and embraced love’s challenge
to forsake all others that he might faithfully and deeply embrace us – his
It was in His hour that Jesus also faced another
uncompromising claim to his loyalty and allegiance. He stood before
Pilate, the representative of the Emperor Caesar, and faced the
challenge to renounce the reign of God and its priorities and affirm the
sovereignty, dominance and power of Caesar.
There was only one acceptable answer to the question put to him by
Pilate who asked – “Are you a King?” That answer would have been –
“There is no king but Caesar.” Any other answer would be treason.
But in His hour Jesus clearly chose to forsake the power of the world
and the primary claim that it would presume to make upon his
allegiance and instead declared his fidelity to the reign of God and its
priorities – the kingdom that had always been his first love and would
remain his first love.
Jesus declares as His priority. He bears witness to the truth that God’s
sovereignty is always the first claim that is laid upon us, upon our
conscience and upon any and every decision we would make and any
action we would take. In living this truth, we come home to our deepest
As he faced the consequence of his forsaking all others, Jesus
simultaneously faced the aloneness that pieced his very soul as he
anticipated and effected his marriage with his bride.
In the moment of his death, Jesus surrendered to and embraced as his
own, the final truth of what it means to be fully human. He faced and
embraced death, not from a place of assurance or certainty that would
come from the experience of his Divinity, the experience of His oneness
with His Father, but rather in full possession of his humanity – a
humanity which can only experience death with a Question – Is this the
end of the story? – A question that finds its only assurance in faith and
hope and not in certainty.
Do you remember what Jesus cried out in the telling moment of His
hour? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Yes, in His own
forsaking, he experienced being forsaken by his Father. His bond with
the Father, that had always sustained him, was now illusive.
And so, my sisters and brothers, on this Feast of the Reign of Christ, are
we ready to declare our consent even as He has declared His? “Will we
have Christ to be our spouse; to live together in a covenant of marriage,
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to Him, as long as we shall live?” Will
we seek first the Kingdom of God and, forsaking all others, embrace its
priorities of justice, love and peace as our first loyalty and our primary
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 25, 2018
Prophets – To Be or Not to Be
The Lord said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and God’s chosen people were exiled to Babylon. It was a time of great turmoil. In response to the crisis God commissioned Ezekiel as prophet to his Israel.
Prior to his commissioning, Ezekiel had an amazing vision of fire, winged creatures, a chariot, and someone seated on a throne. He must have been smokin’ some good weed. When Ezechiel saw this vision of the glory of the Lord, he fell on his face. And then he heard the voice of the Lord.
The voice said to him “Go to the people of Israel – a nation of rebels. Speak my words to them whether they hear or refuse to hear. And do not to be afraid or dismayed.”
This is pretty standard stuff, in terms of what we know of Israel’s prophets. They are sent by God to call the people back to the covenant. They are ignored, forgotten, berated, mistreated, tortured, and killed. Nobody listens to them. This plays out over and over again.
Now fast forward to Jesus. Though we confess Him as Lord, to most of his contemporaries Jesus was just another prophet. And as a prophet his experience was no different.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is in Nazareth, his hometown, teaching in the synagogue, and no one is very happy with what he has to say. These are the people with whom he grew up, who know him and his family. And how do they respond? They are scandalized. “Hey, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy? What does he know? Who does he think he is?”
“Who do you think you are?” is a familiar epithet. We use it to rein someone in when we think they are starting to think too highly of themselves, when they start getting “too big for their britches.”
Everyone thought Ezekiel and the other prophets had a lot of nerve saying they spoke for God. And the people of Nazareth knew for certain that Jesus was getting too big for his britches, coming home and preaching to them that way.
We have not changed much over the centuries. Human nature being what it is, we are wary of people who claim to know truth, or claim to know “God’s will.”
Our suspicion and skepticism are often warranted. There are just too many instances of people being led astray by self-proclaimed experts and zealots, usually with very bad results. Remember the Jonestown story. Think of all the televangelists and other fundamentalist bible thumpers. We’re right to be careful, to be skeptical. It can be dangerous not to be.
So who is a prophet of God? Who is telling us what we want to hear, or what they want us to hear, and who is telling us the truth? For Christians the standard for truth is Jesus. And so we ask, “Is what is being said congruent with His mind, His heart and His will?” When it comes to the big issues, if we think there is a great deal of ambiguity in the truth that Jesus is and in the truth that He proclaims, we are probably in serious place of denial or woefully ignorant of the Gospel.
When a televangelist tells us that God wants us to be rich and to be bathed in material prosperity, that preacher has traveled light years away from Jesus. Or when a voice would have us believe tribalism is of God, that voice is totally out of touch with the Jesus who never advanced the interests of the nation to which he belonged or the tribe from which he sprang. Rather Jesus proclaimed a universal kingdom, which defied all boundaries and borders, and a beloved community from which no one was excluded. Again, Jesus always put law in its proper place and never gave it preeminence over compassion, mercy and love. Yes, disciples of Jesus generally know what sin is and on what side they must come down. Yes, we have what we need to distinguish truth tellers from liars.
And so who among us are called to be prophets? Who are called to speak the truth to sinners, to power and even to powerful sinners? In the Bible we often read of God using the least expected people to do His work, and very often the people involved weren’t too happy about it. Moses said he was not eloquent, that he was slow of speech: “Oh My Lord, please send someone else.” Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Nobody with any sense wants this job! But God says again and again, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll tell you what to say.”
Most often the truth is inconvenient. In our day, the truth has been rendered less important: than what pleases, galvanizes and excites the fearful crowd; than the sound bites; than the tweets and twisted rhetoric used to push not just another point of view but even an ugly, divisive and hateful agenda.
In these past two years truth has become the casualty of a fascist renaissance where racism, nativism and xenophobia display themselves with pride.
In November 2016 were we were not carried off into an exile of sorts? Do we not find ourselves living in a strange land? Is this not a time of great turmoil? We have been exiled from reality and carried off into a land where a bully’s voice babbles on with no sense, no sensitivity, and no sensibility. Yes, we are living in a Babylon of nonsense and are being invited again and again to see it as normal, as legitimate, as legal and even as of God. Just ask Robert Jeffress, Dallas mega church pastor, spiritual fraud and so-called religious advisor to the bully.
A child as young as three years old is made to appear before a federal judge without an attorney and without his parents, to plead his case for asylum. Yes, this is actually going on. As we struggle to get our heads around such a patent absurdity, let us not for one moment shield ourselves from the pain of these children reduced to such terror and tears. Their fear and their cry must remain immediate for us. These alone can keeps us in a place of heightened alert and move us to take every opportunity we are given and to create as many opportunities as we can to speak and to act on their behalf.
Yes, in this time of exile, it behooves us to remember that each of us is one of those least expected people whom God has chosen to be a prophet. At our baptism we, like Ezechiel of old and Jesus Himself, were commissioned to be prophets. The voice said to us, “Go to the people of this nation of rebels. Speak my words to them whether they hear or refuse to hear. And do not to be afraid or dismayed.”
And as we discern our way forward, we must listen to those voices that beat with the pulse of the gospel and speak the gospel’s truth. That pulse and that truth are really not all that difficult to detect and discern.
If we fail to do this work, if we excuse ourselves from it, if we indulge ourselves with distractions, and if we instead wander into other intellectual considerations and arguments, if we shield ourselves from the pain and the tears, then we fail to be the prophetic disciples that we have been called to be. We become complicit by our silence, indifference and the lies we tell ourselves, to the unconscionable abuse of children and the brutal violation of all asylum seekers.
How do you think Jesus would weigh in, in the case of children being brought before a judge to plead their case for an asylum of mercy and compassion? Has he not weighed in on the imperative of our welcoming the stranger? Has He not made his priorities and the priorities of the Kingdom transparently clear? If we don’t have a problem with what is going on, or if we manage to make it remote to our lives and our concerns, the living Christ challenges us to make it otherwise.
Life in Christ is life in truth. Who is speaking the truth to us today? And how are we called to speak the truth? When and what do we hear or refuse to hear, speak or refuse to speak?
Speaking the truth starts with heeding “the still, small voice in our own hearts” and telling the truth to our selves. We may not all be called to be one of prophets to the nations remembered by history, but we are called to discern the truth, to listen to the truth, and to speak the truth.
It starts with deconstructing our own carefully built walls of convenient assumptions and half-truths. Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, we will be better able to hear the word of the Lord all around us, speak God’s truth in our conversations with others and be about the task of engaging saving actions on behalf of the most vulnerable.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 8, 2018
Fools for Christ
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. John 2:13-22
In his letter to the Corinthians Saint Paul speaks about wisdom and foolishness – the wisdom of this world and the foolishness of God – the divine foolishness that confronts and confounds the wisdom of this world to reveal the grand deception that it is.
The world is forever offering us its wisdom. The world presumes to identify for us the most important ingredients for living the good life. It defines what we need to be happy. And it lets us know and indicts us when we fail to meet its expectations.
The world measures people by their wealth, by their power and by their success.
Using these yardsticks, the world makes it so easy to be found wanting and to be judged as less than. And so the “have’s” are few and the” have not’s” are many.
The world’s wisdom can be very seductive in determining the way we order our lives, and give direction to our children for the ordering of their lives.
If we examine our motives and scrutinize our priorities it becomes readily apparent that, at some very deep level, we have all absorbed some of the world’s wisdom. We don’t normally find ourselves in conflict with it. We buy into it for the rewards that come from doing so. And we even send our children to die for it.
As an example of a culturally ingrained bias, consider the degree to which we value capitalism. The majority breaks out in a rash when something appears to look like economic socialism. Curiously the economic model advanced in the gospel is socialism. We read in the Book of Acts this description of life in the early Christian community, “No one was in need because they shared all they had.”
We are children of our culture both with regard to what is to be esteemed in it, as well as what must be identified as perverse. And the greatest damage comes when we are schooled to believe that what is perverse, is to be esteemed and vice versa. Or as Jesus puts it, “When we call good evil and evil good”.
Recovery from such distortion is always so very difficult. Culture is after all the very sea in which we swim. It is the unquestioned matter-of-factness of our day-to-day lives. And recovery from what is toxic in our moral or ethical world-view becomes near to impossible when religion is used to sanctify the distortion.
I don’t know if you caught this bizarre tidbit in this week’s news, but apparently some religious sect in Scranton, that identifies itself as Christian, held a group renewal of marriage vows for its followers. Each of the wives carried an assault weapon. These folks believe that the biblical reference to “the iron rod of God” is to be understood, in our time, as a semi-automatic assault rifle. The members of this sect religiously ritualized what the head of the NRA preached at the Conservative Political Caucus earlier in the week. He declared, “God has given us guns and the right to bear and use them to defend ourselves”. God has given us guns! You can’t make this stuff up.
On another front, Billy Graham was laid to rest on Friday. Upon his death the engines of civil religion went into full gear. They conferred upon him the dubious accolade – Pastor to the Nation, as if a nation as religiously diverse as our own could confer such a title on any clergy person and especially on one as obviously sectarian as Graham. A decision was then made to have his body lie in state in the Capital rotunda. His lying in state is testimony to the success of influential fixers to use him as the poster boy for moral commandments and the utter, sad emptiness of the results.
No doubt the dead preacher did some good for some people, but it can also be argued that he did significant damage to the public presentation of Christianity.
His legacy is in fact conspicuously hollow. He had a generic sermon. He preached a fundamentalist gospel of personal salvation that was religiously simplistic, fear-based, and essentially exclusionary – you are either in or out, saved or not saved. He effectively eviscerated the gospel of its prophetic call for social transformation. You can get saved and not really give a thought to the systemic injustice that vanquishes the lives of the poor and oppresses people of color. At the height of the civil rights movement he remained but a shadow, but was a front and center chaplain to the civil status quo.
His accomplishment aligned closely with his mission of spreading an Americanized gospel, mingling with the rich and powerful, and steering clear of the social protests that put personal security at risk for the sake of justice.
He took it as his calling to enshrine the myth of a divinely blessed America. His American flock bought the ideals and the promises contained in this myth. It was good for propping up patriotism and the “American way of life”, while ignoring the deeper challenges of the Gospel itself.
History will remember him as a champion of “civil religion” and not as a spokesman for a genuine encounter between authentic Christianity and the American Dream.
By distinction, his contemporary, Blessed Martin Luther King, saw and preached the essential connection between being in a right relationship with God and challenging social evils. One lived to a ripe old age while the other was cut down in his prime. No thought was ever given to Martin’s body lying in state in the capital rotunda.
Graham drew the crowds he did because he preached a distortion. He would not have filled an outhouse in North Carolina if he challenged its racist culture. That culture continues to thrive in too many of the hearts of those who would honor him.
Billy’s son, Franklin, the apple who did not fall far from the tree, advances his father’s brand and supports all the worst impulses of the current administration. He is outspokenly anti-Muslim, anti-gay and anti-immigrant, as his father was anti-communist. He even voiced anti-Semitic sentiments for which he apparently later made profound apology. Franklin is a disciple of the American dream of greatness that is necessarily the world’s worst nightmare.
Franklin is on his crusade to return God to our government, God to our schools, God to our courts, God to the public square and God to every place from which he believes God has been jettisoned. He does not seem to get the Good News that the God of Christian faith cannot be jettisoned. He is always with us. In Him we live and move and have our being and nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. God dwells among us – period.
It is not by accident that Graham’s followers, those who today identify themselves as evangelicals, are the base that supports their messiah in the White House – a fake messiah who daily tweets the wisdom of the world in defiance of the foolishness of God. But the tweeter-in-chief will surely die and God lives.
For Christians, Jesus is the real Messiah who dares to mess with the world’s wisdom and to turn its tables upside down. In the face of the world’s temptation to live by its wisdom, He invites us, instead, to live our lives as fools – fools if measured by the standards of the world – fools who embrace the way of the cross as the way of life. He invites us to disown the wisdom of the world. He invites us to choose instead what the world considers foolish and to discover there, God’s wisdom for living – not the good life but the best life – a holy life – the abundant life of which Jesus speaks.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple as a sign of God’s judgment upon the exploitation of the vulnerable poor, those for whom the world has little to no regard because they have achieved neither wealth, nor power, nor success.
In God’s foolishness, life is less about having more and more about sharing and giving away what we have.
In God’s foolishness, life is not about protecting ourselves, but about believing enough that God alone is our defense, such that we make daily choices to become ever more vulnerable, even to those who could harm us.
In God’s foolishness, success is not secured by competing and winning, but success is already achieved in being faithful to the Lord’s will, even to the point of failing according to the standards of the world.
In God’s foolishness, justice is about the restoration of relationships through the agency of boundless forgiveness. It is forgiveness and not retribution that restores wholeness.
In our personal and shared life may we find grace to live as “fools for Christ” ever mindful that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. We can be sure that God is offering us that grace. Perhaps it is our unquestioned or unchallenged commitment to the wisdom of the world that stands in the way of our embracing the gift that is always being offered.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 4, 2018
Get Behind Me, Satan
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:31-38
We certainly struggle with making sense of the suffering that is so much a part of life. Because of suffering, some people refuse to believe in God, and those who do believe, ask, “Why”? And the “why” is met with what appears to be a deafening silence on the part of the universe.
While Christian faith does not answer the question, it does invite a distinctive relationship to suffering. In this morning’s gospel Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Not long before Jesus utters these words, He begins to tell his disciples of his own impending passion and death. Peter takes him aside and begins “to rebuke him.” He says, “No way, Lord. That can’t happen. You can’t let that happen!”
The reply of Jesus is stunning in its directness: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”
Jesus will not be deterred from what He has to do. If Peter, his closest friend, will not journey with him, He will go it alone. Should Peter stand in His way, Jesus will place Peter behind Him, where he can do no harm. It’s only after these curt exchanges that Jesus gathers the whole body of His disciples and lays on them this hard teaching about cross-bearing.
He wants his followers to have no illusions about what lies ahead in Jerusalem. The way of faithful discipleship leads, inevitably, to a cross.
The response of Christianity to the reality of human suffering is, on the one hand, that it is a part of life, a facet of being human, an inevitability of our intrinsic vulnerability, and on the other hand, and most importantly, it will follow faithfulness to the call of the reign of God, as certainly as the night follows the day.
In the gospel view of things, how we respond to the given of suffering and our acceptance of suffering as a part of faithful discipleship is what matters most. The process of living through suffering, of sharing the suffering of others, of taking up “the cross we have to bear or the cross we choose to bear in solidarity with another” can, astoundingly, lead to new life. It can be personally redemptive and bit-by-bit effect the transformation of the world.
Ours is the faith that boldly hangs the image of an instrument of capital punishment and its Victim in our worship places. We even hang it around our necks. In these ways we proclaim to the world that there is no experience in this life that God’s love does not have the power to transform.
Our spiritual tradition charts a course not around suffering, but straight through it. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, will find it.”
