Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Christ the King

The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
John 18:33-37 and Revelation 1:4b-8

Today we end the Christian year by celebrating the authority and mercy of God as seen through Christ in his glory. It is Christ the King Sunday where we sing songs of praise and thanksgiving that the center of our lives is not a cause, or a person, or even a theology, but none other than the risen Christ – who was, and is, and is to come.

This ultimate and eternal power of Christ is manifested not only in his role as savior, but by his authority, power, dominion and influence over all those who believe. Today we are given a glance into heaven where God’s creation is always in the process of being created and where eternity touches our lives today.

We have vibrant images of the reign of Christ in today’s readings. The gospel reading from John takes us to Pontius Pilate’s headquarters where Jesus is being tried by Roman law. The author wants to make clear the difference between the other-worldly quality of God’s kingdom and the fragile, broken and sinful nature of human kingdoms.

The entire Gospel of John is written as a trial, which culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. These scenes with Pilate lead up to Jesus’ shameful death by order of the crowds of Jews gathered outside Pilate’s chambers.
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” to which Jesus replies, “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.”

Here is the key to understanding this episode between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus says that if his kingdom were from this world his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over to the Jews, who want his death.

Why aren’t the disciples there fighting to save Jesus? His words indicate that the disciples already know that Jesus has come to rule a world that exists beyond the one they can see and touch. Since his followers are not fighting to protect him we are led to believe that they fully understand the nature of his kingship. Can they know that Jesus reigning over a heavenly kingdom is the culmination of God’s plan for the redemption of the whole world?

Just prior to this scene with Pilot, Peter denies Jesus three times, showing us how frightened and confused he is by Jesus’ arrest and trial. The other disciples are nowhere to be seen, and we can gather that they are as numb and shell-shocked as Peter. What are we to make of this apparent contradiction – that Jesus says his followers have good reason not to fight for his life, but we see that the reason appears to be fright, denial, and shock? Are those good reasons?

The community that these words were written for were being persecuted by a group of Jews who wanted to purify the synagogues. The Jesus community that formed around John the Evangelist believed that they were good and faithful Jews who went to synagogues, followed the food customs, and lived transformed lives because of believing the truth of who Jesus really was – the much anticipated Messiah who died shamefully on a cross.

It was this shameful death that convinced many that Jesus could not be the Messiah. A number of influential Jews believed that the Messiah was coming as a king of this world, not a heavenly world – and as such would never have died on a cross.

This controversy so threatened the status quo that an edict was issued to ban the Jewish followers of Jesus from the synagogues, and gave license to persecute them.

The answer to the dilemma lies in the upside-down nature of time in God’s world. What happened to the original disciples is happening to us today and was happening to the early Christians as they were being banished from the synagogues.

The words in John’s gospel are meant to be interpreted as eternal words. As such, they reflect back on what was, forward to what will be, and shining within this church right now, as what is.

Think for a moment about the stars. On a dark night, far away from the city lights, we look into the past as see in the present the light of one bright star. This star that we choose to gaze at could have exploded like fireworks thousands of years ago, but we see it as if it exists today.

John wrote his gospel to reflect the eternal quality of God’s world against the backdrop of the horrors of discrimination, exclusion, persecution, and death that filled the First Century Middle East.

The disciples are full of denial, shock, and fear when Jesus is confronting Pontius Pilate, AND they know later that they always knew the truth of who Jesus was, but needed the resurrection experiences to remind them of all that Jesus had said and what he promised those who believe in the truth. They listened to his voice, and they belong to him. In God’s time it all happens at once.

We experience eternal truths as “Aha!” moments when we see the past with the eyes of learned compassion, knowing now that we just didn’t see the whole picture back then. There were reasons we suffered so, and irreplaceable spiritual personal growth came from that very suffering. God never punishes us with catastrophes, but rather provides opportunities for us to rise up through the suffering, as our dependence upon God’s mercy grows in more intimate and personal ways.

Just over a week ago, on Nov. 14th, about 75 clergy and lay delegates who gathered at All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Texas, unanimously elected the Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl, retired bishop of Northwest Texas, as their next provisional bishop.

One week ago today, a throng of more than 400 well-wishers gathered at St. Luke’s in the Meadow Church for the 5:00 p.m. ordination of the Rev. Susan Slaughter, who is 67 years old.

After her ordination, the newly elected Bishop Ohl immediately installed her as rector of the Fort Worth parish where she has served as deacon for several years, also making her the diocese’s first woman rector.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote the diocese that there is great gratitude “for this sign of resurrection in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Many thought this day would never arrive, but you have all been faithful, hopeful, and highly persistent.” She compared the diocese to the biblical story of the widow who persisted until she received justice.

She added, “May the Rev. Slaughter be a living witness to the ministry of such seekers after justice.”

