Month: March 2014

Who sinned?

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent- St. Paul’s Ossining, March 30, 2014

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Funny how some of Jesus’ disciples are so quick to jump to conclusions, isn’t it? These guys are following him around, and they see somebody, some sort of homeless type guy, he’s blind. Yuck, that’s not good, somebody must have done something wrong, because it doesn’t fit how they think their world should be. So who’s the sinner? Is this guy being punished for living a bad life? Oh, he was blind when he was born?—then it must have been his parents that were the sinners, right? It appears that they were using religious logic—that somehow there is justice, so if there appears to be something bad in somebody’s life that must be punishment.

It turns out as we go through this story, that the only one besides Jesus that isn’t blind is the man who was born blind. Everybody wants to make a quick judgment on behalf of God: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.”—then they said to the man, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” This man who had been blind, and a beggar, had a lot of starch to him—in the midst of all these judgments and accusations he responds: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

yossi-blind-cartoon

He spoke with rationality, and was the ONE who did not confuse his observations with his judgments.

Human beings are generalizing and categorizing kinds of creatures. Certainly in my job as a librarian, I’m used to quickly assigning things to categories and making generalizations about things—we all do. As an employer, a supervisor, and a faculty member, I also have to make judgments about people, and so might many of us. When you sort things into categories, there may be consequences for making a mistake, like when the wrong search term is assigned to a book, but those consequences are limited, and they can be corrected.

Generalizing and making judgments about people is a far more serious thing, harder to undo and often with lasting effects on the people judged. I think I am right to approach those kinds of judgment and generalizations about people with care.

But in today’s story the judgments and generalizations are not only not careful, but they are blind. The blindness comes, not with a defect in the eyes but in choosing to judge before they look, in presuming to know without seeking to understand the people involved, and in presuming to know God’s will without seeing his Son.

So our guy, having recovered his sight, answers the religious leaders: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes!” And those religious leaders resort to pure personal attack: “You were born entirely in sins and you are trying to teach us?” Their blindness is in refusing to see.

As we move along the path of Lent toward Baptism and toward Easter, we have another step forward in the preparation of the catechumens, that is to say those that are preparing to receive the sacrament of baptism—and really all of us as we discover more deeply the meaning of our baptism and life in Christ and get ready ourselves to renew our baptismal vows.

Last week we had the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, who was in her own way on the margins and outcast, yet she professed her faith and became the apostle to her people; this week we have a beggar, blind and outcast, who once he regains his sight is even more firmly cast out. He, at that very point, sees Jesus and professes his faith. His witness is to what he has really seen, and those who claim to see are blind.

We are often misled by our inclinations and what we assume is the way things should be. In the old testament lesson, the prophet Samuel, gets the call and heads out to anoint the new king of Israel—and he, like everyone else, assumes that one of the tall, older, more developed and stronger sons of Jesse would be the one. But it turned out to be the youngest, who had been dismissed and sent out to mind the sheep so the real candidates could be present, it was the young David who God had chosen.

With God, things are often turned upside down. To be enlightened, we have to give up thinking we have everything figured out, and be like this once-blind man, who describes exactly what he sees, and he sees Jesus in all his love.
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14

The Way of Wisdom and the Keller Library

The Rev. Andrew G. Kadel, Director of the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library

 

Reading Room

The Reading Room of the Keller Library

The Way of Wisdom is, in fact, the calling of all Christian people to grow in understanding and deeper participation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who are called to attend seminary prepare to lead, teach, accompany, and assist others on this Way. Our goal at seminary is not to produce priests who have pre-made solutions to pre-determined problems. The faculty works along with the students to provide for the church wise, resourceful people who know how it feels to struggle to live on the Way of Wisdom and who know how to be companions to others following alongside.

Professor Irving teaching in the library

The faculty introduces the students to voices they have never known existed—from the church of the second, third and fourth centuries, from the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and from more recent times. The community critically reflects on scripture—for instance, how it impacts women in the present and in the past, or how we might sort through the controversies of the present day and how the church has done so in many critical times in the past. Even philosophical, theological, and theoretical thinkers who might be more distant or abstract are engaged, so those voices are heard and understood, and their insights incorporated into the way of wisdom that is our life together. But none of this is just an academic or scholarly exercise, no matter how exciting that might be for some.

The Keller Library provides an opportunity to explore and listen to all manner of these voices—a cloud of witnesses far more diverse than any institution could have in person. The Library is a place of engagement with worlds of thought and spirit outside of one’s own head or feelings. We have designed the Library with places for quiet study and for lively conversation, so that those who use it can interact not only with texts, but with living people. The library staff is skilled at listening, understanding and explaining what the resources are and how to use them. We are a community that travels the Way of Wisdom together and the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library is a joyful part of it.

The Samaritan Apostle

A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014

 

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

The Gospel today is long. That’s because it’s a great story and there’s no way to break it up.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan. The Samaritans show up a number of places in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John and we often skip over, or misunderstand who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers. Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later. It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

There is still a very small community of Samaritans who live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there. There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land. Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem. This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy. Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant… From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one of them at all.