As we mature as Christians, we come to discover that Christianity is more than a philosophy of positive thinking. We come to understand that Christianity’s God is far greater than a cosmic vending machine, whose sole purpose is to dispense answers to prayers as quickly as we can plunk in our quarters. We discover, in other words, that God has better things to do than to hover around us like some anxious maître d’ trying to meet our every need.
When Peter rebukes Jesus, his horrified reaction is very understandable. The vision of a suffering God is just too painful, too mind-bending.
Yet, even for those who do manage to grapple with the notion of a crucified God, there is still the further challenge of taking up those crosses that may come to us personally or those crosses that we are invited to bear on behalf of others.
Jesus encourages us not to flee pain, should it come our way, but rather to confront it and even embrace it. He challenges us to take it up and bear it, as He bore His own cross to Calvary. And to step up to bearing the cross of others, as the iconic Simon of Cyrene, recognizing that in our doing so, we bear with God, the pain and suffering of the world.
he spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis once said a profound thing about cross-bearing: “If you bear the cross gladly, it will bear you.”
And so yes, every so often things happen to us and those close to us that radically challenge us, such as happened in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day. But these things bear the potential of becoming the very vehicle for our transformation.
I have known any number of people who have come through a life threatening or potentially soul vanquishing experience, not only to recover, but find a new vitality, purpose and hope for living. This is what is happening for those young students who survived the deadly assault in Florida. And those who willingly enter into the life threatening and soul vanquishing experiences of others truly come to a new experience of life’s depth. Again, this is happening for those very same students and the vast multitude of students who have shared a similar experience in recent years.
Call them turning points, conversions, new births, awakenings, spiritual resurrections, call them what you want, but call them gifts from God. We are a species that has the ability to be transformed from one plane of existence to another higher level of being human; from one level of loving to another even deeper level; from feeling little purpose to our lives to discovering God’s higher purpose for us and others.
When pain tempts us to cash in faith’s chips and walk away, remember that God is still transforming lives by the renewing of our minds. Dare to believe that God is not finished with us, not now, not ever!
The Lord is telling us that transformation only comes from the giving of our lives, the taking up of our crosses, the bearing of the crosses of others, and the following of Him into tomorrow.
“The losing of our lives for his sake” is another way of saying that we surrender our way, we relinquish our demands, and we submit our self-centered thinking into God’s hands.
When challenged by a genuine cross, if we seek to bear it in all humility and faith, we discover that truly, the cross bears us. And in times of suffering and heartache, we discover that we are far from alone.
The one who travels beside us, you see, knows all about cross bearing. He offers strength we could never begin to muster on our own. Such strength He gives us as a gift — a free, unmerited, unexpected gift of grace.
“The world breaks everyone,” said Ernest Hemingway, “and afterward many are stronger at those broken places.”
I don’t wish a cross for you, or for me, or for anyone else, but when one comes our way, may we discover the presence of the living Lord, the one who tells us not that He will remove all our burdens, but that He will surely give us the strength to face and carry them! And better yet, that He will bear us as we bear them.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
February 25, 2018
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:9-15
Between September 2010 and May 2012, I logged three near death experiences – one brain hemorrhage and two serious automobile accidents. In the first accident I fractured my neck and my car was totaled. In the second the car I was driving catapulted over a bridge into a ravine. I escaped without damage but once again totaled the car.
Prior to those events, whenever I thought about dying and considered what form my death might take, I had always thought that I would like to know in advance that I had, let’s say, three months or six months or a year to live, rather than being run over by a bus or being shot because I had the bad luck of getting in the way of a bullet that was intended for someone else. If I learned anything from that rather spell, it would be that more likely than not, I will not get my way, and that my death will more likely come as a thief in the night.
I am sure that most of us, at one time or another, have considered or mused about how we might spend our last days, if we knew that they were numbered to run out in the immediate future. If you have never wondered about this, then you might want to engage the exercise, just to see what you might learn about yourself. It can certainly help to clarify any discrepancy or gap between what you are about in the present moment and what you know or believe would really give you joy.
It seems to me that if we were able anticipate the actual approach of our own death, that is, once we got over the shock of the death notice, it would not be unusual to make sure that we make the most of whatever time we may have left. And making the most of that time would usually involve our examining of what have been our priorities and possibly reordering them so as not to spend our last days being about things that are not really very important to us or maybe not at all important.
I am sure no one would decide they should work more, because, let’s face it, no one, on their deathbed was ever heard to say, “I should have worked more.” Again, in the many deaths to which I have been present, I have never heard a dying person lament that they should have shopped more. If you were to die tonight and, after the fact, were able to look back on only the past week, would you be saying, “Had I only known, I would have, I could have, I should have.”
This past Wednesday, Christians came forward to have ashes imposed on our foreheads. We heard the words. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” In other words, “Remember that you are going to die.”
Lent begins with this reminder, that we might take advantage of and seriously engage, this annual invitation to be renewed in Christ and to put our house back in order. And there can be no better motivation to be about the business of renewal than staring our own death in the face. As we do that, or, better, if we dare to do that, we put ourselves in the wonderful arena of God’s transforming love. We put ourselves in the desert. But it should come as no surprise that not all will engage that dare. Though the spirit would lead us there, we often avoid the desert at all costs.
Rather than face death, many of us, instead, will conform our lives to the denial of death that permeates our culture. If we are young, we generally prefer to live with illusions of our own invincibility and if we are aging, we spend far too much time and far too much money seeking the mythical and ever illusive fountain of youth. Ultimately all our efforts come to naught and fail as the lines deepen, the bones ache and the energy dissipates.
Time is always running out and each day we come closer to death.
In today’s gospel, Mark tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was driven out by the Spirit into the desert wilderness. In Luke’s account the story is fleshed out in terms of the three temptations. The particulars of Luke’s account are very familiar to us. Jesus is alone in the desert. He is facing himself. He is facing the gravity of his vocation. Facing the struggle and the not so hidden terror, of actually being God’s beloved Son. Yes terror, because facing the prospect that being about the will of his Father will greatly shorten his days.
Facing the reality that to be God’s messiah on God’s terms, will mean confusing the disciples, disappointing the people, invoking the wrath of the religious leaders and threatening the civil order. In the desert, even before he begins his ministry, Jesus is facing the inevitability of his pre-mature and untimely death.
As he looks into the face of death, the gospel tells as that Jesus was tempted where he was most vulnerable. He was being seduced by the tempter to ignore what sustains life beyond those things that sustain physical life. “Command that these stones become bread.” To which Jesus responds, “It is not by bread alone that man lives.”
Being alive, being truly and deeply alive is about more than about not being hungry, not being thirsty, not being sheltered, not being able to pay the mortgage, or not being ill. We may work to sustain our physical selves but it is thru prayer, worship and the reception of the sacraments that we come to be fed by what sustains life at its deepest level. Too often we treat encounter with the sacred, as if we really have no need for it, or with a casualness that would seem to say that we can get along just fine without prayer, worship and a weekly reception of the sacraments.
Jesus was then seduced by the tempter to forget or dismiss what our lives are essentially about. “The tempter showed him, in an instant, all the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory and power. Worship me, he tempted, and I will give you all this”. I will satisfy the cravings of your ego for recognition, appreciation and unending applause. And Jesus said, “Only to God is the glory to be given. God alone is to be served.”
The Narcissus that lives in each of us – you know Narcissus, the mythological creature who fell in love with his own reflection in the mirror, wants nothing more than to be the center. How often are we tempted to make our lives about us, rather than about God, about our needs rather than about His service to charity and to justice, about our affirmation rather than about His glory?
Finally, Jesus is seduced by the tempter to caste God in the role of a magician: As one who intervenes in the natural order of things; as one who makes light of our humanity and its boundaries; And as one who gains our attention thru cheap miraculous spectacles.
It always astounds me that so much of our prayer life is, in fact, testing God to intervene like a magician, rather than embracing Him as our companion in life as it presents itself. The tempter said, “Go ahead throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and God will pluck you from death before you hit the ground”. And Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” How often do we put God to the test.
God is Good. God is gracious. God is forgiving. God is loving. He engages us in a covenant of unfailing faithfulness, prefigured in the covenant with Noah, and the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses and realized in perfection in the Covenant of the Cross.
Lent is that grounded moment to ask again – What do we do with all that we have been given? What is our response to God’s gracious goodness and loving faithfulness? Do we return to Him the first fruits of the harvest or do we give him the scraps. What are our priorities as time runs out and death makes it way to our door? Before we die will allow ourselves the abiding joy of living fully as God’s beloved son or daughter?
February 18, 2018
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
Last Epiphany B
We Behold His Glory
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Mark 9:2-9
The Second Book of Kings contains one of the most sensational, among the many spectacular stories, that are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story of the aging prophet Elijah and his servant Elisha and awesome ride to glory in a fiery chariot.
In today’s first lesson, we enter the narrative, as God informs Elijah that his ministry on earth is over. He is to cross the Jordan River and go to a certain place, where a heavenly chariot will pick him up and translate him to glory.
As the old prophet pondered his last days, he decided to visit the towns of Bethel and Jericho. He invited his servant, Elisha, to go along with him. After visiting both towns, they arrived at the bank of the Jordan River. Elijah took off his mantle and he struck the water with it. The waters parted, and the two men crossed over on dry ground. Of course, at this point, we are supposed to remember Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, and Joshua and the parting of that same Jordan River.
When they reached the other side, Elijah turned to Elisha and said: “What do you want me to do for you, before I am taken away.” Without hesitation, the younger man answered, “Give me a double portion of your spirit.”
At first glance, Elijah appeared surprised by Elisha’s request. He said, “You have asked a hard thing…” Then he answered, “If you see me as the Lord is taking me away, your desire will be fulfilled. But if you miss the action, you’ll have to go home disappointed.”
As they walked along, suddenly a chariot appeared out of heaven and separated the men. In a flash, Elijah was taken up in the chariot – and Elisha witnessed the whole scene.
Elijah was gone – but his mantle had dropped to the ground. When Elisha saw it, he ripped off his own clothes, tore them into pieces and placed Elijah’s mantle on his back. Then he returned to the Jordan and did just as his master had done: He took off the mantle and struck the water with it. Immediately the waters parted, and Elisha walked over on dry ground. And so began the young prophet’s own remarkable ministry.
First, we are not being asked to believe this story to be literally true any more than the story of Jonah being ingested by a whale before being coughed up unto the shore. But imbedded in the fanciful story of a fiery chariot ride to glory, is an unmistakable teaching: God’s will is to take us to glory and he desires that the heirs of the prophets, you and I and our children and grandchildren, do greater things with each succeeding generation.
It is wonderful to read about God opening the Red Sea for Moses and parting the Jordan for Joshua and then for Elijah and then again for Elisha. But it is even a more wonderful thing to realize that God always gives us more than enough of His spirit to work even greater wonders. He longs to increase and enlarge our faith – so that, like Elisha, we ask for a double portion of His Spirit, for his glory, and also enlarge our lives to manifest a double portion of His sprit, also for his glory.
Elijah’s flight in a fiery chariot prefigures Jesus’ own return in glory to o the Father – and thru Christ the return of all God’s children to the Father in glory. We are all glory bound. And while we are here, Jesus promises us, “You’re going to do greater works than even I have done.” He’s saying, in essence, “You’re going to have more of my spirit than any who have gone before. And my Spirit is going to endue you with all you need to prevail.”
In the Gospel story, the prophet Jesus, realizing that his own end is drawing near takes Peter, James and John with him up a mountain. He is preparing to pass his prophetic mantle on to them. As Elisha saw Elijah taken up in a fiery whirlwind, in the story the disciples see Jesus transfigured, aglow and on fire with glory, with Moses and Elijah flanking him. Again the event as pictured is not the point. The point is that in their experience of Jesus during his ministry and most especially in their experience of him as Risen from the dead, the disciples came to believe that in their encounter with Him they were encountering God Himself.
Their post-resurrection faith is retrofit into the Gospel and presented as a special theophany – a vision of glory – a peak experience. It is inserted into the story at that point at which Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem anticipating His passion and death. It is intended to serve as a catalyst to galvanize them for the difficult days that lie ahead and to prepare them for the theophany of theophanies, the experience and the vision of the Risen Jesus, and to empower them as witnesses to God’s faithful, merciful and loving presence within and among men and women.
The word Transfiguration is not a word that we use with any regularity in our everyday lives. But while the use of word Transfiguration may be utterly remote, I would certainly hope that the experience of Transfiguration is one that each of us would know on more than a few occasions before we die.
Saint Irenaeus said that, The Glory of God is the human person who is fully alive. Transfiguration describes the experience of Jesus as being iridescent with the life and vitality of God. While captured by the sacred writers as a moment, it is probably more properly understood as His ordinary and ongoing experience. But it can also serve as a descriptor for any moment in each of our lives in which God’s glory is more obviously manifest both within us and before our eyes. Those moments in our lives when any one of us is so fully alive, that we too become iridescent with the life of God though the presence of His Spirit, or that we behold that divine presence in others.
As resurrection after death is not just for Jesus, so too, Transfiguration before death is not just for Jesus. If we would be Risen with Him, then must we not also be Transfigured with Him? Is it not our sublime vocation to manifest the very presence of the invisible, ever living and ever loving God on whatever mountaintop and in whatever valley bottom we find ourselves? Is it not our calling to manifest that wondrous presence when the moment is light and when the moment is heavy, when there is joy and when there is sadness, when there is hope and when there appears to be no reason to hope, at the peak of ecstasy and across the threshold of suffering and pain?
As we search back across the expanse of our lives, we might well begin to identify the theophanies with which each of us have been gifted. For each of us the encounter with the numinous, divine mystery will be different and peculiar to our own life, circumstance and experience.
For some of us the encounter will be no less impactful than Paul’s being thrown from his horse. Ever have your legs knocked out from under you as a wake up call?
For some of us the encounter will be as still and silent as the rising or setting of the sun, yet powerfully soul-transforming much like the rising or setting of the sun.
When Whitney Houston sang, “And I will always love you”. You cannot tell me that the heart of God was not pouring out of her soul — making God light upon listening ears.
For some of us it will be our having participated in or witnessed the miracle of birth.
For some of us, it will have been our privilege to have witnessed the forgiving of the unforgivable. Yes, where forgiveness triumphs over hate.
I have known more theophanies in ministry than I would have ever expected. As when a full church packed with deeply grieving mourners is brought to a place of deeper joy and heart felt uproarious laughter triggered by a memory of their beloved dead. Yes where the hope of eternal life triumphs over death.
Or that day I stood at the altar of St. Andrew’s Church in Beacon and beheld the joy mixed with tears on a sea of black faces as we celebrated the election of this nation’s first black president. Yes, where justice triumphs over oppression.
Call up those theophanies with which you have been gifted. Let them serve you in every vale of tears and let them empower you to be prophets of God’s love and mercy in an otherwise fearful world.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
February 11, 2018
Caste Out Demons
After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Mark 1:29-39
“They brought to Him all who were possessed with demons. He silenced those demons and cast them out. And when questioned by His disciples He confirmed for them that this is what He came to do.”
Yes, the action of God is very much directed to putting evil in its place; to calling it out when it shows its ugly face; and to casting it out, so that, as the Prophet Isaiah says, “Power might be given to the weak and strength to the powerless.”
This the Good News, that Paul, as a disciple of Jesus, clearly feels constrained to proclaim both in what he says and what he does, and Paul is quite ready to chastise himself severely if he were to shrink back from proclaiming it. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim it.”
By now we are all familiar with the name of a group that identifies itself as Boko Haram. It is the jihadist military organization that operates in Northeastern Nigeria. We have had occasion to be appalled by news reports of the tactics they employ in order to maintain a reign of fear and to exercise their power, leverage and control over those whom they consider less them themselves. Boko Haram has taken groups of young people hostage and holds them for ransom against their demands being met.
There is no question in our minds that whatever their cause, the tactics they engage are clearly and categorically evil. To so violate the humanity of innocent, vulnerable, powerless people is that kind of evil, which like the blood of Abel, “Cries to heaven for vengeance.”
Yes, holding people, and their lives and their futures hostage is unequivocally evil. I am sure we can all agree with this appraisal.
I submit to you that such evil, and in some ways far greater in scale, is not confined to a nation as remote from us as Nigeria. I further submit to you that hostage taking on a greater scale is the very tactic being currently employed by this administration.
In our time, in our faces, and before our very eyes, those in power, have with the greatest impunity and with no obvious remorse, decided to hold the lives and futures of no less then 1.8 million young men and women hostage against the ransom they demand. It is a ransom that has been calculated to be no less than $70 billion dollars. It is a ransom being demanded to satisfy the security fantasies and nativist impulses of the psychologically delusional and morally unhinged.
When compared to our own experience of hostage taking, the evil actions of Boko Haram pale in magnitude. The fear that has been generated here does not stalk a few hundred families but rather hundreds of thousands of families.