Susan Slaughter is a grandmother and a widow; her husband of 28 years, Jerry, died two years ago. She had pursued her dream of becoming a priest since the 1980s but the former diocesan leadership opposed women’s ordination.

She holds bachelor and master’s degrees in teaching, speech pathology, audiology and counseling. She says, “It is with a deep sense of awe in the mysterious ways of our Lord that I arrive at this moment.”

The President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, sent gifts, and called Susan Slaughter’s ordination “the day we see hope realized in God’s time.”

Here again, we have the upside-down nature of God’s time. At the General Convention in 2006 I spoke with a woman from the Diocese of Pittsburgh who was grieving at having to join her break-away diocese in their separate celebration of the Eucharist, held in a room away from the communal gathering of Episcopalians.

Her grief was as vibrant as the grief I heard at this recent convention from the men and women who chose to stay with the remnants of Episcopalians who stayed behind. Susan Slaughter was one of those.

In 2006 no-one could see the eventual outcome of our split Episcopalian views on sexuality, justice, and inclusion. Few anticipated any joy coming from such pain. But I’ve seen joy in the faces of the members of Christ Church, Savannah, and I cheered when I heard about Susan Slaughter.

I hate dissention. But I love strong relationships forged from hard times, suffering, and honest work. We have to follow our own truth, with Jesus as our guide, knowing that others who claim the same guide march to different rhythms.

It is in God’s time that we are able to see Jesus enthroned in glory, even as we look today at our own struggles, grief, and anger.

Jesus describes the quality of his kingship in terms of God’s eternal justice. The reading from the book of Revelation speaks of Jesus the King freeing us from our sins and making us royal.

We live with the promise that we will see Christ in his glory, and that eventually what we see will be seen by all. In God’s time, it is all happening right now. We are being created and are being redeemed as we pray, worship, and follow Christ’s path as community of believers.
It is Jesus on the throne, reigning in the majesty of peace, reconciliation, and mercy that we pray to today in the Prayers of the People. We do this at every Eucharist service.

But our attention is not always drawn to King of Kings, and Lord of Lords who is receiving our prayers.

In God’s time, that reality of vibrant Christ-Presence, ruling with eternal mercy, sucks up our prayers and supplications and transforms every fear and worry into peaceful and gentle resolution.

But because it is God’s time, and not our own, we have to trust that this will happen, in ways to glorious to envision. Jesus already died and rose for us. This fact alone invites us to be confident that all will be well, and justice will flow among us, as we worship our eternal Christ.

The Baptism of Christ

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Rev. Deborah Magdalene, OSH
Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

We begin the season of Epiphany today with the Baptism of Christ. For the first Christians, it was Jesus’ baptism that introduced this extraordinary man and his ministry. During Epiphany we focus on the miraculous “showings” of God, through his son Jesus. These showings began this last Wednesday on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The Christmas season ends with the arrival of the three kings, travelling from the land of the Gentiles. Their gifts to the Christ Child represent the coming together of all nations under Christ.

The star they follow is the star of the Epiphany – the miraculous light of God, breaking through our dark doldrums and routines to show us a much grander and more glorious world than we could ever imagine on our own.

Epiphany shouts: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Throughout this season we are asked to pay attention to the epiphanies of God’s inspiration and creativity all around us – in our personal lives and in our shared sacred stories. Christ continues to shine his extraordinary light on our ordinary existence, transforming us all into little lanterns of God’s light.

Christ comes down to the Jordan River to be baptized, and emerges glowing with the light of God. The most important thing to remember about his baptism is that it was God’s action through his Christ, and toward us.

Luke is unique among the gospel writers in claiming that Jesus was baptized, not by John the Baptist, but by God. If you look carefully at our Gospel for today you will see that John’s name is not mentioned after Jesus enters the scene. The Baptist, for Luke, is the last of the Old Testament prophets, standing at the precipice of the old age and pointing across the divide to the One who brings in the new age.

The words, “After Jesus had been baptized...” omits John’s name on purpose. The phrase is meant to downplay the actions of the Baptist, and emphasizes that it is God who baptizes his son, as it is God who baptizes us. God affirms his presence at Christ’s baptism through another epiphany – the Holy Spirit, sent from God, descending as a dove upon Jesus, followed by God’s voice from heaven, proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

This epiphany, or showing of God, is the first example of the Trinity revealing itself to the community. The audible voice of God, the visible body of the dove, and the presence of Christ, emerging naked out of the waters of the Jordan are a shocking sign of the emergence of a new creation. Our own baptisms are meant to shock us, if not by the temperature of the water then by the tangible presence of the Holy at every baptism.

The mention of water, Spirit, and the voice of God also recall the story in Genesis, when all three are mentioned as part of God’s activity in Creation.

Our baptisms are intended to make each of us a brand new creation taking our first breath after emerging out of the waters. God tells the story of the divine love that created the universe and continually creates history as each individual is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

It is through the waters of baptism that God calls to mind the stories from Genesis: the creation of the world, where God’s Spirit hovered over the watery mass of chaos and divided the waters into seas, rivers, polar ice caps and streams by creating the magnificent masses of land.

The waters of Baptism remind us also of the story of Noah, when the torrential floods punished the sinful as they redeemed the faithful few who floated in a homemade ark. It is the dove that brought the good news of approaching land to Noah....the same dove of the Holy Spirit that anointed Christ. That this dove appears again at the baptism is no coincidence.

The land Noah and his family discovered rose out of the very water that caused so much death. God made a new covenant with the people – never again to destroy the world with the flood of many waters. The water that brought death to God’s creation is the same water that brought Noah’s family to the redemption of a new life, sealed with a promise and marked by a rainbow.

It is this same death and new life that we are called to in our baptism. We symbolically sink into the waters of death, renouncing our old way of life as we renounce Satan. We emerge from the waters, joyously alive – a brand new creation, as God makes a new covenant with us.

The baptism itself is the covenant, initiated by God. The water is the sign that reminds us of our emergence into a new life. Like a newborn, bursting naked out of the watery amniotic fluid, we are vulnerable, innocent and teachable. We emerge from an old world into a new, Christ-centered world where stars lead our way, and ancient sacred stories build our path.

The earliest Christians looked back to Isaiah and recognized that his prophesies had come true with Jesus – the beloved servant of God. When Isaiah wrote the words from our first lesson, he was anticipating the restoration of Israel after their Babylonian captivity, which happened in the sixth century before Christ.

Christians believed that what was written by the prophets not only predicted the restoration of Israel from Babylonian exile but also clearly pointed to the restoration of Israel through the coming of the Messiah. The first Christians were Jewish, and were so immersed in scripture that most of them had the first five books of the Bible memorized, as well as the Psalms, and much of the Prophets.

This immersion in Scripture allowed them to see that God’s mighty acts in history followed a consistent pattern, and that God is true to himself and his purpose.
The pattern God consistently follows isn’t as easy for us to see today. This is why we need to remind ourselves of God’s covenant with us through our sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism.

That is why our current version of the Book of Common Prayer places Baptism front and center and gives a place of honor to the ancient Vigil of Easter where we tell the ancient stories of our faith and renew our baptismal vows at the font full of Holy Water before we receive the Easter Eucharist at the first light of dawn.

Look at the water imagery in the Isaiah reading in relation to baptism. “Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel. Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”

The sponsors or parents of the soon-to-be-baptized Christian must say his or her name before presenting them to the priest. This first name is known as our Christian name, so that God and the Christian community can call us by name. The names of the Trinity are also called out as the new Christian receives the branding of the cross, marked with Holy Oil, as Christ’s own forever. The rainbow was Noah’s sign, and the cross is ours.

Before we are doused with or submerged into the water we can imagine God using Isaiah’s words, “When you pass through these waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you...For I am the Lord your God and your Savior.”

The ancients associated death with any body of water. Baptism likewise reminds us that we die in the baptismal water, in imitation of Christ dying for us. We emerge from the waters of death as newly resurrected children of Christ.

Jesus warns his disciples in Mark’s gospel, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus refers to his approaching death as his baptism. And invites us to follow him there.

“Do not fear [the water of death] for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;’ bring my sons from far way and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

We are a new creation after our baptism. We are known as Christians, and are identified through our love.

The ancient baptismal rite was a lengthy process. All who sought admission to the Church had to be carefully scrutinized and examined. Christians were under persecution at the time, and they had to be certain that no spies infiltrated their ranks. To be baptized was to be called to a life of grateful, obedient service to God.

During the Eucharist service itself, the non-baptized were allowed to stay only until the sermon was finished. The Eucharist itself was celebrated just for the baptized.

Once you were selected as a baptismal candidate you began a three-year course of instruction known as the Catechism. The final phase of this instruction occurred during Lent, and culminated in the early dawn during the Easter Vigil, where the entire group was baptized by full immersion and then clothed in white garments and, in some cases, given a lit candle.

The newly baptized then processed into the church and received the laying on of hands by the bishop. He then poured oil on their heads and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with his thumb. He blew air in their faces to represent the wind of the Holy Spirit. They then received the kiss of peace from the bishop and the entire congregation.

In this way the new Christians were welcomed to the table of the Lord where they were allowed to receive communion for the first time.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit among the Samaritans. This group of Jews was particularly hated by the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Saved and redeemed by their baptism into the body of Christ, they still lacked the vibrant sense of God’s presence.

The laying of hands is what brings the Holy Spirit among them. In the baptismal rite, it is the priest’s hands touching the head of the baptized, that signifies the same holy touch of the first apostles upon the heads of the brand new Christians.