It sometimes seems that we can be more readily moved to a place of moral outrage by the horror inflicted on these Nigerian children, and, of course, rightly so, and yet appear to be somewhat cowed into a place of silence and paralysis in the face of the way our own elected officials are treating those innocent children identified as the Dreamers. To take people hostage is to treat them as if they were disposable pawns in a game of chess.
At issue here is not just an evil outcome, the possible discarding of innocent human beings whose only crime is their wanting life, liberty and an opportunity to pursue their happiness, but the evil process that is being employed. The outcome of that process could very well be their being driven out from among us.
Once again on Tuesday evening we were encouraged to identify these countless innocents, with a real criminal who murdered a young woman in California. This was a gross offense, unfortunately one among many, against truth.
All immigrants are not murders, rapists and drug dealers. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are not murders, rapists and drug dealers. As a matter of fact the majority of murders, rapists and drug dealers happen to be citizens. To use a bereaved family and to exploit a tragedy so as to propagate and advance such a vicious and victimizing lie is to scape the bottom of the decency barrel.
If we allow the normalization of an evil process, if we accept such as an ordinary way of doing business, do we not do so at the the greatest jeopardy to our own integrity and wellbeing as a people? You may believe so much in the need for a border wall that you are willing to incur a $70 billion debt to build one, but you cannot hold the lives of 1.8 million people hostage to get your way and have your highly questionable needs met. And no one must be given leave to wantonly and casually brand the innocent as guilty.
For two years the self-proclaimed genius in the White House has worked hard to restore a virulent strain of nativism to the mainstream of American life. He uses every opportunity at his disposal to stoke those ugly fires.
Immediately after the mention of the word “immigration,” he spoke of “gangs” and “drugs” and “low-wage” competition for jobs. He spoke about “protecting” the American people from the ill effects of immigration and made no effort to praise the manifold contributions immigrants make to the fabric of our lives and culture.
So from what place do we address this evil?
When we were baptized we were anointed with the oil of chrism. That anointing signified our being entrusted with a threefold ministry. We were anointed to take our place within a company of priests, prophets and kings. Yes, while we seldom think about it, we each, at our baptism, were called to that risen life that finds its realization in the expression of these three distinct but interrelated vocations.
As we each grow into our callings, Jesus remains the icon who reveals what it means to be a Priest; what is means to be a Prophet; and what it means to be a King. We are asked and invited to contour our embrace of our vocation to the standard that He has set.
To realize our vocation as priests is to live our lives in such a fashion that we intentionally strive to embody, at every opportunity, that love which is self-giving even unto death. Jesus was His most priestly self as He hung upon the cross. When the priest Himself became the sacrificial offering He makes, the priest comes home to the fullest realization of his or her priestly vocation.
Remembering your baptism, will you strive to be as a sacrificial offering? I will with God’s help.
To realize our vocation as prophets is to live our lives in such a fashion that we do not shrink back from our responsibility to speak the truth to power. “Woe to me if I fail to preach the Good News.” Even as He stood hands bound, back whipped and head crowned with thorns before Pilate He spoke truth to the power that was Rome. We realize our calling to speak the truth to power when we allow ourselves to become as completely one as possible with the weak and the vulnerable. In this case when we affirm our own identity as immigrants.
Remembering your baptism, will you assumed a relationship of solidarity with the powerless? I will with God’s help.
To realize our vocation as kings is live our lives seeking opportunities to serve the wellbeing of others. “Where there is fear, let me sow faith. Where there is despair, let me sow hope.” Jesus was His most kingly self when He tied an apron around his waist, got down on His knees and washed the feet of His disciples.
Remembering your baptism, will you present yourself as a slave and conform your life to that of a servant? I will with God’s help.
The crisis that has fallen upon our immigrant and refugee neighbors must be and remain very much our business and very much our concern. It must always call forth a response from us that will be an expression of our baptismal vocation to be priests, prophets and kings – in the manner, style and persona of Jesus. How we do this is for each of us to discern. That we do this is no less than a requirement of our baptism.
Remember the questions and the response that we made and continue to make. We are a people of covenant and promise.
Will you persevere in resisting evil?
I will with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News?
I will with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
I will with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice for all people?
I will with God’s help.
Will you respect the dignity of every person?
I will with God’s help.
These remain the promises we make and the promises we are compelled to live.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
February 4, 2018
Who Do You Say that I Am?
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20
At this point in the gospel story, Jesus has spent nearly three years with His band of disciples. By day they have walked many dusty miles together and they have bedded down many nights under the stars. They have endured many hardships, suffered many insults, faced much opposition, shared many meals and have laughed and cried together on many occasions.
They have bonded and become intimates in so many ways. He knew them and He sought to have them know Him. Along the way He endeavored to leave no stone unturned in sharing with them, both in the words He spoke and in the actions He took, the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, as it had drawn near to them, in its height, in its breath and in its depth, in His person, in His friendship and in His love.
And so at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus put Himself to the test of their recognition. He puts the hard question to them. After all you have heard and seen during these past three years,“ Who do you, say that I am?”
After a few futile attempts by several of them to identify Him as one of the great prophets returned from the dead, Peter musters the courage to blurt out his confession of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Wow!
This was the single most powerful identification that could be ascribed to Jesus. It was Peter saying, “You are the One for whom the world has been waiting since its creation. You are the One in whom the patriarchs hoped. You are the One whose coming the prophets foretold. You are the One for whom the people have longed, yearned and desired. You are the Promised One. And as I gaze upon you, I believe, with all my heart, mind and soul, that promise has been fulfilled in you.”
Peter makes his confession of faith, and from that moment his life is necessarily changed forever. Though he falters and stumbles along the way, and at one critical juncture he sins the great sin of his denial, in the end, Peter too, will be crucified – his love too will ripen to that place of total self giving.
It is impossible to genuinely confess faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God and to remain unchanged by that confession and not have the cross appear on one’s personal horizon as a real possibility. Oh, it is possible to mouth the words of faith and to make no real commitment. But it is impossible to genuinely believe in our hearts that Jesus is the Anointed One and go on with business as usual.
When faith in Christ is confessed for real, some streets are most definitely closed but gracefully some boulevards are wondrously opened. There are some paths that disciples of the Kingdom cannot and do not choose. And there clearly are ways forward that they are bid and even constrained to go. For to give one’s heart to Christ is to live in and from a radically new place. It is to live from a place that the world simply does not understand, does not value, and even opposes, often, with the greatest vehemence.
We are here to be once again bathed in the love of Christ in Word and Sacrament. And we are here to offer an ever more deeply committed response of “love in kind” to that love with which we have been loved. We are here to renew a genuine confession of faith in Christ and to be sent forth to do the work that we have been given and gifted to do.
At each celebration of the Eucharist the question once put to Peter is put to us. “Who do you say, that I am?” And if we dare make his response, our response, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God,” then paths close and boulevards open and life is changed forever.
Sometimes Christians don’t seem to get this. They want to hold on to the world, its wisdom and its ways. But to put on the mind of Christ and to have our hearts beat with the very same rhythm as the divine heart is to set aside the world’s way of thinking and the world’s self limiting capacity for love.
And love is, was, and will always remain, what it is all about. No matter what the circumstances in our personal lives or in our communal lives, our confession that Jesus is the Christ will always inform our response, in the direction of self-giving love, no matter what the cost.
Each day, as I drive to church, I take a left hand turn off Route 32 at the Alms House. The street along which I then proceed is lined with houses sporting signs that protest RUPCO’s plans to develop that property into lower income housing. Given the Kingston demographic, I would have to imagine, that the majority of those houses are owned by white middleclass homeowners who, if they identify with a faith community, would identify as Christian. The city’s demographics also indicate that nearly one third of Kingston’s residents live below the poverty level and that the need for low-income housing is not being met. If polled I am sure the residents who oppose the development would agree that low-income housing should be made available, however, not in their backyard, and not at the feared cost of a reduction in the valuation of their own properties.
That the gospel underlines God’s preferential option for the poor cannot be disputed. That the gospel also enjoins upon the church and its members a responsibility to serve the needs of the poor, as a priority, is not also up for debate. “I was without a home and you gave me shelter”, is one of the benchmarks that Jesus sets for the final judgment in His parable of the sheep and the goats.
Akin to protecting our real estate assets are the arguments made for securing our borders. Geographic isolationism and economic protectionism are not gospel values. A secure border is not a priority of the Kingdom of God. The safety and well being of the human person, in this case the immigrant or refugee takes precedence over any interest in national security. Compassion for immigrants and refugees is an essential for Christians. Its alternative is never an acceptable option. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”, is another one of those benchmarks for the final accounting.
Two Saturdays ago I received a call from a friend for some assistance for a stranger. My friend asked if I might drive to the Salt Point Exit on the Taconic and help a young black man by giving him a ride to the Poughkeepsie train station. He had been stopped by a trooper as he was driving north on the parkway from his home in the Bronx. He was neither speeding, nor was his automobile safety-compromised in any way, as he was not ticketed for either such offense. The officers detained, questioned and search his car for two hours. They discovered that the automobile insurance was not in his name. They had the car impounded and left him in the parking lot of the Agway store, where my friend found him in tears. His only way out would have been to do something illegal, namely, hitch-hike to Poughkeepsie. One could easily suspect the stop to have been a case of racial profiling.
As I explained to the head of the division when I telephoned last week to report this incident, I was no so much concerned that the young man had been stopped, or even that his vehicle had been impounded, if this is ordinary police protocol. What distressed me was the sheer lack of basic human decency in the officers’ not discerning whether or not this young man, who was clearly out of his element and a great distance from his home, had any way to get home. It seems to me that we almost daily receive information that must move those who confess Jesus to be the Christ to take whatever actions we can to see to it that law enforcement agents of every stripe are made to engage the public from a posture of respect as they discharge their essential service.
This week, here in Kingston, there was a report of yet another incident of the police using excessive force against an unarmed young black man. The young man was handcuffed, taizered and pepper sprayed and wrestled to the ground for an open container and littering and, so far, no other identified actions. While he was breaking the law the police response could easily be seen as over the top. And this event happened, as Pastor Modele Clarke observed, after two years of police/community forums. “I was a victim and a prisoner of racial hatred and you interceded for me.”
There are roads to be closed and boulevards to be opened everywhere.
One of the sentences used to introduce the Offertory during mass is a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “I appeal to you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” “Present your selves” or, in other words, “be present to others”, as a living sacrifice. May God give us the faith inspired courage to go where a confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, invites and even constrains us to go?
Dogs or Children
[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”]
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
To say that we all have a dark side should come as no surprise to anyone. We use to speak about sin as the expression of our dark side. We once acknowledged with some frequency the truth that we are all sinners in need of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. In recent years, while that word sin has come to be disowned by too many, the behaviors that make sin so horribly visible have certainly not disappeared from sight.
Last week our dark side, and the sin of which it is capable, once again raised its ugly specter in Charlottesville, Virginia. This sin – the sin of racism, the sin of anti-Semitism, the sin of nationalistic xenophobia – do not seem to die. It is a virus that resists extinction. It exists in the best of us in the form of implicit white bias, and religious or national exceptionalism, and in the worse of us, as white supremacy, religious intolerance, and the deformed patriotism that parades itself in those pick up trucks that fly oversized American flags in their beds.
The dark side in its many expressions does not need to be imported from the outside as some public voices have opined in a futile effort to explain the happenings in Charlottesville. While some white supremacists may have traveled from elsewhere to join the hate rally in Charlottesville, there was certainly a base already present in that city, as there is in every city and town in this nation.
And let’s be clear, it is not a matter of another rational opinion, or another point of view, or another philosophical expression that has a right to air itself in the public square under the protection of the first amendment.
Hate speech, borne of a pathological mind and malformed conscience, that seeks a venue to express itself, or a license to parade itself or to rally in a public square, must be judged through the lens of historical experience to have no rights and should be dealt with accordingly.
We place ourselves in the greatest peril if we forget the Holocaust and how it too began with speech. Whether it was the vilification of Jews from the pulpits of Christian churches as Christ-killers, or the rhetoric of political leaders in the public square who branded them as enemies of the Arian nation, the hate speech and the killing words found receptive soil in enough German hearts and in collaborators throughout the world, to cause the genocide of six million innocent men, women and children. We can sin and sin grievously by our thoughts and words, in addition to our deeds. And in the order of things, our thoughts and words ordinarily precede the evil deeds we do. As Jesus said, “It is what comes out of our mouths that defiles us.”
No one has a right to put innocent people at risk by using hateful words that would scapegoat them and set them up as targets.
To say that the owner of the Bedminster Golf Club is guilty about this in spades would be a gross understatement.
His uncensored hate speech over these past few years has fueled and emboldened minions of the like minded to assert, claim and demand a public forum for the evil that they bear within their minds and hearts. He apparently still does not get it, as he does not get a lot of things. It is not a matter of two equally righteous and equally entitled and equal sides capable of behaving badly.
To hoist the banner of white supremacy, pseudo-Christian hegemony and perverse patriotism is evil – it always results in the abuse, persecution, violation and death of the innocent. It is as evil as branding all our undocumented neighbors as murders, rapists and drug dealers. It is not the free speech that owns inalienable rights. It is hate speech that must be brought to justice.
And if we fail to bring it to justice in our courts, if we fail to impeach this man who claims presidential privilege, it will certainly be brought to judgment before the throne of God. If the candidate, who flew into the White House on the wings of hatred, and who claims to be a Christian, and claims the Bible to be his favorite book, that he has apparently never read, and who in a stunning display of hubris, devoid of conscience, admitted that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness, is not brought to justice in our courts for inciting violence, he will certainly be brought to judgment on the last day for these crimes against humanity.
This so-called president, in being a public voice for the abuse of Muslims, women, sexual minorities, immigrants and refugees, is a blind guide leading the blind. He stretches his right to free speech to include hate speech that he directs at multiple targets. It must be called out for what it is, it must be protested in the streets, it must be confronted it in next year’s mid-term elections.
In this morning’s Gospel Matthew presents Jesus in a most appalling fashion. He does so to make a most important point. In the story of the Canaanite woman, seeking a cure for her daughter who is demonically possessed, Matthew has Jesus assume a posture with which the majority of his audience, at that time in their history, would have had no problem identifying, and embracing as their own, and doing so without apology. The faith community out of which Jesus came and the people who were his ethnic kin were a nationalistic and Xenophobic lot.
God’s chosen people had taken their election by God and its mandate to be a light to the Gentiles and servant to all the peoples of the earth by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God and turned it into a killing lie, that flew under the banner of what today we would refer to as exceptionalism.
They saw themselves as better than everyone else, as superior to every other nation, as a tribe and a race that owed nothing to anyone. They did not want to be liberated from their sins as a people, but only to have the boot of Roman oppression lifted from their necks so that they could resume the swagger of the privileged powerful.
This desperate foreigner and frantic mother comes to Jesus to beg healing for her stricken daughter. Jesus does not initially respond to her, as we would expect God to respond. Instead he responds to her first by ignoring her, then by upbraiding her and then by calling her a dog.
We can almost see him looking around at his compatriots for their active and passive endorsement of His posture in her regard. We might be taken back by what Jesus is doing. They would have taken no notice of it being anything but entirely acceptable. After all this woman was a foreigner, she was not one of the chosen, she had no rights and certainly no call to approach the rabbi with any expectation that he should give a damn about her and her daughter’s plight.
In the time of Jesus, if you were not one of God’s chosen people, you were a dog and should expect to be treated as such.
So Matthew has Jesus identify with the posture, the attitude, and the behaviors of His countrymen and from this place of identification, from this place into which his audience has been easily sucked without notice and certainly without protest, Jesus rewrites the script.
The existing order with its assumptions and prejudices about people who are other, people who are different, people who are foreigners, and even seen as dogs is jettisoned. The page is turned forever.
No one is a dog. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone has access to God. Everyone is recipient of God’s mercy and compassion. No one is better than anyone else. All of God’s children have been called to faith and all have been empowered to respond in faith. The story ends with Jesus embracing one, who has been judged by everyone in the crowd as never to be embraced.
Jesus confirms that it is not the outsider who is to be rejected but rather that way of thinking that vilifies the other or the outsider that must be rejected as not being of God.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
August 20, 2017
Disciples of the Kingdom
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.
When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
We come to church to gather with other believers; to remember and celebrate God’s love, demonstrated throughout the ages and within the limited span of each of our lives. We come to be nurtured and nourished by word and sacrament for the remainder of the journey. But Church is also, a place from which we are sent forth? Each week the liturgy concludes with the dismissal: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that, very much like those first disciples, we are privileged and gifted to be in the presence of Jesus that we too might be sent forth by him. “Disciple”, like love, is an action word. Love is as love does, so too, a disciple is, as a disciple does.
And we are sent forth by Him with the simple yet awesome task of identifying, announcing and proclaiming, both with our words and with our lives, the nearness of the Kingdom of God and the immediacy of God’s Reign. The Kingdom is here. The Kingdom is now. It is from this that we derive the joy that the world cannot give, cannot understand, and cannot take away.