John the Baptist is clear that he baptizes with water, but the one who is to come will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians understood that our baptism makes us Christ’s own forever, but it is only through prayer that can we receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is in the act of praying when the Spirit descends upon him. During the ancient baptismal ceremony, the non-baptized were allowed to listen to the readings and the sermon. But it was only after the three-year preparatory course of study, followed by their Easter baptism, that they were finally allowed to pray with the congregation.

Those early Christians took the story of Jesus’ baptism literally. He emerged from the waters of his baptism and immediately began to pray. The early Christians reserved the right to pray with fellow Christians only after the lengthy baptismal process was over. Because it took so long, many died before they were actually baptized. But they were considered saved and were as Christians.

Our modern service of baptism includes prayer before, during, and after the baptism – assuring all of us of the continual presence of the entire Trinity during our Eucharist service.

I invite you this morning to pay attention to the water in our service. Douse yourselves with water from the baptismal font, and dip you hand into the water at both entrances to this church.

Watch the water being poured into the wine at the preparation of the Eucharist. This represents the water of our creation, our baptism, and the water of Jesus’ first miracle that he turned miraculously into wine. The water that flowed from his side at his death becomes the mixture of water and wine that we drink.

We gather together this morning to remember Christ’s baptism as a sign for us to follow. May we pay attention to all of God’s signs, sent to us, because of God’s abiding and eternal love.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Epiphany 4

January 31, 2010

The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
Jeremiah 4:1-10, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-39

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

We are usually at a wedding when we hear this beautiful hymn to love from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The words themselves are beautiful and have a calming effect, “Love is patient; love is kind; love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful – Love rejoices in the truth....” he writes.

I look at the wedding couple and see an icon of God’s timeless love. But I know that only God’s love lasts for eternity. Human love, with all of its promise, has a dark shadow. And unless we learn the practice of giving up our own plans and expectations in order to follow God’s will in our lives we will flounder and get lost on the way.

The love that Paul describes so beautifully is about the daily struggle to lose one’s Self in a bottomless well of God-centeredness.
This is a love that only one man was able to pull off perfectly – Jesus from Nazareth. And in this letter to the Church in Corinth Paul goes to great lengths to help us understand the complexities and gifts of Christ’s God-centered love for us.

Paul is writing this letter to the ragtag group of new Christians in Corinth (in present-day Greece.) He writes his letter because they wrote to him, asking for clarification on how one is to practice Christianity on a daily basis. They have opposing and passionate ideas about how to live out God’s call, and they are feuding with each other over issues that threaten to tear the new Church apart.
Sounds like the Church we all know so well.

It is no easier for us to understand the call to love one another than it was for the first Christians, but our modern culture throws some unique stumbling blocks in our path.

The first thing that trips us up is our language. “Love” has so many meanings that we each picture our own definitions of love as soon as we hear the word.
Romantic love is everyone’s favorite – we can feel it, remember it, and at a deep level we all yearn for it to come again and wake us up. It feels good. The world is transformed when you’re ‘in love’ – food tastes better, the birds sing louder, and poetry suddenly springs from our lips.

Then there are all the other forms of love – I love the new movie Avatar, I love chocolate cake; and crab dipped in butter. I love my cat, and my parents. I love waking up on a day off and sitting by the window with a steaming cup of coffee.
When I grew up in the Episcopal Church I had a vague sense that the love we sang about in hymns was a different kind of love than the ones I’ve just described, but I couldn’t put the pieces together.

The two different worlds of church and home didn’t seem to have much in common. We went to church regularly because that was our responsibility. And we were proud that we were regular church-goers. Once home we went back to rocky and chaotic life as usual, until we dressed up in our finest the next week and proudly went off to church again.

Pride and arrogance are the primary blocks to living out God’s call to love one another as Christ loved us. It is this pride in being a Christian that threw me off track and is what gets to the heart of the problem in Corinth.

Even at the dawn of Christianity human pride started mucking up the clear Gospel of Christ. It is a very subtle and sneaky issue, this pride, which is why Jesus shows us the way to call it what it is and learn how to walk away from it.

Today’s gospel is the second half of the story we heard last week. Jesus is in his home town of Nazareth and is reading from the Prophet Isaiah. The verse he chose to read spoke of freedom, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18

Then he puts down the scroll and says to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” These are electric words. If Isaiah’s prophecy has come true then this means that their world is about to change. It would make sense to expect that their very own Jesus, Joseph’s son, would pay special attention to them since he is one of their very own.

Much of Galilee, and especially Nazareth, was looked down upon by the majority of Jews. They were called ‘peasants,’ ‘common people,’ and the ‘unwashed of the land.” They spoke with an accent colored by many different cultures and races. It is interesting to note that when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn in Bethlehem it was because they had no room for them, not because they were full.

It is quite possible that when the people of Nazareth heard Jesus speak they immediately pictured their long term dream of becoming privileged and chosen coming true. They wanted the privilege and status that went along with Jesus’ popularity. They had heard what he had done in other towns in Galilee. Just imagine what he would do in his home town, with the people who saw him grow up. Surely their days of hearing “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” were over.

They were proud of Jesus as long as he lived up to their expectations. But he dashed their hopes to the ground and they turned on him like a pack of hungry dogs.
The two examples Jesus gives them illustrate the true nature of his call. The great prophets Elijah and Elisha skipped over all the Jews suffering from either starvation and thirst, or leprosy, and chose to heal instead a Gentile. Jesus doesn’t want to taunt or ridicule the Nazarenes, he just wants them to let go of their pride and arrogance and see that the word of God cannot be contained in one privileged home town.

Parker Palmer writes, "At the heart of any authentic religious experience is recognition that God's nature is too huge, God's movement too deep, ever to be comprehended by a single conception or point of view….God's truth is singular and eternal, but the forms in which we give it expression are as finite and fragile as clay pots, and we must always be ready to break them open on behalf of a larger vision of truth."

There is a reason that Luke uses this story as the introduction to Jesus’ ministry. It has all of the themes that Luke returns to again and again in his Gospel and the Book of Acts. Luke stresses throughout both books that Jesus came in order to bring the Gospel, the Good News, to all lands and all peoples.

Jesus fulfills what the prophets promised and brings his message to the people who need it the most – regardless of their class, status, religious beliefs or cleanliness. Jesus is persecuted by his own people because he shakes up the status quo and turns his back on their expectations of grandeur and fame.

At the end of the Gospel Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem – at the very heart of the Jewish power center. Today’s reading prepares us for what lies ahead for Jesus and his followers – the vengeance of an angry crowd that has missed the point of Jesus’ words.

What the crowd at Nazareth didn’t have was the love of God that drove Jesus to find a more receptive audience. The full extent of this cosmic love wasn’t understood until Resurrection. It was only then that everything he taught began to fall into place.

Paul was one of the people that hunted down the Christians with vengeance and murderous rage. His conversion showed him the extent of his pride and arrogance and gave him the fuel to warn others of the dangers self-righteousness.

Paul is able to see that the Christians in Corinth are in grave danger. Their self-centered dissents threaten to break the church apart. The love Paul describes is agape, the unmotivated and free gift of God’s love for us. It is vibrantly different from the self-seeking, romantic love of human beings. It doesn’t necessarily feel good when we act in accord with this agape love, but it does resonate with God’s will for us and for the entire world.

The people of Corinth were proud of all their spiritual gifts – they were speaking in tongues and prophesying. They were eating together and singing songs of thanksgiving and praise. But they were excluding many people from the inner circle and were fighting with each other over who had the best gifts.
Paul emphasizes that any spectacular manifestations of spiritual power or prophecy are pointless unless they flow from the selfless and unmotivated fountain of God’s love.

There are two important characteristics of this love: agape is beyond our control and it depends upon a deep and abiding humility. One cannot love by willpower alone. We can’t leave the church today and make the promise, “Today I will love,” and then succeed at loving everyone.

Love is beyond our control. In order to understand its illusive and penetrating power you must practice true humility. And this is the most difficult of Christ’s teachings.

There is a story of a man who wanted to be humble: “He was very happy when he managed to be humble. But he was very sorry that he was happy that he was humble. And he was very happy that he was so sorry that he was happy that he was humble.”
This story describes the problems we run into when we try to be humble – it creates a vicious circle. Once humility is possessed it is lost, since humility grows out of knowing one’s poverty.

This poverty is what connects us to Christ’s love. He became poor for our sake and asks us to do the same. Love is not a feeling at all, but a relationship with the divine that is simply there at times and not at all in our control. It is a radiation of cosmic power, like a wave. Our job is to lose our need for control and let the wave of God’s love overpower us.

We can’t really love one another without admitting that our human ability to act out this love is wounded. We are dependent upon God acting through us. We must attribute any true act of love as stemming from God alone. And we must learn the difficult task of letting others glow with the love of God when we feel left out. Love is not a quantifiable substance. There is enough love of God to fill each of us for eternity. And we need not be jealous of other’s gifts.

The people of Nazareth didn’t understand this. They were angry, threatened and jealous that Jesus took his gifts elsewhere. They were left standing on the precipice wondering where he disappeared to, and clueless to the message he brought.
If they were to act in the spirit of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians they would give up their self-centered need to be famous and accepted and follow Jesus to the next town. Agape love celebrates at every lost sheep found and every wounded soul saved.

It is our daily challenge to let go of our own preconceptions of love in order to admit we have no idea where God’s love might take us today. May we help each other to nurture this love in our own community.