Jesus is clear that those who are entrusted with this divinely inspired and awesome mission should, at best, anticipate an uneven reception, and, at worst, even a violent rejection. But neither a mixed reception nor an outright rejection can be sufficient cause to deter us from our appointed calling.
The world is not eager for the good news of God’s reign. As much as people may protest that we want good news, we seem, to be “rubber neckers” by nature, fascinated by and drawn more easily to bad news. We are compelled to slow down and peer at the wreck on the side of the road.
Rightly does Jesus say, “I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves”. He knows full well that there will always be more wolves than lambs and that the Kingdom of God will always be the place where fewer will choose to dwell.
This week we faced much bad news and a bit of good news. Bad news is that news that does not serve the advance of the Kingdom of God but rather presents obstacles to its progress. Good news reflects the priorities of justice, love and peace that manifest God’s Kingdom.
On the bad news page, we were told that 4000 additional troops are being deployed to Afghanistan. Those who do not return in coffins will return physically, psychologically, or spiritually damaged. They are being sent to fight a sixteen-year old war, that we have been assured again and again, is finished and won.
Even as we processed another act of gun violence, this time directed at members of congress, in which voices were quickly raised about the consequences of the intensified incivility of public discourse, by day two, the chief offender was back twittering vitriol in the early hours of the morning. I do not think that it should come as a surprise that his attempt at a compassionate and reconciling speech, delivered on the heels of the incident, had to be written by others.
Congress continues to work at eliminating affordable access to health care for the poor and to deliver massive tax reductions to the wealthiest among us.
We witnessed elected officials having sworn an oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, obfuscating, dissembling and outright lying to those authorized to question them, and others questioning the character of those duly appointed to investigate them.
On the good news page, the protection from deportation of Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants who came as children with their parents, is being extended, for the Dreamers, but sadly, in a gross failure in compassion, not for their parents.
There appear to be no shortage of voices that would propel division within the human family; encourage nations to relate to each other as adversaries, such that one might achieve ascendancy over the other; and that would caste the different other, even when that different other is in the most dire of straits, as the enemy to be held at bay and denied the compassionate embrace that the best of our humanity enjoins us to offer to those most in need.
Tribalism, in all its forms, be it religious, ethnic, racial, or national, is very counter Kingdom. If God has revealed anything in Jesus Christ, it is His will that His children become one body and one spirit, where the dignity of each is deeply respected and the pursuit of the common good takes precedence over every perceived individual personal good. We, in fact, act in our own best interests when we give primacy to the good of all. It is only in loving each other and in humbly serving each other that greatness, as the gospel defines greatness, is achieved.
Disciples of Jesus do not attend to the bad news to be undone by it; neither to be taken to a place of hopeless despair; nor to be held hostage by fear for the future. We believe and believe very deeply that God has already achieved the final victory in Christ Jesus.
In the ultimacy of all things, light will overcome darkness, truth will vanquish the lie, unity will suppress division, love will dispel hate and life will triumph over death and all things are indeed being brought to their perfection in Christ Jesus through whom all things were made.
Rather we attend to the bad news to be able to discern the moment and to clarify the actions that the present moment requires of us as disciples for the progress of the Kingdom of God – that we might participate in it’s advance rather than thwart it’s flowering.
The lambs, of which Jesus speaks, are those who put themselves at risk, carrying no purse, no bag, no sandals, for the sake of the Kingdom of God and on behalf of those who cannot speak for or defend themselves. Disciples are those who make themselves vulnerable for the sake of others.
In these times and on every continent in which we experience a resurgence in the vocal alienation of groups and classes of people, in rhetoric that scapegoats immigrants and undocumented workers, and in angry cries to seal borders to refugees, migrants, and the different other, are we not compelled, as disciples, to place the absolute compassion of the Kingdom of God before all hyped, imagined, and rigid boundary needs and all fear mongering?
We reap what we sow. If we sow seeds of hateful exclusion we will never reap friends, but only breed more enemies. If we sow the seeds of aggression, we will never reap peace, but only more violence. If we sow seeds of indifference to health care, we will never reap wellbeing, but only more pain and suffering. If we sow seeds of ignorance, we will never reap wisdom, but only more stupidity. If we sow seeds of selfishness, we will never reap abundance, but only more scarcity.
Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” It is the work of disciples to grow a kingdom heart within the societies we inhabit. Where competition, aggression, exclusion and great profit for the few, at the expense of many, rule the day, it falls to us to challenge the values that define the landscape and that drive the biggest decisions?
Disciples of Jesus, in this and every nation are charged and sent by Jesus to enter the house where people live and as often as possible and as insistently as necessary, with the proclamation and the invitation: “Peace”. “Peace to this house”. “Peace for this house”. “Peace from this house”. And to do so, knowing there is an essential connection between peace and justice, between peace and compassion, between peace and tolerance, between peace and inclusion, between peace and national humility.
We are sent by Jesus to proclaim, “Peace to this house”, even at the risk of our own acceptability and our own acceptance. It is OK to be rejected for the sake of the Kingdom, for any rejection sustains us in the best company, “Whoever reject you, rejects me and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
In the words of Paul to the Galatians, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all. And may we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us and we to the world”.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 18, 2017
Feast of the Most Holy Trinity
Oneness, Otherness and Love
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20
There is wisdom in highlighting our similarities and minimizing our differences whenever possible. There are more things that unite Christians, Jews and Muslims than divide us. A heartfelt recognition by each of these faith communities that as children of one God, we are brothers and sisters to each other, coupled with an acknowledgement of the bonds of our common humanity, can make it so much easier to breath the same air, walk the same earth and share life in its joys and sorrows with each other.
When it comes to our experience, understanding and attempts to articulate the mystery of God, all three Peoples of the Book do share a great deal more with each other than they, by way of contrast, share with the pantheistic religious traditions of the East where there is only the Oneness of Being and all individuation is illusion, and the polytheistic religious traditions of more primitive societies where the natural world is seen to be populated by a host of divine spirits.
So, it is true, that for Peoples of the Book, religion can more readily be put at the service of our coming together, even if, historically and to our collective shame, this has not been the case.
But there is also great wisdom in appreciating significant differences. These differences become a place and an opportunity for dialogue and conversation. We do not have to turn our differences into weapons with which to beat each other up or to arrogantly use our particular metaphor, for holding the truth, to lord it over others who think or believe differently.
Differences used as springboards for open, honest and respectful communication transform them into vehicles for engaging each other at a level of meaning. This can lead to a deepening of respect, understanding, new learning for all and maybe even a greater measure of compassion and love for each other.
To be resisted is any shallow effort to homogenize significant differences. To say or pretend that they do not exist or that they do not matter. To do so simply represents an ignorant and dysfunctional, even if well meaning, attempt to avoid potential conflict. We have all heard glib statements like “We all worship the same God and nothing else matters”.
This solution, while it may appear to avoid conflict, also eliminates any stimulus for conversation. Real unity happens, minds and hearts become one, when we speak and listen to each other. This is the work of love. Flip comments about our all being alike are born of a fear or reluctance to engage the work of loving, informed and information-seeking conversation.
While there is but one God, Christians, Muslims and Jews do not apprehend the mystery of God in the same way and do not relate to God in the same way. For example, Christians, at their best, do not worship a God who sanctions ”an eye for an eye” justice. We Christians own a very different experience of God.
Sadly, Christians can naively understand and present themselves as “mere monotheists”. When we do so, we reveal just how out of touch we are with the central mystery of Christian faith and its significance for our lives, both in terms of understanding, appreciating and reveling in the mystery of God as revealed to the saints, and living our peculiar Trinitarian spirituality so that it serves us and serves our engagement with others, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Yes, Christians are Trinitarian. To be a Trinitarian monotheist is quite different than being a Jewish or Islamic monotheist. If you have not noticed, our whole life of public prayer and worship bodies forth Trinitarian faith. Our central act of worship, the Holy Eucharist, is a sacramental prayer and action thru which we offer thanks to the Father, through the Son, in the power and presence of the Spirit.
All faith is borne from experience. Christian faith was borne from a very unexpected, peculiar and profound experience of God. It was an experience of God that blew the religious minds and challenged the religious assumptions and convictions of the first believers.
We must remind ourselves that Peter, Paul and company were deeply observant Jews. The core defining statement of Israel’s faith that distinguished it from the faith of the people out of which Abraham was called and the faith of all the other nations was the Shema Israel -“Know, O Israel, that the Lord your God is One.” Also core to Israel’s faith was that this one God was absolutely transcendent. That God would become flesh, was nowhere within the range of possibility. That God would manifest himself in weakness was absolutely unthinkable.
But these observant Jews had an experience of God in Jesus and in the outpouring of the Spirit that led them to articulate the mystery of God beyond the framework of Orthodox Judaism. After his resurrection, and based on their experience of the risen Jesus they began to call Jesus – Lord. In the Pentecost event they also came to experience the Spirit as distinct from the Father to whom Jesus had introduced them and from Jesus Himself, and they came to call the Sprit – Lord.
It took those first believers nearly three hundred years to find the words to articulate their experience. At the Council of Nicea, in 325, they professed and confessed a faith in One God in three Divine Persons in a way that acknowledged both the transcendence or “beyondness” of God as well as God’s immanence or “nearness”, in a way that held the Oneness of God in dynamic tension with the experience of three distinct persons.
Trinitarians, like Jewish and Islamic monotheists believe that the one God is a personal being. Attributing personhood to God is a gift of the Peoples of the Book to all the religious traditions of the world. There is no more generous, affirming and validating language available to us than the language of personhood. Is there something more important that we can say about ourselves than, “I am a person”? It is personhood that confers identity, dignity and rights.
Until we develop a more generous language then it makes the greatest sense to speak about God using personal terminology. Speaking about God as an impersonal energy or force, while it has become the fashion of the day for some, falls very short of the invitational possibilities inherent in personal language and metaphors. Wind and fire are impersonal forces but these do not invite relationships of loving mutuality.
Unlike Jewish and Islamic monotheists Christians also believe that God is a relationship or communion of persons. This faith enables Christians to state on the basis of their experience of God, that God is Love. It is simply not possible to legitimately make this claim within the parameters of non-trinitarian monotheism. If God were a Oneness without distinction them this statement could not be made. Before the creation, God is, and unless God is eternally a community of persons then God is not love. For Love requires Otherness.
In our Trinitarian faith we witness to an experience of God that becomes the saving possibility of a world of persons that needs to know a oneness that embraces real difference. Those who hold to a Trinitarian faith hold the key for inviting a unity in diversity, a Oneness that embraces Otherness. This is exactly who our God is and this is precisely the mystery into which we are invited to grow.
The energy, if you will, that brings us home into this eternal loving that has always been going on and into loving communion with each other is nothing other than the kind of loving that goes down among the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is that loving that embraces a dying to oneself. We believe that before the cross became visible on Calvary, it existed for all eternity within the Divine Mystery. The Divine persons love each other with a cruciform love. Now let us go and do likewise that we may become one with each other as God is one and that together we might lovingly return whence we came.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 11, 2017
Feast of the Ascension
Clothed With Power
Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24:44-53
As the gospels tell the story, for some forty days after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus gave the gift of His risen presence to his apostles and certain of the other disciples, on numerous occasions and always in a very immediate and personal fashion.
He made a point of eating and drinking with them. On one occasion He cooked a breakfast barbecue for a few of them. And among other purposes, He used this time to continue teaching them about the Kingdom of God – the mystery and triumph of God’s reign as it moves from human heart to human heart.
Clearly, even until now, they still don’t get it. For they still ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore dominion to Israel? Will you make Israel once again that powerful nation that it once was? Will you make it great again?”
Jesus also used this time to teach them, who were so terrified, shaken, thrown and bewildered by His crucifixion and death, how He was indeed the Messiah of God whose coming was anticipated in the sacred stories of their people and how even the Messiah’s gruesome death was anticipated in those same scriptures.
But the time came, when this relatively short-lived, immediate and tangible experience of the Risen Lord, needed to gave way to a new experience of His presence. An experience that remains even to the present day.
In the iconography of the Ascension, imaged for us by the evangelist Luke, both in the Book of Acts and in his gospel, Jesus is pictured as being lifted up into the clouds as His apostles look on and up. The iconography, invites faith, not in a Jesus whose departure mimics the launch of a space craft, but in the mystery of the glorification and restoration of Christ, as He takes his place at the right hand of the Eternal Father.
The saving work of Jesus is complete. The Son who became incarnate, who suffered and was crucified, died, was buried and rose again, is, in what is referred to as, His ascension, fully restored. In Jesus, heaven came to earth and now, in Christ, earth is taken up into heaven. The veil between heaven and earth is forever torn apart.
As ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus assumes the position and the power to make God’s saving love universally operative. Power to transform not just the disciples, but to transform all who will come to know the love of God, in its awesome breath and unfathomable depth, thru them.
All that remains is for the disciples to take delivery of the promise of the Father. “Behold the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. They will be my people and I will be their God. “ In the words of Jesus, the delivery of the promise of the Father, is their “Being clothe with the power from on high.”
In the unfolding of sacred history, the stage has been set and the air is ripe for Spirit’s descent on Pentecost – the feast that we will celebrate next Sunday.
As Jesus takes his leave, He gives his disciples their mission, which, once “clothed with power from on high” they will be able to execute. They are to be his Witnesses – “first in Jerusalem, then in Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.”
Now we know that being a witness is simply to stand up and to truthfully tell what we saw and heard. Witnesses are those to whom something has happened and who then tell others what they have experienced.
The great theologian Karl Barth was fond of describing the difference between the Christian and the non Christian not as a difference in moral goodness or integrity, but rather as the difference between one who knows and one who does not yet know that Jesus is Lord.
You remember the story of the blind man, whose healing by Jesus is recounted in the gospel of John. After He healed him, Jesus’ critics came and tried to discredit the blind man’s witness. “Are you really sure that Jesus healed you? Haven’t you gotten a bit over emotional?” they asked. “And besides”, they protested, “since you are blind, you are clearly a sinner and why should we who are righteous take the testimony of a sinner as truth?”
But the man who for the first time in his life could see, in the face of sophisticated and assaulting efforts to discredit him, simply witnessed to what had happened to him. “Say what you like about me, but one thing I know for sure. I was blind, now I see.” You gotta love the guy.
In Jesus something has happened that alters the total human situation and the possibilities for each human life. That something which has happened – calls everything into question. Something or better yet, Someone Absolutely Gracious has definitively intruded either into our settled arrangements or into the unsettled chaos of our lives.
The gospel is not some primitive means of finding meaning in life or attempting to talk about the world in some fanciful way. The gospel is a Witness to something that has happened to us and to the world. That something is called the Inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. We are witnesses in word and deed to the Inbreaking of the Kingdom of God within and among us.
We heard the screech of brakes, the crash of metal on metal. We turned around just in time to see it. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. After the accident, in the aftermath, a police officer asked us, “Would you be willing to testify as a witness?”
I hesitated. Did I really want to become this involved? “All you would have to do is to tell what you saw and heard,” said the officer. But an invitation to be a witness is generally not something that is seen as an invitation to a pleasant experience. As a matter of fact, most struggle with whether or not they want to assume this responsibility. The issue of cost always comes to the fore in this business of witnessing.
If we have witnessed an accident, we struggle with whether or not we want to get involved. Being a witness may put us at odds with the group to which we belong – remember the Abner Loima case. In that instance being a witness meant breaching the Blue Wall. And in extreme cases, it may put me at the greatest risk – Several years ago a little boy in Connecticut, was murdered because he had been a witness to a murder.
While being a witness to the Inbreaking of the Kingdom of God is not to be a witness to tragedy but rather to triumph. The issue of cost still comes to the fore. As to the twelve, so to each of us, has been given the mission to witness even in the face of the greatest costs.
And if there were ever a time to bear witness to the Inbreaking of the Kingdom of God – now would certainly be one of those times. Each day there are reports that underscore the urgency of our witness. This is a time when the Lie is once again on the ascendency in the public square. As a matter of fact we are being asked to embrace lying as the new norm.
For example, we have been invited to find great merit in Lockheed Martin’s, Trump greased sale, of over one billion dollars in weapons, to Saudi Arabia – a nation that ranks high on the list of human rights violations and a veritable theological hothouse for terrorist seedlings. Such an arms sale obviously represents a great boom to a sector of our economy, but it more obviously represents a devastating loss to that peace which animates the Kingdom of God. The world is not a better place and the common good is not served by such transactions. Greed does not serve but rather it always makes slaves.
When we were baptized we were asked, “Will you promise in word and in deed, to tell what you have seen and heard of Jesus the Lord?” It is simple, even if costly. The template for our response is the witness of the man born blind. “Say what you like about me, but all I know is that once I was blind but now I see.” Will we too bear witness to the truth that the healing effected by Jesus Christ and our acceptance of Him as Lord, are The defining moments of our lives?