Last Sunday in Epiphany

February 14, 2010
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
St Alban’s Episcopal Church
“With You, Oh God, is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” (Ps 36:9)
When I was 20 years old I spent the summer working in a High Sierra camp in Yosemite National Park. The camp was called “Sunrise” and at 10,000ft high it felt like a home among the clouds.
It was the most amazing summer of my youth. I worked as a waitress in the food tent, a maid in the overnight tents, and as a concierge, mountain guide, and naturalist in my off hours. I played my guitar and sang John Denver songs to the campfire in the evenings.
My favorite hike was to a place called Cloud’s Rest, a huge slab of granite that served as an overlook to Yosemite Valley, nestled 6,000ft below. Sitting on the edge of this precipice I felt close to God. And like the name implies, hikers were regularly engulfed in the cold mist of clouds coming to rest like lamb’s wool on the cold granite dome. When the clouds came it was time for the hikers to leave. Lightening is often not very far behind.
The season of Epiphany comes to a close today with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain top in Galilee. It is a story of the illuminating light of God setting off a chain of reactions that brings light into the lives of the hopeless and helpless even as it sends Jesus to his fate on the cross.
Epiphany begins with the wise men from the east, following the light of a star to find the infant Jesus, lying in a manger. What they discover brings them to their knees, as they recognize the true nature of God in a unique infant.
The word “epiphany” means, “the appearance or manifestation God.” Another term for this phenomenon is theophany: “a visible manifestation of God.” The season of Epiphany features the Gospel stories where the divine nature of Jesus emanates from him like the light of the sun, blinding in its power and able to transform doubt into dazzling belief.
During Epiphany, we hear Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, “The Spirit of God is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4: 18) Jesus’ first miracle is the turning of water into a ridiculous abundance of fine wine, revealing his glory to the disciples, “who believed in him” from that point on. (John 2:11)
Jesus increases the disciples’ faith by giving them such an abundant catch of fish that their boats begin to sink, leaving them questioning their sanity and shaking with fear and awe.
At Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist’s followers hear the voice of God proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) They witness a dove, a sign from God, descending on Jesus in a fluttering of wings, stirring up awe, wonder, and fear as the known world changes before their eyes.
Epiphany stories wake us up and recharge our batteries so that we can make it through the hard times ahead. We are about to descend into Lent, beginning this Wednesday, as ashes are smeared on our heads and we are reminded that we are “but dust and to dust we shall return.”
It is helpful to remember that even dust originates from the stars and has the capacity to glow, just as we carry the light of Christ through the darkest of times. Faith is belief without tangible evidence. Our faith in the light of Christ is buoyed by Epiphany stories but gains its power from the testing of darkness.
Mountaintop experiences end, but we carry the faith we receive on the mountaintop securely in our communal heart – passing the flame among us in order to keep it alive.
Today’s readings compare two mountaintop experiences – Moses and Jesus. Paul teaches the Corinthians how the two stories differ. Let’s look at how they are the same.
Moses descends from the mountain with his face glowing so brightly that it hurts the eyes of all who look upon him. But, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29)
His transformation was for the benefit of the God’s people. The rays of light radiating from Moses’ face provide evidence of his intimate relationship with God. The fear of those who witness this physical transformation, this theophany, or epiphany, instills a respectful obedience from the Israelites. This man Moses is obviously someone who can lead them through the wilderness because he speaks to God so intensely that his face glows with God’s light.
The Israelites believed that no-one could look upon the face of God and live. The light they see radiating from Moses is God’s light in a human face. They don’t know how to handle this new phenomenon. When in doubt, better to veil Moses’ face while it glows, lest they gaze upon the light of God and die because of it.
The Jewish liturgy continues the practice of keeping scripture under a veil, or covering, reminding the faithful that underneath the veil waits the blinding light of God’s revelation.
Jesus is on the mountaintop to pray. Just like Moses, Jesus climbs to the highest point he can find in order to enter into the luminal space between earth and heaven, human and divine. The air is thin up there and it literally takes your breath away. Jesus already stands with one foot in eternity, but when he prays, wherever he is, time stands still – the past becomes present, and the future twinkles with reality.
Peter, James and John gaze upon Moses and Elijah, standing there on either side of Jesus. Commentators explain that the presence of Moses and Elijah is confirmation that Jesus is the continuation of the ancient faith story of his people, and is the fulfillment of all that has come before.
Moses represents the Torah, the great and ancient stories of creation, human sin, redemption, promise, and covenant. Elijah represents the stories of the great prophets – warning humankind to pay attention to God in their midst, calling them repeatedly to change direction and focus on God’s will instead of their own.
Jesus is planted firmly in between the two figures as the bridge between the old and the new, between promise and fulfillment. As Moses led his people out of slavery into freedom, Jesus will lead all of God’s people out of the slavery of sin and death into a new home where all of creation will be redeemed.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Peter, wanting to build some kind of sheltering monument for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. It is a natural enough thing to want to build shrines where the Holy has taken place. Just look at what the Christians have done to the Holy Land.
There are treasures of gold, jewels and icons, lit by the light of eternal flames that burn around the entrances to the cave in Bethlehem, the mount of the Transfiguration, and the tomb at Calvary – none of which are verifiably holy sites, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
What matters is that there are places here on earth where Holy events actually happened. And that is enough to bring tears to pilgrim’s eyes even thousands of years from the time it all happened. Jesus did climb some mountain in Galilee, but as our Gospel stories emphasize – no-one built a shrine, so we’re not exactly sure where it was.
Peter wants to remember it forever. He’d like to come there again, to the very mountaintop where Jesus was transfigured before them, in order to remember that Yes, it really happened, and there were three of us there to see this marvelous theophany.
This is not what Jesus wants them to do. No matter how powerful a transformative experience is, it is not in the remembering of it, or the hallowing of the place where it happened that its power lies. No. The power of an experience of the Holy is what transforms within us.
Think of a time when you have seen someone’s face glow with the radiance of holiness. We have all seen it. We recognize it at ordinations, consecrations, baptisms, and Christmas Eves. We see it in the eyes of children reaching out for the blessed bread at communion.
Frederick Bueckner writes, “That they had caught something from Christ, I thought. Something of who he was and is flickered out through who they were.”
Paul explains to the Corinthians that with Jesus, a new light has come upon us all: a light that results in our own transformation. Paul uses the term ‘light’ interchangeably with truth. The truth of the Gospel is light to those who believe, but is veiled to those who don’t. Here Paul is using the word ‘veil’ to mean misunderstand.
When Moses descended from the mountaintop his face was radiant with blinding light. Those who believe in the truth of the Gospel see the words themselves as glowing with the light of truth.
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2Cor 3:18)
What Paul is teaching us is exactly why Jesus told the disciples not to be afraid. The glory of God, living in the truth of who Jesus is, changes all believers into bearers of the same glory that lit Christ from within.
What Peter, James and John witness is the light of Christ shining a light straight to his fate in Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah whisper to Jesus where he is to go, and it is this news that lights him up with the holy purpose of God. When he descends from the mountain he turns his face resolutely toward Jerusalem, knowing what will happen to him there. And he tells his disciples not to fear.
The light of Epiphany points us toward Calvary and challenges us to be steadfast in our faith and never to abandon our hope in God’s glory.
When I left my aerie in Yosemite I was married within the year and quickly had two children. I suffered from a prolonged post partum depression that eventually morphed into clinical depression. I didn’t quite lose my faith, but it became the darkest time of my life.
It was because of my belief that my children needed to find God in their own lives that I finally went back to church. I was acting on instinct alone, having them baptized at the Easter vigil service when they were 3 and 4 years old. Their baptism was the beginning of a long journey of faith for me. I never left the church again, and it was through pastoral counseling that my depression finally lifted.
The Psalmist writes, “With You, Oh God, is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” It is our responsibility as Christians to carry the light within us as if it is the Christ child himself.
Throughout the season of Lent we will come up for air every Sunday, reminding each other that Easter already came, so we can celebrate the Resurrection in the midst of our disciplines and dark Lenten stories.
Matthew writes, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) It is in the sharing of our Epiphany light that we keep it glowing. We must be as ready to ask for this light when we need it as we are to offer it when we feel abundant. It takes faith seekers as well as faith givers to make a complete community.
May we have the grace to look at our own St. Alban’s community and share not only the light of Christ with each other, but also our pain and struggles. It is what Jesus asks us all to do as we walk with him from the mountaintop to Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday