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
May 28, 2017
Beholding the Face of God
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” John 14:1-14
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that, “now we see God thru a glass darkly, but when we die we will see God face to face.” St. John, however, paints a very different picture for us. For him, seeing God face to face, is a now experience. For John, death is not the gateway to a presence and an intimacy that is not possible while we are still alive. For John, heaven is a now possibility. For heaven is not a place but an experience.
I know this gospel about heavenly mansions is a favorite pick for funerals, but I really think we sell the good news short when we consign the joy of deep union or communion with God, dwelling with God, captured in the image of taking up residence with Him, to the afterlife. While there is some truth in those words of comfort we offer when we say that the dead are in a better place, there is also great truth that there is no better place, than to be alive in and with God right now.
In the moments immediately preceding the conversation captured in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has gathered his disciples and washed their feet, teaching them that they should do the same for each other. Yes, they are to find heaven, union with God, in humble servant relationships with each other. Strange as it might seem if we want to behold the face of God we must be ready and willing to look at some feet.
Today’s Gospel is the beginning of what is referred to as the Farewell Discourse of Jesus. It is patterned on a certain form of writing that is found in other places in the bible. The Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, on their deathbeds, bequeathed their stuff and their wisdom to their progeny. Jesus has no stuff to leave; instead he gives his disciples “the power to do even greater works than He himself did”!
In the words of Peter in today’s second lesson, “We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim, in the things we do, the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.
Today’s gospel begins with those famous words of Jesus, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. He caps it with the promise that he would take his disciples to himself, so that wherever he is, we’d be. Again, the place, of which Jesus speaks, is not a geographic destination. The place and the promise is that of full presence and total intimacy. “I am in you and you are in me, just as I am in the Father and the Father is in me”. Can it really get any better than that?
Thomas, asks a fair question. On the heels of Jesus’ eloquent words about abiding places and obscure travel plans, Thomas, in a voice that I imagine to be somewhat weary, but not yet despairing, cuts to the chase: “We have no idea what you’re talking about, first of all, and second of all, upon what basis should we have known what you are talking about?” And here the critical moment arrives for Thomas, and the rest, in the form of another one of the seven “I Am” statements found only in John’s gospel.
The disciples are groping around aimlessly for a path, a truth, a life, and THE path, THE truth, and THE life is staring them in the face and they can’t or won’t see it. The critical moment arrives for us as well. THE path, THE truth, and THE life is staring us in the face. Can we see it? Will we see it? They are looking for, as we may be looking for seven habits of successful people, nine steps to forgiveness, or ten commandments by which to live.
But the answer, as Jesus proposes, lies in our intimate, if confusing and challenging, relationships – the preeminent relationship being between Jesus and them; Jesus and us; and then us with each other. In this critical moment Jesus calls Thomas into a future that is wholly dependent upon a relationship with Jesus that is fully realized in relationships of humble service to others.
Jesus also stops Thomas from complaining about all the reasons he would give for his ignorance, “This is hard; how are we supposed to know? We don’t get it.” Jesus doesn’t settle for that, but he calls Thomas out—“I am it; I am the real deal; surely you know me. In that case, you know all you need to know”. Thomas was fixated on “the way,” and his sense that Jesus hadn’t provided full and necessary information related to it.
Now Philip, for his part, is concerned with seeing the Father. As he did with Thomas, Jesus says to Philip–look in front of your face. The answer is not in some mysterious code, nor is it hidden in some far off place where you cannot reach it; no, the Father, His Christ, and the Spirit, all of it is here and available right now.
Philip thinks he’s asking a very concrete, simple question: “Just show us the Father and we’re good to go.” Not too pushy, no long list. And how does Jesus respond? Again, there comes a critical moment. Jesus challenges Philip. How long will it take for you to understand that my only purpose in relating to you guys is exactly for the purpose of manifesting the essence of God? That essence, the very face of God that you seek is revealed in the deep, self giving, life giving, embarrassingly intimate, washing the feet, servant relationship that I have lovingly forged with you?
Jesus often asks this question, “What or whom do you seek?” He knows that what we seek often determines what we find. The gospel points out that everything for which we actually deeply hope is available to us right here and now, we just don’t see it or won’t see it.
Those who are “left behind” when Jesus goes to the Father have an advantage beyond all telling. Because Jesus goes, they get power they wouldn’t otherwise get. Instead of wannabes, they’ll be the real deal–they’ll be Jesus in the world. They are worried about letting go, but with the letting go comes the gift. Letting go of a fixation with heaven up there, makes possible an embrace of heaven right here.
Yes, death and letting go are hard and those left behind cannot easily imagine anything worthwhile coming out of loss. And yet it is only when we are ready and willing to loose all that we come to possess all. The kingdom of God is ours for the seeking, the finding and the taking. The dwelling place that Jesus has prepared for us is ready for occupancy. Move in, for God’s sake — for your own sakes. Get out the basin and the water and look for the feet to be washed.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
The Good Shepherd
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” John 10:11-18
We read and listen to the Gospel stories to know and understand, even if only “through a glass darkly”, as St. Paul describes it, the mystery of God; the mystery of the human person; and the mystery of Jesus, who is the key to unlocking both who God is and who we are. As we engage the mystery and are engaged by it we are readied to respond to its invitation with our hearts and lives and to do so ever more deeply, fully and completely.
And as we move toward a deeper understanding and a more complete response to the mystery of Jesus, what Jesus says about Himself and how he identifies Himself, are most crucial. John, the evangelist, puts seven I Am declarations into the mouth of Jesus. With these John begs us to sit up and take notice of the faith of the first believers and to believe and respond in kind. We remember the words of the risen Jesus to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Do we want to be numbered among those so blessed?
Today’s gospel is a response to the Judeans who have gathered around Jesus and asked him, How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, the Messiah, tell us plainly. Tell us who you are?
Jesus responds, I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD.
What do we make of this I Am declaration. Is this merely a beautiful metaphor that can produce rich, endearing and enduring visual images? It certainly has served that purpose in the tradition for these past 2000 plus years. The icon of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb draped about His shoulders is the earliest representation of Jesus. It was etched onto the walls of the catacombs and to this day what believer’s heart is not warmed by this representation of Christ?
But to the Judeans it was a bold, provocative, and even dangerously, blasphemous, affirmation.
When Jesus said, I am the good Shepherd, the Judeans could not have helped but call to mind, a passage from the Prophet Ezechiel, in which God says, I Myself will be the Shepherd.
When Jesus used the picture of the shepherd and the sheep. He used a picture with a rich history that was deeply woven into the thought and the language of His people. Again and again, in the Hebrew scriptures, God is pictured as the Shepherd of His people.
The much-loved 23rd Psalm begins, The Lord is my Shepherd. In Psalm 79 it is written, We your people, the flock of your pasture, will give you thanks forever. Psalm 80 addresses God, Listen, O Shepherd of Israel. The allusion is strengthened in Psalm 95, For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
For the prophet Isaiah, God is the gentle and loving Shepherd: He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, He will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.
Lastly, in the Book of the prophet Ezechiel we are told that the Messiah, will be the Shepherd of the people: I will set over them one shepherd and he shall feed them.
The Judeans asked Jesus, Tell us plainly. And so when Jesus responded to them, by saying, I am the Good Shepherd, He was saying something very clear and very defining about Himself. He is saying that He is God, that He is the Messiah, and that God desires a very special relationship with each of us as individuals and all of us as a community.
We can take this picture of the Good Shepherd and run with it in any number of directions. We can highlight any of the many facets that reflect the nature of a shepherd, the nature of sheep, and the nature of that relationship that seems to adhere between shepherd and sheep.
I would like us to focus for a moment on what I believe is the most awesome and most compelling truth embodied in this metaphor of the Good Shepherd. It is about a relationship that is grounded in the deepest expression of commitment. When Jesus identifies himself as the Shepherd He is expressing His desire to live in a committed relationship with us. We once placed a great premium on committed relationships, as opposed to the casual relationships that seem to be the fare of the present time. But deep down we know that life and the relationships in which life finds it’s ground, meaning and purpose does not work without commitment. And that life without commitment quickly descends to emptiness and even chaos.
To prevent our finding any escape clause in God’s relationship with us, Jesus goes on to say that the Good Shepherd is the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. If each of us, for a moment, can identify someone for whom we would give our life, then we have the capacity to grasp with our minds and to hold in our hearts the contours of this extraordinarily intimate and secure bond that God sees fit to propose, establish and maintain.
Listen again to what Jesus says about the relationship to which He binds Himself: My sheep belong to me. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life, they shall never perish, no one shall snatch them away.
Though I don’t know the way, and though I do know that the way can be treacherous, I, nevertheless, also know that I am safe and utterly secure.
What are the possibilities in terms of our response to God’s proposal? We can run for the hills. We can play games. We can stay in the game only as long as it suits us, or we can allow ourselves to be continually inspired and formed by the possibilities evidenced in the lives of other notable sheep in the flock who have gone before us.
By our baptism we belong to and come from a family that numbers countless women and men who have responded and are responding to God with commitment in kind. In the Book of Revelations we read, Who are these clothe in white robes, and whence have they come? These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
These are our brothers and sisters, who have shared and do share the life of faith with us. Will we allow ourselves the gift of realizing our connection with these holy people. They give us a challenging heritage and a rich legacy. They provide us a standard to which we are all being given the grace to rise.
Into the façade of most cathedrals are sculpted images of those faithful sheep, who have led the way. I believe that each of us loves enough to give our life. I believe that each of us has the capacity to respond with this kind of commitment to the Good Shepherd. I believe that the flock is at its best, and each of us is at our best, when we allow ourselves to pasture and to feed upon an enduring relationship with He who is the Good Shepherd.
And finally I believe that we are called by the Good Shepherd to be good shepherd in kind to each other and most especially to those who are most vulnerable. We are to protect and defend the poor.
At another point in His presentation of Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep, Jesus compares his commitment to that of the hired hand, who He says has no real concern for the sheep and abandons them whenever it appears expedient.
This past week the hired hands in congress, who have been elected and charged with the care of all the people, posed for a victory photo op. They were all smiles as they moved closer to leaving 23 million poor and elderly people without affordable health care. I simply do not understand how a heart that is truly human can smile in the face of such a gross expression of inhumanity. At the forum at which I was a presenter on Friday night, the Ulster County Sheriff confessed that when he arrests someone for any reason, he always asks their country of origin. If they are not natural born citizens, he then, as a courtesy, and not because he is required to do so, informs ICE.
We shepherds have much to do in the days ahead.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
May 7, 2017
In the Breaking of the Bread
On the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ followers were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24:13-35
The gospels for the Sundays of the Easter season highlight both the incredible challenge and the sheer joy borne of recognizing the presence of the risen Lord – the presence of the risen Jesus TO us, WITH us and IN us.
Yes, to us – as the risen Lord stands before us calling us into our future with Him.
Yes, with us – as the risen Lord delivers on His promise to be among us when we gather together in His name.
Yes, in us –as we, like the disciples journeying on the road to Emmaus, can have that experience of our hearts burning inside us through His risen presence within us.
As we observed last week, the stories of the resurrection appearances of Jesus do not avoid the recognition problem. It is always front and center in those stories. It certainly is in this morning’s Gospel story. We are told that, on that road to Emmaus, the disciples did not recognize the Stranger who joined them on the road, walked with them and accepted their invitation to dinner.
As we examine the story more closely, it is clear that the disciples were completely absorbed by the terrible experience of the preceding days. The days of the passion, crucifixion and murder of the One they thought might very well be the Messiah. They had had all their hopes, dreams and expectations dashed to the ground. They were left in the greatest pain. They were sad and despondent. They were broken and crushed, by the horrible events that had taken place. And they were absolutely astounded that this Stranger who joined them on the road seemed to be so disconnected from and even ignorant of it all.
Is not this a pattern that repeats itself again and again in our own lives? Are we not often, so completely taken and so thoroughly absorbed by the pain, suffering, disappointment and tragedy that plays itself out in our lives? In these dark places we are hard pressed to attend to the immediacy of presence of God in that very place? Rather from this place, we cry out to the Stranger, usually not perceived to be on the road with us, but in the sky beyond us, “Are you the only one around here who does not know and cannot see what’s going on? And if you do know and can see what is going on, why in the hell are you not doing something about it?”
I sometimes encounter those who insist that their experience of God in the magnificence of nature is enough to meet their needs. That a walk in the forest, or on a beach, or watching a sunset, or a sunrise is sufficient for God to make His presence known to them. When I hear this I feel a real sadness. For I believe that we suffer a great loss when we limit our experience of God to those venues that meet our ordinary expectations with regard to encounters with the Divine. If God is to be known, of course He is to be known in the magnificence of nature. It is an easy stretch from a wondrous creation to a wondrous creator.
But for some good reason Jesus did not command His disciples to take a walk in the park when they wanted to encounter Him. For some good reason He, in fact, commanded them and commands us to come together to celebrate the Supper. Sharing the Eucharist is nothing less than absolutely essential to the experience of God, as God would have us experience Him, as opposed to how we might determine how God is to be best experienced.
The Eucharist is an experience of God that is light years away from the experience of His magnificence in the awesomeness of creation.
Why do I say this? Why do I understand the Eucharist not as something added to what is in itself sufficient, but something that is in itself absolutely necessary because all else, in truth, is absolutely insufficient? To know God in nature is simply not enough. It is certainly not enough as far as the God who reveals himself in Jesus is concerned. He clearly wants to be known otherwise.
As this morning’s Gospel unfolds, the presence of the risen Lord is made known in a very strategic moment. The Risen Lord is revealed, not in the bread but rather in the BREAKING of the bread. The Breaking, the Tearing Apart of the bread is key in God’s revelation of Himself and His communion with us. In the Breaking what is exposed, what is revealed, what is made known is nothing less than the vulnerability of God. The breaking speaks to Christ’s pain, suffering and death.
At the Last Supper Jesus did not just take bread and give it to His disciples. Rather, He took bread and He broke it. Likewise He took the cup and spoke of it, not just as His blood but as His blood that is shed.
In the Emmaus moment we are brought again to the very same place that last week’s story of Thomas brought us. Jesus invited Thomas to take his finger and to touch the wound in His hand and to take his hand and to put it into the wound in His side. Jesus invites Thomas to touch the vulnerability of God and to know God intimately in God’s weakness and that is an experience of God that is, yes, light years away from delighting in the awesome wonder of the universe.
Consider the Easter Candle. It is the principle liturgical icon of the presence of the risen Jesus. Attend to the candle and consider how it is decorated. It is etched with a cross and pierced with five nails, each of which contains a grain of incense. The symbolism is rich.
The sweet fragrance of God is to be found in the very wounds of the risen Christ. The Risen Lord always bears the marks of suffering and death in His risen flesh.
When we celebrate Eucharist, when we break the bread and we know God in the way that God wants us to know Him – we know Him in His wounds. And by extension, we know Him in the wounds of our own flesh and in the wounds of all human flesh. It is here, before all else, that we are invited to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats that ends the Gospel of Matthew, the Risen Jesus says to his disciples, “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink, when I was naked, you clothed me, when I was sick and imprisoned you visited me, when I was a stranger you took me in and offered me a safe space. In response the disciples asked, “When did we do this Lord?”
And Jesus said, “You did not recognize me, but when you did these things for each other and most especially when you did these things for the least among you, you did them for me”.
Wherever a human body, mind or spirit aches, is broken, bleeds or suffers even unto death, God is to be found, known, recognized and, if we would receive the gift of Easter joy – God is to be loved in that holy place.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna April 30, 2017
Living Life Large
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:19-31
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The story of Thomas is always told on the first Sunday after Easter, because as fascinating as the Easter story is, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, it is hard to believe.
The story of Thomas speaks to a struggle that we each engage when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus. It shines a light on the conflict within every one of us, as we face the potentially life transforming proclamation that the Lord is risen. That the one who was put to death on a cross by the power of hate was raised to life by the power of love – That the Lord is risen – that He is risen indeed.
Yes, we all want to believe that life and love conquer all – even death. Sometimes, we are even tempted to live and to love as if this were true.
At times, we dare to give into the temptation to actually live that free of all those cares that drag us down and make our living and our loving:
– smaller than God ever intended;
– smaller than grace makes possible;
– smaller than the larger life that God imagines for us and would have us live.
And in those moments in which we dare to own our freedom, do we not quake and quiver with life’s sheer vibrancy?
But there is a fear in each of us
– that the Good News embodied in the Risen One might not be true:
– that hate and not love is the final word
– that death and not life is the final word.
And where there is more fear than faith, there is doubt, and even paralysis.
This fear can play havoc with the robustness of any response we make.
This fear can make us hesitant rather than forthright in our response.
This fear can cause us to hedge our bets rather than bet the farm.
This fear can cause is to turn inward, rather than open us up to the breadth and depth and intensity of a God fueled and God driven life.
This fear can stop us dead in our tracks.
And so when it comes to living life with the radical freedom that faith in eternal life can and would make possible – where do I hang? Do I find myself clutching and grasping or trusting and letting go?
Yes, the Easter story was hard to believe then and is hard to believe now. Thomas may be remembered as the icon of doubt but he was not alone in the struggle between faith and doubt, between belief and unbelief.
The only one in the Easter story who did not question what she saw, nor question the truth of her experience, was Mary Magdalene. When the Risen Lord spoke her name with love, her anxious and frightened heart melted and she immediately surrendered to the reality and mystery of his living presence. And immediately, at his command, she ran to tell Peter and the others.
Can we not see her racing from the garden, sprinting up the road to the gates of Jerusalem, dashing through the streets and charging into the upper room of the house where the disciples were hiding? Out of breath she cries out in joyous excitement, “I have seen the Lord.”
The task, of those who wrote the scriptures and the task of those who preach the scriptures, remains constant: that those who listen to the word proclaimed and hear the word preached might either come to believe for the first time, or might find their faith strengthened and believe that much more deeply.
My sisters and brothers, I say to you this morning, I too have seen Lord. I have beheld his glorious presence many times over in the course of my life. And I know that you too have seen the Lord. Otherwise you would not be here.
But the proclaimed, preached and experienced Lord is always up against doors and hearts that are or, too easily would be, locked shut again and again by fear.
Gracefully, as the post resurrection stories remind us, locked doors are no barriers to the Risen Lord. He penetrates our barriers and stands in the room with us. And as he stands in that space with us, if we would but take the time, no matter how frightened we may be, even as we shake in our boots, to tune out the noise and eliminate the distractions, we will hear him speaking our name with the same love with which he addressed Mary.
The Divine Stranger is always here beside us. Yes, Stranger, because it is the ordinary experience not to recognize him – is it not? One of the recurring themes of all the post resurrection stories is that they did not recognize him.
– Mary thought he was the gardener.
– The disciples thought he was a ghost.
– The two who met him in the road to Emmaus only recognized the stranger when He broke the bread.
– Peter and Andrew and John did not recognize that the Stranger on the shore cooking them breakfast was Jesus.
Thomas had his litmus test – he was clear about what he needed to believe that the Stranger was the Risen Jesus. He needed to touch the wounds and put his finger into the nail wounds and his hand into pierced side of Jesus. What is our litmus test?
What do we require?
What de we require to respond with more than lip service? What do we need to respond in a way that moves us out of our comfort zone?
What do we need to respond to the change being invited, with faith rather then fear?
What do we require to stand in the presence of the risen Lord and with the same passion as Thomas – cry out, “My Lord and My God”.
What is required to live the grace prayed for in the opening collect ……”to show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith”?
It takes faith to live into the radical nature of the response that is being invited. It is radical because it is simply not the way of the world in which we live. For example, we live in a world in which the number of people in need increases daily at an exponential rate. In the community of those who were the first witnesses to the resurrection we are told that there was not a needy person among them because they shared all that they had.
Do we have the faith to work toward the later becoming the norm rather than settling for the former? Smacks of socialism? Well, it may come as a surprise, but some form of socialism and not capitalism is, in fact, the economic model proposed by the gospel.
We live in a nation, in which the Justice Department is morphing into the Injustice Department. This week the Attorney General intensified the assault against black and brown people. Racism, white privilege and xenophobia are being given all the reinforcements that they simply do not need. Orders are being issued that will only serve to enable, embolden and intensify the police brutality that we were only beginning to acknowledge and confront. And the administration is intensifying its threats against sanctuary cities that they might abandon their commitment to creating oases of safety for our most vulnerable neighbors.
Do we have the faith to resist and to mount a protest to this reintroduction of systematic racism and the ratcheting up of fear of those who are different?
We live in a world that is deeply committed to also using fear to manipulate, control and exploit ordinary decent people. Yes, there are indeed threats of violence that would destabilize our experience of security. But are counter threats, and violent responses to those threats, the way forward to a new place? Or do they simply guarantee a tomorrow that is as ugly as today?
Do we have the faith to pursue and insist on peaceful solutions, through the hard work of diplomacy and a more generous commitment to global charity, to all our conflicts and in the face of all threats?
To show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith is to make daily choices, in our personal and communal lives, in the direction of the Gospel ideal and to take those chances and make those decisions that are born of living as if God’s love and eternal life do in fact, and will in fact, conquer all.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
April 23, 2017
Seize the Beauty and Challenge the Ugliness
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:1-18
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Both an ancient and timely greeting, as we welcome this happy morning and experience the joy of risen life given to us by God, in Christ Jesus, through our baptism into His death.
Today we renew our faith that the Risen Lord is indeed present to us in the breaking of the bread and today, in His sacramental presence, we recommit ourselves to our baptismal promises. Promises that draw us into the pain of the world that we might faithfully witness to and advocate for peace, justice and the dignity of every human being.
During Holy Week we wrestle with the very core of our human mystery. We reach toward the depths of what it means to be thoroughly and completely human as God defines human. During Holy Week pain and loss, betrayal, suffering and death – the cruelest realities of human experience – present themselves to the eyes of our hearts. During Holy Week we raise up again the Cross as that inscrutable place to which all human life is called for transformation and that place from which God reigns.
We remember that Jesus Christ died for us so that we might not be afraid to die – especially in those critical moments during life in which we are summoned to the cross.
And today, the end of that Holy Week and the beginning of all our tomorrows, we glimpse the wonder, of that transforming hope and transfigured life, in the person of the Risen Jesus. That transforming hope and transfigured life which is ours, and to which we, and all human beings, are called.
As Jesus Christ died for us that we might not be afraid to die, so Jesus Christ rose for us that we might not be afraid to live. Really live. And that is what Easter is all about – really living – deeply living. Not settling for cheap substitutes for life. But always choosing first, the effervescent and sprit-filled life to which God has called us in Christ Jesus.
Celebrating Easter is to be our daily commitment and risen life our ordinary way of being in the world. It is in the light of Easter and our Christian calling that we hear again the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah – words that we will sing in a few moments as we renew our baptismal promises. With these words Isaiah spells out the agenda of the Easter faith that is ours in Christ.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to set the prisoners free to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord and to comfort those who mourn. This is what it means to be baptized into Christ’s royal priesthood, and to be members of his Body in this world.
For 20 centuries this has remained the essence of our Easter vocation. Sometimes we have lived our vocation with clarity and courage. Sometimes we have been woefully timorous. And, sometimes, to our shame, we have been complicit in the exploitation, injustice and violence that we have been anointed to confront, condemn, remedy and heal.
It is with revulsion and shame that we can chart the Church’s complicity in the sins of each age: slavery, tribalism, militarism, war, religious intolerance, the abuse of indigenous peoples, racism, anti-semitism, violence toward women, and violence toward persons of same gender affection, to name but a few.
If the truth is to be told, in most, if not in every age, the Church has offered a mixed response to the challenges placed before us – challenges to our choosing the cross and becoming the star witness to transforming hope and transfigured life.
Sometimes we have been courageous and far-sighted; at other times – cowardly and myopic. Sometimes, we have resisted social forces – preserving the freedom that is our Easter birthright. The courageous freedom seized by Peter as he proclaimed God’s impartial favor in a closed community, which wore its close-mindedness as a badge of honor. Sometimes we have acquiesced to society’s efforts to define and control us – abandoning our Easter identity and vocation, and loosing our prophetic voice.
The challenge that is always before us is to seize the grace and find the courage to respond as the Easter people we are called to be. To bring to bear the transforming hope and transfiguring life of the wideness, generosity, openness, mercy and magnanimity of God upon the narrowness, selfishness, close mindedness, vengefulness, and pettiness of human life without God.
My sisters and brothers, when one looks at the world in which we live, it is generally easy to see, that the challenges before us, are usually well formed.
In baptism we promise to renounce evil and to choose love. Sadly, we are reminded again an again that past evils are never entirely behind us. We are reminded, but we need not be deterred from our Easter vocation in the face of it all. The challenges we face as Easter people are many, but the Risen Christ is with us and goes before us. As to some of those challenges……..
As a nation, we are apparently not sufficiently embarrassed to give up the distinction of being the last democracy that still employs and enjoys the death penalty.
Only last week we saw the ugliness of anti-semitism raise its head once again both in the Ukraine’s ordering Jews to register and in Kansas where yet another American fascist went on a killing spree.
In the world and in this country, the number of poor grows by leaps and bounds, as the gap between the privileged few and the rest widens. Yet so many still want to insist that unfettered capitalism is the way into a better future for all.
For eleven years we have been engaged in a pointless war that has squandered both the lives of thousands upon thousands of young men and women. It was reported last week that 25 veterans a day commit suicide. And this ill conceived war that has also squandered the patrimony of the poor.
Even in so-called enlightened societies women and children the world over are trafficked for sex and women are still treated as second class citizens in so many ways.
A few months ago, the majority so called Christian populations, in Uganda and Nigeria, supported the criminalization and death penalty for persons of same gender affection.
If you noticed – the news coverage on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, in addition to offering a fitting memorial, made sure to stoke the flames of terrorist fear. We allow ourselves to so easily fall prey to orchestrated fear. Certainly threats of all kinds are painfully real. But is not the greater danger becoming always more possessed, obsessed and defined by fear? Is not possession by fear a sure formula for excess?
Post 9/11 fear was used to justify the actions taken by government to build a near impenetrable wall at our southern border, and to turn border states and some other states into police states with regard to undocumented people? But is there any real justification and any justice in treating poor Latinos, who embark on treacherous journeys, seeking a means to support themselves and their children and to escape situations of hopeless economic desperation, as if they were terrorists?
At Holy Cross/Santa Cruz we are in a privileged position to be a point of arrival for some who entered the states illegally in search of a livelihood and a sustainable life.
There are many out there and maybe even some in here who can only think in terms of legality and illegality. But must not our hearts find their first beat in the words of the Peter of Easter faith – God shows no partiality? Must not our first response be something other than a wariness of strangers? Must not our first response be a loving welcome to these our brothers and sisters through baptism? Must not our first commitment, not be to upholding unjust laws but to an unqualified respect for the dignity of every human being? Does not our baptism charge us to become better advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that at once creates a path for citizenship to the undocumented people among us and also gives reasonable and ready legal immigration status to those driven to emigrate from their homes because of dire need?
It is in a world that presents us with such challenges, that we find ourselves exercising our baptismal priesthood. This is the world in which we are called to proclaim the good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. If we are to carry out this ministry with faithfulness, we will need to learn to articulate with ever-greater clarity, patience and courage the vision that has been given to us by Christ, of a world in which the God-given dignity of all people is our first priority – yes even before economic gain.
If we are true to the call that is ours in Jesus, we can expect resistance, push back and, at times, harsh criticism and maybe even abuse. Whatever might be hurled at us, we need always to refuse to return evil for evil. We must find the restraint not to hate even those who oppose us most forcefully and may themselves hate us.
As I was preparing this sermon, I stepped outside, and my eyes were seized by the beauty of a blossoming star magnolia tree in a landscape that is only just beginning to awake from the pall of winter’s death. The metaphor was sharp and poignant as was the implicit invitation. Seize the beauty and challenge the ugliness, seize love and challenge hate, seize the vision and challenge narrow-mindedness, seize wisdom and challenge ignorance, seize hope and challenge despair, seize life and challenge death at every turn.
Let us pray. God give us the courage to do these things. God give us the wisdom to draw upon each other’s strengths. May we be supported and sustained by the prayers and the companionship of the community of faith as we face all challenges. God continue to give us the grace to offer our lives to the Divine Glory, that we, and all God’s people, may live that glory, today, tomorrow and unto the ages of ages. We ask this in the name of our risen and living Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
April 16, 2017
Palm Sunday A
Broken, Vulnerable and Loved
When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew 21:1-11
In the Liturgy of Palm Sunday and in listening to the Passion of the Christ, we are invited to step out of our present context, to be present in Jerusalem, to enter into the story, to take our place in the drama. If we take the invitation, the experience can be not only soul wrenching and heart breaking, but also a wellspring of healing. “There is balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal a sin-sick soul.”
The story of the passion begs that we ask some questions: How can people be so cruel? How could the disciples have been so blind? How could they been so unengaged that they fell asleep when asked to stay awake? How could a friend, Judas, betray his friend, Jesus? How could Peter have been so cowardly? How could the high priests and religious leaders have been so hypocritical? How could the crowd have been so fickle?
I suppose from a removed place or from the vantage point of a spectator, we can indulge in being astounded and even appalled by such gross failures in basic humanity. But from an involved place, we realize that, had we been present, we probably would have acted as they did, because in our lives, as we live them, we have had occasion to observe ourselves acting no differently.
All the vices and sins presented here in such an understated manner persist in our society and plague our personal lives as well. Cruelty, blindness, disengagement and indifference, betrayal, cowardice, hypocrisy, fickleness, violence and the list can go on.
This week we were once again appalled by a gross failure in humanity as we took in the news of the use of chemical weapons against innocent children in Syria. Our struggle to wrap our heads around it is complicated by the truth that we are not just remote spectators, but have been too long so actively involved in the unspeakable carnage in that part of the world?
The administration’s recent expressions of appreciation for the strongmen in that region must be seen as a contributing factor. You cannot embolden brutes, bullies and thugs and then claim innocence about and surprise at what they do. And then there is our closing our borders and hearts to a multitude of Syrian refugees who might have sought and found safety for themselves and their children among us.
Yes we are sinners. We often miss the mark. We often fail to express the best that is in us. We do this by our complicity in the large sins of humanity. We even do this in the relationships that, by self-admission, mean the most to us.
Just a moment, we might protest. Yes, we can be hypocritical, we can be mean of heart, we can be miserable in spirit – but at least we are not being so with the Son of God, Jesus, the Christ. We will not accept responsibility for God abuse and deicide.
But then we soberly remember the words of Jesus, “When you do it to the least of these, you do it to me”. That’s the bottom line – is it not? Each time we sin by omission or commission; each time we fail to protect or choose to violate the other, it is His body that we whip, His head that we crown with thorns, His hands and feet into which we drive those nails, and His side that we pierce with a lance.
The God who suffered on Golgotha continues to suffer in the flesh of the least among us and in all those whom we either regard and treat as less than ourselves or disregard entirely. In response to that question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” we can only respond, “Yes, I am here as we crucify the Lord.”
They did not know who He was. Many is the time, we act as if we don’t know whom He is.
But gracefully we are not just the sinners in the story – but the Christ as well. His passion can also be our passion. His suffering can be our suffering. His dying can be our dying. The invitation of Holy Week is to consecrate our selves to living the passion, walking the way of the cross and allowing ourselves to be impaled on its sweet wood in acts of generous and self-giving love. This is what saves the world.
Love and friendship that include the possibility of unmerited forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration of relationship are gifts of immeasurable value. This past Wednesday, six of our teens shared diner and conversation with their peers from Temple Emanuel and the Kingston Mosque to foster personal relationships and mutual appreciation and respect. While there the Rabbi showed us a 300 year old Torah that the Nazis had intended to showcase in a museum as an artifact of an exterminated race.
The relatively few words of Jesus remembered in the passion narrative – touch that part of our humanity in which we have our own experience of our souls being wrenched and our hearts broken.
Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.”
“You will deny me, not once but three times.”
“Watch and pray with me.”
“My soul is troubled.”
“Let this cup pass from me.”
“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Are any of these words remote from our experience?
We who pray for love, faithfulness, the acknowledgement of our dignity, justice, healing, deliverance, a reprieve from pain, peace, for a miracle, even – know the way of the cross.
The invitation of the Passion is to embrace our humanity – to face our sinfulness without being undone by it. The hangman’s noose, the choice of Judas, is not the only option even for the worst of sinners.
After the resurrection, Jesus will school Peter about the meaning of love and forgiveness, and Peter will spend the rest of his life proving to himself that indeed his love and loyalty are beyond reproach to the point of his own crucifixion. Thru forgiveness Peter was cured of his cowardice.
The invitation of the passion is to embrace our humanity in its vulnerability, its pain, its suffering and its mortality again without being undone by it. The worst in life does not need to deform us, and every cross is but a threshold for but a deeper transformation toward a deeper and fuller experience of living.
The invitation of the passion is to embrace the mind, heart and will of Jesus – that bathed in the forgiveness proclaimed on the cross, – we might, by saying and living, “Father, your will be done,” be re-made, re-formed, re-fashioned, re-created as heirs of heaven now and heirs of blessedness forever.
Yes, the invitation of the passion is to embrace our humanity. This is the will of God for His Son and for each of us. We go back to this painful story and all its sorrows, and to find there both healing balm and the joy of a risen life.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
April 9, 2017
Lazarus, Come Forth
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone.