March 28, 2010
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56 Deborah Magdalene, OSH

It all happens so fast. One minute we are with the multitude of the disciples spreading our jackets and sweatshirts on the ground so that Jesus and his donkey will have a royal carpet to walk on. We cry with holiday excitement, “Blessed is our king who comes in the name of the Lord!” And before we know it, we are shouting just as loudly, “Crucify him! He saved others, let him save himself!”

This morning’s Passion Play, taken from Luke’s Gospel,leads us up to the empty cross and then just leaves us there. The words we hear this morning prepare us for our walk through Holy Week, but they leave us hanging on the precipice of death. How do we reconcile that the same crowd of disciples who adores Jesus can turn so quickly into a lynching mob? How did it happen so fast?

For years I thought that I was supposed to feel the agony of Jesus’ suffering and death. I believed that the purpose of Lent was to focus on my own sin and to wallow in the pain of knowing I’d let Jesus down. It was almost as if the more sorry I felt for my sins the more joy I might feel on Easter morning.

Thank God I have learned otherwise. Any time we focus on our sins without seeing them through the prism of Christ’s abiding love for us we are off base. It will remain a mystery to me what was going through Jesus’ head as he moved from riding astride the donkey to bending under the burden of his own cross. And my task is learning to be comfortable with that mystery.

It is not so very hard to imagine how Jesus’ disciples got so frightened that they let him down in the moment of his greatest need. They were only human. But it will always remain a mystery how Jesus kept his promise and rose from the dead in order to save all of humankind for God ..... and me from myself and my confused ways of thinking.

As I participate in the events leading up to Jesus’ trial, execution and burial my job is to let go of reason and grasp on to the mystery of salvation. It is only though accepting the miraculous mystery of God’s love for us that we can begin to comprehend the power of Christ’s death.

While I was in New York City attending seminary I got introduced to opera. And not just any opera. I was given tickets to attend the Metropolitan Opera – the Met. I was so transformed by my experiences there that I saved my money in order to buy a season ticket for my last year in New York. My seat was at the top of the nose-bleed section, but I didn’t care. I was affected just as deeply by what was happening way down there on that distant stage whether I sat in the 12th row, center (which happened once) or the farthest seat back. It didn’t matter where I sat.
What happens during good opera is art – a beautiful mix of orchestral music, talented singers, brilliant intertwined melodies and poetry, breathtaking set design and take-your-breath-away magic. It was the mysterious magic of it all that kept me coming back.

Good opera transports you to another reality. You become one with the drama or comedy unfolding before you on the stage. On the stage there is always frustrating miscommunication, ridiculous coincidence and inevitable tragedy. We in the audience see what the actor/singer cannot see, and it gives us the advantage of knowing what is about to happen.

We watch helplessly as tragedy hunts them down and one or another favorite character dies a gruesome and painful death. We get somber hints of grief through key changes in the music, while the gathering darkness of deep violet stage lights signals the cataclysmic. Music, lights, costumes, vocal artistry, and passion overwhelm everyone in the room and we’re left numb as the chandeliers rise and the curtain falls. We sit stunned in the afterglow of the mysterious effect of opera.

The story of Christ’s passion and death are just as much a mystery. But just because this paschal mystery is the center of our Christian faith, doesn’t mean that we understand it any better this year than we did last. In fact, because it is the focal point of our shared Christian story, it assumes a life of its own and is easy to misunderstand.

All four gospels tell the same story. Though they differ from each other in unique ways, the key points never vary. In fact, the gospels are all described as passion narratives with long introductions. All of Jesus’ earthly life leads up to these moments of arrest, abandonment, betrayal and death.
The key to understanding what happened at the end of Jesus’ life is to place these events within the context of the entire gospel story – from the beginning to the present moment.

Jesus’ death is not the focus of his ministry or of his life. Christ came to us that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. (John 10:2) And if we don’t understand that key point, we will misunderstand why he had to die.

The first Christians were bewildered and lost during the events of Christ’s passion and death. It all happened too fast. One minute they are learning from their teacher and the next they are hiding in fear. It was only in the afterglow of Christ’s resurrection and ascension that they were able to look back on his life and death and put the pieces together.

have the advantage of knowing the whole story. But it is about this time in our Lenten journey that we all need reminders. Two images help me to put Holy Week in perspective.

The first is the Incarnation. The limitless vastness of God empties himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbles himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.”

The miracle of today’s story is that God’s own self could be born in a human body, that like all of us, has a permanent date with death. Jesus’ death was inevitable, as is our own. We mustn’t forget that without the incarnation there would be no resurrection. We are called to see the passion of Christ through the lens of Christmas.

The other image that helps during Holy Week is when Jesus invites the little children to come to him, “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." We are the children invited to the Last Supper with Jesus, and invited to sit and be present with him as he protects us with his love. We are designed to be loved, but the journey of deep and abiding love is inevitably paved with hardship and turmoil.

The Easter joy that awaits us is the miraculous life we are all given after the Resurrection. There is now a purpose for our lives – we are Christ’s own forever, as our Baptismal Covenant reminds us, so that we can co-create God’s heaven here on earth. It is our job to invite the little ones to come to us because we have such good news to share.

One week from today we will celebrate Pascha – the Orthodox name for Easter, which means, “the Passover.” God lets Jesus pass through death so that we can have life. The Paschal Mystery is that Christ has come, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Christ came to us as a child on Christmas, he rose to show us how deeply we are loved and he will come again to make all of history complete.

May we allow this coming Holy Week to wash over us in the same mysterious way in which God washes over us – bathing us in the light of mystery and opening new doors of possibility through the cycle of death and new birth that surrounds us all.
Tuesday of Holy Week and I've got the Last Supper on my mind. Still looking at palms from Palm Sunday stashed on countertops, choir desks, and tables around the convent. I plan to put all my sermons from the last few years on this blogspot, but first must learn how to use this new tool. Today I'll start my sermon for Thurs evening. All of us sisters are going over to St Alban's Episcopal Church (just down the road from us) to share the lamb dinner and foot washing liturgy with our neighbor parish. Luckily I'm on staff there so it's a second home for me.