And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” John 11:1-45
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
“Them bones, them bones, them dry bones…… Oh, hear the word of the Lord”. Let’s hear it, sisters and brothers. Sing with me. “Them bones……” It’s a great melody, and a memorable and engaging little tune, is it not?
The dry bones story from Ezechiel can so readily be heard as a metaphor for our story. Oh, Lord, how dry can we be? How dry we can be in those many ways that people can be dry, even before death claims us. And our flesh falls off our skeletal remains – can we not be so very dead?
We are dry when we withdraw, disconnect and isolate. Unrelenting negativity, meanness of spirit, venomous communication, crippling doubt, paralyzing fear and fear of being vulnerable can dry us up, can they not?
Harboring resentments, nursing old wounds, holding grudges, with holding forgiveness – Oh, how dry these can make us!
And then there are those myriad ways we distract and numb, ourselves. We choose to live, if you can call it that, in any one of those “junkie” paradises that we deceive ourselves into seeing and claiming as “heavenly” places. Yes, we can and do drug ourselves with things other than legal and illegal substances.
We can use work, shopping or competitive sports to distract ourselves from the heart of life and the real business of living. We can forever skate across the surface of life and never take that deep plunge that our baptism invites. We can grow zombie-like before the television screen, the computer screen or the screen of our smart phone. Oh, how desperately we need to be reacquainted with the sound of each other’s voices in real time and the immediacy of each other’s presence in real space.
There is dryness and deadness for sure. But, gracefully, there is also the promise. And, joyfully, there is the delivery on the promise.
Today’s gospel of the raising of Lazarus, is an epic and iconic moment, in the story of Jesus and in the ever unfolding human drama. Yes, the deliverance, the antidote, the remedy from all the dryness and deadness is the very God who stands outside the graves we fashion for ourselves, the dead places in which we choose to eke out a minimal semblance of life – a God who stands outside the grave and weeps. Through tears that bespeak the passion of His yearning heart and compassion of his broken heart, He calls us, each and every one of us, by name to come out, to breath in the fullness of life, and to live as we have never lived before.
Oh, it is indeed scary to trust that voice and that call. The tomb, after all, except for the occasional grave robber, is a fairly safe and secure place. It’s the home I know. I am sure Lazarus experienced ambivalence when he heard the voice of Jesus.
If I go out there, I will have to listen to my two bickering sisters, Martha and Mary. All those inhabitants of the town of Bethany can drive me crazy with their small minds, petty concerns and incessant discussions that go nowhere. And if I acknowledge Jesus as the One who gave me my life back, I am going to have to deal with Him very differently moving forward. I am going to have to take him more seriously than may be comfortable – maybe so seriously that others turn against me. Maybe, I’ll just play dead, and stay in this tomb – it has kinda grown on me.
The call of God is a call to a “kind of loving” that alone can bring us to life. Yes, God is invested in bringing us to life. He yearns and desires to bring us to a life that burns with a white hot passion for justice, for reconciliation, for love, for peace and for a oneness, union and communion with one another, that transcends all the deadness that has and can divide us.
It is for us to cede any and all of our resistance to the loving action of God’s call to remake us individually and as a faith community always into a more welcoming home to Him and thereby a safer place for all to be and belong.
We are always being called to let go of dryness and deadness, so this can happen. As Jesus admonishes, we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. What we do know is that God wants to breathe His Spirit upon us and into us to make our dry bones live again. He waits at the door of the tomb for us to emerge in response to His call.
If a generation bails on the faith and bails on the church, it will be probably due to a combination of two forces.
There are to two powerful forces at work in opposing God’s call to life – one personal and the other communal.
First there is the seduction of a culture of narcissism that places self-gratification upon the altar as the first among many gods to be served. It is all about me — and my personal truth — and what pleasures me.
Second, there is that temptation to make the church a space where small minds fight, bicker and argue about insignificant matters or where ungenerous hearts command center stage.
The living Church, borne from the pierced side of the dying Jesus, is meant to be a space where forgiveness and love reign supreme, where compassion is the very air we breathe and where all pettiness cedes to a vision of an awesome yet possible kingdom – A kingdom where the will for service trumps the impulse to power. Where love is the only essential and non-negotiable. Where judgment is short and mercy abounds.
God’s call to life is always a call to change. And the change comes each day, with each choice we make, to live the promises we made in Baptism: to renounce what is evil and to choose what is good, to renounce the darkness and to choose the light. These promises create a blueprint for living life that is truly worth loving: keeping and living the faith, in hope and in love, by serving justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every person.
Oh, dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
April 2, 2017
The Joy Borne of Seeing as God Sees
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).
Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
On the First Sunday in Lent the scriptures invited us to journey into the desert with Jesus to face ourselves, to take stock of our priorities and where necessary to reorder those priorities so that they more closely conform to God’s will for us, namely, “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
On the Second Sunday in Lent, in the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus, the scriptures raised up for us the metaphor of being “born again” of the Spirit, that we might move from living our lives in fear to living our lives in the freedom from fear that faith in Jesus makes possible.
On the Third Sunday in Lent, in the story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, Jesus uses the image of “living water”, to speak of the gift of joy, borne of release from shame, that comes as a result of our opening ourselves up to being loved with “a love beyond all telling”.
This morning, on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, the continuing theme of repentance, conversion and renewal is reflected in images of darkness and light, blindness and sight, in the wonderful story of the cure of man born blind. He is unnamed because, in truth, is not his name the same as the one by which each of us is known? Once lost, but now found. Once blind, but now I see.
It would seem that this story told by John, like others in his gospel, has song within it. When I listen to the story, I remember that song, by Johnny Nash, released in in 1972, “I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.”
The words fit pretty well with the scene portrayed in the gospel. We have a man suddenly given sight, rejoicing that he can now see! The song speaks of the “rain” and the “dark clouds” now being gone, the “obstacles” now visible, have thereby becoming “avoidable”. There is the overwhelming feeling that, “It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day!” Doesn’t that song just fit this story?!
Except no one, other than the blind man, wants to celebrate with him. Nobody else seems to see it as a “bright, bright, sunshiny day!” They all, for various reasons, seem to be in a dark, very dark, unhappy place.
First, the neighbors who have always known him as the “blind man” don’t even recognize him. Their response raises the question of how well, how clearly and how deeply they ever really saw him? Did they ever truly see him for who he was, or was he always just the “blind man” identified only by his outward disability? Did they ever see him as a person or only another one of those many beggars? Did they ever see him the way Jesus saw him?
Do we see the other person as God sees them? Do we see the young black man as a criminal-in-waiting or as a victim of white bias and unacknowledged racism? Do we see the refugee in flight for his life as a potential terrorist or as one terrorized by forces of political oppression? Do we see the undocumented immigrant as a murder, rapist or drug dealer or as one injured by both the broken economic system that he has fled for survival, and a broken immigration system that willfully remains incapable of giving him safe harbor?
This week when two undocumented teens in Maryland were accused of raping a fellow High school student, the irresponsible and reprehensible White House sought to take us to that ugly and deceitful place of generalizing to an entire group on the basis of the bad behavior of a few. It sought to manipulate this tragedy so as to once again stoke fear and hatred of all our undocumented neighbors.
Again, do we see the elderly in need of health care as leeches on the common purse or as claimants of a basic human right? Do we see the poor as the lazy slugs that Paul Ryan would have us see them, or as people, who in their day-to-day struggle for survival, are left no choice but to buy food rather than health insurance? Lastly, do we see women as objects to be manipulated and used by men or as subjects of their own power and destiny?
After the blind neighbors, come the blind Pharisees. Their focus is the issue of Jesus working on the Sabbath. They miss the bigger picture because they are preoccupied with obeying the law. And they are blinded by their need to paint Jesus as a lawbreaker and not see Him as an agent of God’s compassion and mercy. Do we assign more value to laws, even patently immoral laws, than to the requirements of justice and mercy?
On Lent 4A Thursday I attended a legal forum at the Woodstock Jewish Center devoted to constitutional and immigration law. Rabbi Jonathan began the evening by teaching us that in the Torah, the divine command to protect the “ger” (translated “resident alien”) is repeated no less than 33 times. This number far exceeds any other command given in the Torah. He advised his audience that to be a faithful Jew one has no option but to protect those without the power to protect them selves. Natural born Jews and gēr/sojourners were to be treated the same under Jewish law. Christians face the very same challenge to their integrity as disciples of Jesus.
Lastly and most astonishing of all are the blind man’s parents. Even they, when faced with the possible condemnation of the powers that be, retreat into the darkness of fear from going to their son’s defense. Their response when asked about him is, “He is of age; ask him.” They throw him under the bus.
Like the others, they are unable to see the awesome thing that has just occurred before their eyes. Do we live from place of fear, parallelized by all the unknowns and what if’s or does our faith allow us to hang out on the edge taking those thoughtful risks that life invites and often requires?
Yes, a miracle happened or as John names it, a “sign” has been given. Yes, a sign that points to something beyond itself, to a truth that we are supposed to see and take in.
Here John seems to be saying that the institutions and people that are supposed to help us see clearly, that are supposed to give us vision, often fail us. That the community, our governing authorities, our religious leaders, even our families, can be stuck in darkness. They can lead us into self-centered ways of being where we ultimately care only about ourselves and are unable to empathize, to understand, to sacrifice or to give of ourselves for others and thereby unable, also, to share in their joy.
Such is the present neo-fascist climate that has been foisted upon us by those who refuse to see the signs of God’s work in this world and choose instead the blindness of their self-deceit and self-interest, and the lies they compulsively tell so as to increase their power and control over others.
In John’s story of the man born blind, like in his story of Jesus turning water into new wine at the wedding in Cana; like his story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus in the dark of night to learn about being born anew; and like his story of the woman of Samaria at the well who learned about the new, living, flowing water that Jesus was able to offer; here again we are given a sign, that, those who have eyes to see, may see.
The truth that John is trying to tell his community, trying to tell us, is that disciples of Jesus have something quite precious to offer the world. That there is a light available to all people and it is known in the person of Jesus.
But sometimes we get wrapped up in things that distract us from our first purpose – which is to witness to a “new way of seeing”. We are not to see as those neighbors in the gospel story, as those Pharisees, and those parents, but to see rather, as God sees.
When we do so, and only when we do so, do we find ourselves transformed and made whole. And we become the first beneficiaries of the miracle we would effect for another. And together with the other, whom we see and love as God sees and loves, we bathe and dance in the light and joy of that bright, bright, sunshiny day.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
The Woman at the Well
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John 4:5-42
Much like last week’s story of the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, so this morning’s story of the meeting and conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, speaks volumes to us, about the character of Jesus, and therefore the nature of God, about ourselves and about how we come to experience intimacy with God.
Before getting into the story some background information can deepen our understanding of this important passage. The scene is Samaria. The well-known and much loved parable of the Good Samaritan gives the place immediate name recognition. The land of Palestine was comprised of three distinct regions from North to South, namely Galilee, Samaria and Judea. The Town of Sychar was at the fork in the road for those traveling north from Judea to Galilee through Samaria.
Sychar was the site of Jacob’s well. This land was bought by Jacob and given to Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. You know the one of technicolor coat fame. Joseph’s body was brought back from Egypt to this place for burial. Samaria was rich in Jewish memories and history.
The well was deep. It required a bucket for drawing water. It was fed by subterranean ground water and not surface spring water.
Four hundred years earlier, Samaria had been invaded by the Assyrians. The Samaritans were carried off into exile. During their captivity they intermarried with the locals and embraced the cults of foreign gods. They lost both their racial and religious purity.
The Judeans, their neighbors in the region to the south, had also been invaded. The Judeans were carted off to Babylon. But unlike the Samaritans, the Judeans kept both their blood purity and their faith.
When they returned from the Babylonian exile the Judeans built a temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans offered to help them build the temple but their help was refused because the choices they had made in exile had compromised their ethnic identity and their faith. Rebuffed by the Judeans, the Samaritans built a rival temple at Gerizim.
And so the Samaritans and the Judeans were bound together by a mutual hatred. For Judeans to eat Samaritan bread was to eat the flesh of swine. Of course both the Samaritans and the Judeans interpreted their God as supporting their prejudice, their bigotry, their hatreds and their closed hearts.
All of a sudden this ancient story becomes so terribly contemporary. It is every tribe and every nation’s folly to project a self-serving allegiance, on God’s part, to their tribal or national cause, as if God takes sides with one group of his children over and against another group of his children. It may be painful to acknowledge, but every inclination and impulse to paint an “us and them” picture is of the evil one and never of God. That virus is so much in the air these days.
The unnamed Samaritan woman comes to draw water from a well that was located some distance from the town. She comes at high noon. She is clearly an outcast from her own community. For the decent, respectable women of the town come as a group to draw water from the well in the early morning before heat of the day. The woman who encounters Jesus comes by herself.
She is therefore twice an outcaste, first because of her irregular life and second because, as a Samaritan, she was outside the community of the Jews.
As to what the story reveals of the character of Jesus – we come face to face with the reality of His humanity. We see him as one for whom life could be an effort. He was road weary, hot, hungry and thirsty. Yet even as He endures the assault of his own bodily needs, there is warmth in his empathy and depth in his compassion for this woman. He is not a critic but a friend. He was not one who judged but one who understood. The woman would have run away from an orthodox rabbi. But Jesus is a breaker of barriers. He is asking a Samaritan for a drink. He is talking in public with a woman and one of questionable character.
This was truly an amazing experience for the disciples to witness and an amazing story for Jews to hear. The Son of God was tired, weary and thirsty. His own needs for rest and refreshment were obvious and immediate. Yet even in the face of own need He focused His attention on the unspoken needs of this troubled and burdened woman.
In a world in which respectable Rabbis never spoke to women who were not their wives, in this story the holiest of rabbis was listening with understanding to the sorry tale of a Samaritan woman. He was breaking the barriers of nationality, and orthodox Jewish custom, and even law, and affirming the universality of God’s compassion, mercy and love. Rabbi Jesus thereby invites us to learn from his example. In the face of the deeper need of another are we not to set aside our own needs for the sake of compassion, mercy and love?
The story of the conversation with the Samaritan woman follows the same pattern as the story of the conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus makes a statement: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it was that is saying to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water”
The woman interpreting with crude literalism, misunderstands. “Living water is fresh, running, spring water and this is a well of dead water. Besides you don’t have a bucket. Besides even Jacob could not find living water here”. She refuses to allow living water to be a metaphor for the life of intimacy with God that Jesus is offering her.
Jesus returns to the theme: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but those who drink of the water I shall give them will never thirst; the water that I shall give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman should have begun to understand, given the many references to living water in the scriptures of her people, the references to springs, fountains and rivers of living water. But she persists in being closed and instead makes light of the words of Jesus and jests with contempt about things eternal. She mocks the metaphor that Jesus is using in His effort to break thru her defenses. She has ears but will not hear. She has eyes but will not see.
She says: “Oh sure, give me this water so that I don’t have to keep trekking back to this well”.
Jesus unable to expose God’s gift to her, tries another gambit. He exposes her to herself. Jesus hits her right between those eyes that are refusing to see. “Go get your husband and¸ come back with him.”
The woman suddenly catches sight of herself. She then begins to take this Jew seriously. In her quest for intimacy and in her search for love, she has become a woman who has known too many men, none of whom had been her husband. “Sir, I see you are a prophet. And since you are a prophet tell me where I can find God. On this mountain or in Jerusalem”?
Jesus tells her that God is to be found everywhere. The immortal and invisible God, meets that which is immortal and invisible within each person whenever a human heart desires that loving encounter. Are we open to the metaphors of scripture that ever invite us into the mystery of divine love? Or do we choose to remain dense and defended with ears that will not hear and eyes that will not see?
Once compelled to see herself, to really look at herself, by the one who alone could provide that safe space for her to honestly face herself, she was able to hear, recognize and accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ and as the one who would love her into a new experience of wholeness and life.
Faced with and facing her undeniable brokenness, acknowledging her pitiful emptiness and feeling the pain of being an outcaste, the Samaritan woman was moved to repentance. She let down her guard, became vulnerable before Jesus and said yes to His love from a depth within her that exceeded the depth of the well from which she drew water.
Living water welled up from within her and she knew joy, real joy, joy that the world cannot give and cannot take away, probably for the first time in her life.
Faith followed her seeing her self through the eyes of Jesus and realizing how very much He loved the woman He saw who stood before Him.
She was then moved to share her experience of being seen, heard, understood and loved by Jesus, and to do so without shame. And to do so without shame even with those who had made her to know and feel shame.
Jesus has met each of us at the well. We are each of us that Samaritan woman. If we have left the encounter still thirsty might it not be due to our remaining too frightened to being embraced by God, too closed to being deeply loved or too willful to surrender? It cannot be to a lack of will on God’s part to give us living water.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 19, 2017
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:1-17
I don’t know how closely you were listening to the gospel story? But I do believe that this dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus is a very rich biblical moment. It says so much about us, and about God, and about our relationship with God. Let’s unpack it.
Nicodemus was truly a good man who, because of his timidity and yet in spite of this very same lack of courage, came to Jesus from out of the darkness and under the cover of night. He was a good man because, with utmost sincerity, he was both striving to keep the law and also to do the works of compassion and mercy that the law prescribed.
He was a man to whom we might easily apply the words of the prophet Micah. Nicodemus was a man who did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God.
You begin the get the picture of this good man – Nicodemus. A man whom each of us could want, and be so satisfied to have, as a father, a grandfather, an uncle or a mentor. He was doing all he could do to be right with God, right with his neighbor, and presentable and acceptable to the Lord.
Nicodemus was a good man who lived from a place of integrity, but still and in spite of all, he was afraid. He was afraid to approach Jesus in the light of day. For Nicodemus was a Pharisee and as you know the Pharisees looked upon Jesus with distain and disgust. Nicodemus was afraid of what his fellow Pharisees would think if they found him sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Isn’t there a Nicodemus in each one of us? The good, but too often frightened persons, we know ourselves to be. And are we not all struggling with belief?
Nicodemus responded to the signs, wonders and miracles Jesus worked. These drew him to Jesus.
Some see signs and wonders, and maybe, have even seen miracles, and, on the basis of this evidence, they believe.
Some require signs and wonder and even demand miracles, that they might have the evidence upon which to base belief.
Some believe – however when bad things happen to good people, either in the wider world or within the smaller circle of their own lives, the signs seem too few, too small, or too impotent, and belief gets shaken. The ability to believe or, better yet, the will to persist in believing, gets lost. The present hour in which the poor, the socially vulnerable, the desperate and the earth itself face renewed assault poses its own challenge to faith.
Sometimes belief can seem to be hanging on by bare threads. Where there appear to be no signs or wonders and any hint of the miraculous is absolutely obscured by the weight of their near desperation.
And then there are those who would believe but they want, as Nicodemus, to first understand. Asking again and again, “How can this be?” They want all their important questions answered as a precondition to faith. It can be so hard for many of us to learn that understanding is the fruit of faith rather than its source – the fruit of faith rather than its source. We do not understand in order to believe but rather we believe that we might more fully understand.
Like Nicodemus, has not Jesus has caught our own fascination? And He has caught our fascination either tenuously or ardently and maybe even fiercely. To this good man, fascinated by him, and to all of us fascinated by Him, Jesus poses this challenge. He says, “Nicodemus, break out of the box you are living in, let go of the limits of reality as you perceive reality, open your eyes to the deeper reality and to the deepest mysteries.”
“As you were born from a woman, now be born from above. As you were born of the flesh, now be born again of the spirit.”
“And how can I do this? How can anyone do this?” pleads Nicodemus. Now Nicodemus was flesh bound. His mind was flesh bound. Jesus says birth and Nicodemus can only think vaginal canal. “Can a man reenter his mother’s womb and be born again?” asks Nicodemus.
And Jesus says, “You certainly can be born again”. But not simply by faith as the world and the community of Israel have known faith, that is, faith based on signs, wonders and miracles.
“Rather you can only be born again specifically and pointedly by believing in me, by having faith in me.” Jesus puts it out there to Nicodemus. “Will you believe and have faith in me? This and only this surrender will enable you to be born from above, to be born of the spirit, to live in the light of the kingdom of God. Faith in me is your only way out of the deplorable box.”
Don’t look for more proof that you might believe. Rather believe in me and you will see as you have never seen before. You will see a new reality. You will see the most authentic reality there is to be seen. You will enter the divine presence and be so held and transformed by love, that pain and fear will no longer have any power over you at all.
We do not know if there is anything outside the box and the false sense of safety and security that it affords, for which to leave the box. We do not know except by virtue of God’s call as to Abraham and Christ’s invitation as to Nicodemus. We would stay were we are content or discontent as the case may be. The call and the invitation, be they to a promised land, as in the case of Abraham, or to a new reality, as in the case of the fullness of life offered by Jesus, are themselves a grace.
Nicodemus was fascinated but frightened, searching but not yet believing. He wanted intimacy with God but placed the limits of his own reality, or the limits of his own capacity to understand reality, between himself and that intimacy.
To all whom God has called out to a new place, the faith that alone will enable us to get there always involves “surrender”. And our surrender is to a God who requires a new kind of faith. But also to a God who has a new kind of faith in us – a God who believes so very much in our worth that He gave His only begotten Son, not to condemn us but that we might behold within our hearts just how much we are loved. In Jesus we behold the sign of signs, the wonder of wonders, the miracle of miracles.
When we behold the cross, those who have eyes to see will see the ineffable sign of contradiction – the wondrous and miraculous wood of the cross. They will see the cross for what it, indeed, is – the privileged altar of sacrificial love.
They will see the cross as the place where life eternal comes forth from obedient surrender unto even a shameful and ignominious death.
They will see the cross as the perfect paradox. They will see the power of love made perfect in weakness. They will see the gift of undying Love in the face of killing hate.
The cross is, at once, the obstacle to faith for many and the most compelling reason to believe for a few. May we always choose to be numbered among the few, for the world needs those who do not live in fear.
Nicodemus came to believe and was thereby set free from his fear. Remember, at the dark and terrifying moment of crucifixion, when the rest had gone into hiding, it was Nicodemus who came before Pilate, with Joseph of Arimathea, to request the body of Jesus for burial.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 12, 2017
First Sunday in Lent
Facing Death – Reviewing Our Priorities
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11
The liturgy of the ashes and the scriptures for the beginning of Lent draw us to the precipice, to the edge, to the inevitability of our own death. In the bible, the mythical story of the origin of sin begins with a temptation by the serpent in the garden, “Eat the fruit of this tree and you will not die.” The entire drama of salvation reaches an epic moment when the serpent tempts Jesus himself with being spared from death, “Caste yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and you will not die.” The Devil promises what he has no power to give: Life without death.
If you have never really looked into the face of a dying person – Lent begins with an invitation to do so. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. You don’t have to go out of your way to visit a terminally ill patient in a hospital ward. It simply takes the will to do so. Either look into the face of the person next to you or, if you have the courage, look into a mirror. Underneath the appearance of life is there not always a dying man or a dying woman?
If we open our eyes, dying is all around us. I remember once seeing a movie entitled The Ice Storm. A number of families are pictured where the relationships are grounded in materialism, consumerism, minimal communication, personal isolation, dishonesty and infidelity. And where children of dying parents are themselves dying in a sea of drugs, sex, rage, violent fantasies and a haunting belief that life is without any real purpose or meaning.
You may be wondering, “What’s your point?” I didn’t come here today for a downer trip. Why would I want to face death and specifically my own death before I really have to, and until I really have no choice, but to? Is there not some real merit in living in denial of death, or, at the very least, pushing it always into the distant future rather than moving it to the front burner? The death-fearing culture in which we live certainly would argue so. The culture would have us do anything even kill our enemies rather then face death. In his book “Iron John” author Robert Bly makes this observation:
“The word ashes contains in it a dark feeling of death; ashes when put on the face whiten it as death does. Job covered himself with ashes to say that the earlier comfortable Job was dead, and that the living Job mourned the dead Job. But for us, how can we get a look at the cinders or ashes side of things when society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death? Disneyland means “no ashes”.”
When I first went to Hong Kong as a missionary in 1972, I was a bit taken back one day. As I walked down a street of shops, I passed a clothing store, a teashop, a jewelry store, a rattan store and, believe it or not, a coffin shop – yes a coffin shop. When was the last time you visited a mall that listed a coffin shop on its directory?
We must face death here in church, because outside the context of faith there is little support in our culture for facing death even though our culture remains so wedded to the art of killing. I wonder if the contemporary practice of cremating the dead, as soon as possible, is simply another indication of our increasing discomfort with facing death. Bodies just disappear.
But unless we face death we remain clueless about life, about it’s meaning and certainly clueless about it’s priorities. And about my life, its meaning, and its priorities. It was only when Ebenezzer Scrooge looked at his own tombstone that the redemptive transformation of his tortured life begin.
A gifted theologian, William Temple, speaking about repentance once observed:
“The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window, into which some mischievous person has gotten during the night, and shifted all the price tags so that the cheap things have the high price tags on them, and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in. Repentance means getting those price tags back in the right place.”
In the present order of things, a higher price tag is being placed on the tools of war, while the need of people for affordable health care is being devalued. Profit from fossil fuels is more valued than the well being of the environment. We would be persuaded to believe that our lives are more valuable than the lives of the millions of the undocumented people that we are poised and have begum to discard. When we disown our neighbors we deny their humanity and our own humanity and we deny the most important commandments of Jesus.
You recall that in another well known biblical myth, Noah and his family and all those animals spent forty days in the Ark, as death came to everything outside the Ark. What do you imagine they did for those forty days and nights? Do you think they were playing pinochle? I think their living in and smelling there own you know what for forty days gave them a needed opportunity to review their priorities. These forty days are our opportunity to review our priorities.
In today’s gospel, we are told that Jesus, after his baptism and before the start of his ministry was thrown like a javelin, by the Spirit, into the desert wilderness. In that place of death – Jesus got clear about his priorities – the will of God and the service of God and the way of God before all else. Jesus rejected being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Tempted to greatness, He chose rather to be foolish, humble and weak – to be as the poor who live with daily certitude of their absolute dependence upon God. And is you wonder at times about God’s will for you, the prophet Amos put it very succinctly and Jesus rounded it off. “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God, caring for your neighbor as you care for yourself.”
Lent invites us to spend forty days in the desert so that we might face death and the questions that death raises about our life and its priorities. In baptism, Jesus called us to enter the waters of death with Him, so that we might be raised to the fullness of life with Him. He daily invites us to walk the way of the cross that we might know the joy of an empty tomb. He leads us thru what seems a godforsaken desert to arrive at the land of promise – the place of abundant life.
We are mindful that it is in the desert, where God appears most absent, that He is, in fact, most present and available to us. If we strip away the fluff, the essence of things comes to the surface. Lent is about our destiny – because it is about our priorities. What we desire first, is what we will have at the last.
How can we tell when we are making progress in Lent? The answer, uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, is when we become angry and vehemently deny that we have reversed those price labels. It is when we want to push out of consciousness our guilt over things done and left undone.
But that is when Lent is doing its work. The truth about our selves begins to break through our defenses – threatening our manufactured sense of security and well-being. But the pain of such realization is the very pain of our healing. Only then is our heart torn open. Only then does the awareness of our own sin cry out for God’s grace and love. Only then can we genuinely return to the Lord and begin the process of rebirth.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
5 March 2017
Disturbing the Peace
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-20
Ya gotta love those prophets of old. They give shock value to the Word of God. As soon as we would get comfortable with the way things are in our spiritual life, the prophets remind us that while life in the Spirit will certainly bring comfort, life in the Spirit is not about our being comfortable. The peace that is from above, the peace that the world cannot give, is born of doing what is right and more often than not doing what is right puts us in a very uncomfortable position. Doing what is right will often put others in conflict with us and can even evoke a hostile to violent response from them.
The prophets also have this knack of reminding us that life in the Spirit is never to be understood as a life that is disconnected from the realities of this world. And what the prophets drove home with their words, God personally endorsed in taking our nature upon Him Self. The One who created us in His image made a choice to be born in our likeness. It is in the human drama that God lives. It is here that He wills that we seek Him and it is here that He promises that we will find Him.
The faith of Israel and Christian faith do not find their authenticity in a private personal relationship with God, but in a personal relationship with God that is lived in the context of community that takes into account each and every dimension of our shared life. In an incarnational faith there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. There is no area of life that is off limits to Divine involvement, concern, scrutiny and judgment. To spiritualize our faith, to compartmentalize it, such that we attempt to disconnect it from any facet of our shared humanity is always to render it less authentic.
The Prophet Isaiah has a powerful word for us today. Basically he is saying that our religious practice – our worship, our prayers, our observance, our fasting are bankrupt, are empty, are useless and meaningless, if they do not connect us with the pain of this world such that we might minister to it with healing and light.
In the passage, the Lord instructs Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back. Lift your voice like a trumpet, and say to the people, ‘You are a nation that does not practice righteousness and yet you want to imagine that you are near to me. You accuse me of not taking notice of your religious observance and yet while you pray and fast, you oppress the powerless.
The fast that I desire is that you:
loose the bonds of injustice,
let the oppressed go free,
break every yoke?
share your bread with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor into your house;
and cover the naked.’”
Do you see what I mean about shock value and about a spiritual life that takes the mystery of the incarnation, God’s becoming flesh, seriously?
Now enter Jesus, the prophets’ Prophet. Continuing the great teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, that began with last Sunday’s Beatitudes, Jesus looks at His disciples, gathered at His feet and drinking in or struggling with every comforting and compelling instruction as directives for their lives, and says to them, “Beloved, you are the salt of the earth. Yes, you are the light of the world.”
Picture the scene. Can you not just see those folks questioning themselves and looking around at each other wondering to whom the Master is speaking? Jesus, appreciating and maybe even amused at their puzzlement, probably had to repeat Him self, “Yes, you, my dear ones, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
Building upon Isaiah’s legacy, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light. Being righteous, being in right relationship with God, has much do with being as salt and light in this world. In addition to enhancing the flavor of food, salt, as the ancients knew and as we know, has genuine medicinal properties. And if darkness serves as a word that identifies evil, light is forever its obvious antidote. Light dispels the darkness and makes a space safe. Isaiah said, “If you remove the yoke of oppression, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, healing shall spring up quickly and light shall rise in the darkness.” Jesus pronounces a great “Amen” upon Isaiah’s prophetic message.
The leadership of the society we call home has taken a hard turn away from the course and direction that Jesus set in His Sermon on the Mount. This is made more and more obvious with each passing day. The new mandates coming forth from the White House all appear to be about self-interest, self-care, self- protection and self-preservation. By distinction, the mandates enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount are about self-giving love and taking the risks involved in loving our neighbors, loving strangers and even loving our enemies as we have been loved by God in Christ. It is not easy but it most certainly is God’s will for us. It is the way of Christians. It is the way of the cross.
What is indeed as unsettling as what appear to be self-involved and self-serving mandates is the support that this new direction would appear to be receiving. Yes, the protests are many and they are indeed large, but far too many, coming from a place of stoked fear and anger, seem to find sense in these very problematic directives. Far too many are willing to embrace “alternative facts” for factual truth. And as a NY Senator noted this past week, “An alternative fact is simply another word for a lie.”
If one insists on using the adjective “huge”, then let it be said that we have a huge number of poor people within our midst, here in the richest country in the world, and throughout the wider world there is a huge number of people who do not share in what God has given for all. I doubt there will be an executive order forthcoming whose aim will be in the direction of addressing the unconscionable disparity in wealth and relieving world hunger. Quite to the contrary, a mandate was signed on Friday giving more license to financial market thieves.
If one wants to talk about terrorist threats, must we not acknowledge just how many good and innocent people have been threatened and terrorized this past week through those mandates relating to deportation and exclusion? Can we allow ourselves to forget that during World War II, the “St. Louis”, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi holocaust was turned away from our shores? A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” Sound familiar? The passengers were returned to Europe and a third of them were gassed to death in concentration camps.
Earlier this week a commander and chief who never put himself in harms way and who in fact secured a medical deferment for bone spurs in his feet, that miraculously disappeared after the end of the Vietnam War, rattled his saber in the direction of Iran. You can be sure that his children are not going to be encouraged to enlist anytime soon. It is our children and grandchildren who will be made fodder for the next war.
In today’s second lesson St. Paul reminds us of what is maybe the most difficult of all the teachings of Jesus. In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaimed, “Blest are the peacemakers, those who overcome violence and hatred that leads to fighting, war, destruction and death. Blest are the peacemakers.”
For Jesus, making peace was something that had to be done in a very special way. St. Paul says, “I came to proclaim the Good News, but not in terms of human wisdom and power. I came only to preach Christ crucified.” Jesus the Christ gives up power, might and greatness, and reaches out in forgiveness, reconciliation, humility and love. He identifies with the least among us. Power and might are the great deception. They are the lie. Forgiveness, reconciliation, humility and love are the truth.
Even as he’s being executed and tortured, Jesus prays, “Forgive them.” He reaches out in love, and that is how peace is made.
Blest are the peacemakers.
We don’t change our thinking or behavior until we allow God to change our hearts. A sensitive, loving heart, that rejects violence and that has developed the steady beat of attending to the needs of the other before our own real or often imagined needs is a heart that only God can fashion within us, but never without our allowing His doing so.
Jesus wants us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We are salt and light when we share our bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless poor, clothe the naked, and welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms and hearts.
Jesus invites us to follow Him by becoming peacemakers. Disciples make peace by responding to hatred and violence only ever with love. And we remain mindful that being a peacemaker involves a great deal more than simply investing ourselves in keeping the peace. It sometimes involves disturbing the peace.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
Holy Cross/Santa Cruz
February 6, 2017