So that’s the background of this conversation—Jesus asks THAT sort of woman for a drink of water. And she responds as you would expect—“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And the entire long discussion involves all the main points of Samaritan theology and their differences with the Jews. She was so intent on arguing her points, that she couldn’t hear that Jesus was saying something completely different—as he told her about living water, and true worship, she responds with the Samaritan theological talking points: Jacob gave this land and well to his son Joseph, the ancestor of the Samaritans, and true worship is on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion.

But Jesus is not trying to win a theological debate—he’s talking about being alive in the presence of God. The turning point is when, in a very tight place, she asserts the Samaritan understanding of the returning Messiah and Jesus says to her: “I am the one, the one who is speaking to you.” This personal connection breaks through her defenses, and convinces her that this life he offers her is something different than the old debates between one group and another. The whole point of her being at that place was to fill up her water jar and take it back to townNiagara Springs—but she leaves the water jar there and she goes and tells everybody in town—“Come and see…Could this possibly be the Messiah?”—in fact this makes her the first apostle, that is, one sent to bring others to Christ. One might say that she leaves her jug and brings Living Water to the town.

This story is so rich and full that it really would warrant a whole Lenten study series to fully appreciate it. Being transformed through receiving the living water of Christ directs us toward baptism and Easter which are the real point of Lent. Among the many insights that can be drawn from these lessons today, the one that I would like to point out is that this woman had some real legitimate religious traditions and theological understanding, but she was stuck—one can surmise that a lot of it had to do with personal issues, that she was trying to hide and defend at the same time. When she really met Jesus she had to give up, not the religious truth, but how she formulated them, and how she defended herself and her group. As we move forward in faith, and face new situations in a changing world, sometimes we also have to be ready to give things up and change when Jesus asks us to follow him…maybe even leaving the water jug behind.

And God said to Moses: “Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

And Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Perpetua, Baptism, and the Lenten Journey

A sermon at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, March 9, 2014

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The most popular understanding of Lent is that it’s a season for self-improvement. A time to do all the drudgery of spiritual spring cleaning—maybe lose a little weight—so that we can really notice how happy we can be when Easter comes. But the origin of Lent isn’t that at all. Lent was the season of the final preparation of the catechumens (that is, the people who were preparing for baptism, much as we have an inquirers class going on at St. Mark’s now)—this was the final stage, of a very intense inquirers class.
The Gospel lessons from this year’s lectionary actually reflect this: we start with Jesus own baptism—where the tempter tries to distract his focus, and he responds “One does not live by bread, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”—in other words, he remained focused on the wisdom of God and the scriptures. Next Sunday is Nicodemus who learns about being born from above. The following Sunday is the Samaritan woman at the well who learns about living water from this stranger who deeply and mysteriously knows everything she has been hiding from herself, then the man who was born blind who receives his sight and can see the truth, and finally Lazarus who is restored to life. Lent is the new life of baptism, and together we walk the way to participation in Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism and re-affirmation of baptism at Easter, the feast of Christ’s resurrection.
We walk this way with the catechumens, those learning the essentials of the way of Christ—as, I guess, we all still are.

PERPETUA
I would like to tell you about a catechumen who means a lot to me. She died one thousand eight hundred and eleven years ago last Friday. We know this, because there was a public entertainment in Carthage to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday in 303 and that entertainment included having Perpetua and her companions face wild beasts and gladiators in the arena. The birthday of such an important person as the emperor is a matter of public record: March 7. The Romans weren’t always persecuting the Christians in those days, but sometimes regional governors would decide that it was important to make an example of those who wouldn’t make the prescribed sacrifice of a bit of incense to the Emperor’s genius. So, early in 303, a number of young Christians were arrested. Perpetua was twenty-two years old, she was married—though we hear nothing about her husband—and she had a little baby, and like the rest of her companions, she was a catechumen, preparing for baptism.
The reason that Perpetua is so important to me is that I’ve done some work on the writings of early Christian women, and the central part of the little work that is entitled The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas was actually written by Perpetua. Her account of her experience during her imprisonment is the earliest Christian writing that is unambiguously in a woman’s own voice.
After an introduction by an editor, these are the first words she writes:

While we were still under arrest (she says) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?” “Yes, I do,” said he. And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name that what it is?” And he said, “No.” “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved toward me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For something written over 1800 years ago, Perpetua’s writing about her relationship with her father seems pretty familiar. Her writing is unaffected, but passionate, and, at least to my ear, authentically expresses the experience of a young person from a world far away in time, place, and culture. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy, that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” When she was anxious or concerned, it was for her baby’s well-being, or for the suffering of her deceased brother, who she saw in a dream. When she expressed sorrow, it was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. These catechumens rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. Perpetua writes about several dreams or visions which she had in prison. This is the end of her account of one of her first visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

In North Africa, in the second and third Christian centuries, those who were baptized received, in addition to the bread and wine of communion, a cup of milk and honey. In this vision, Perpetua is describing heaven, the culmination of the spiritual journey, and she describes it in the terms of the baptismal liturgy. Interestingly, she interprets the vision as a message that she won’t be released or spared suffering in the arena. But for her, it is a message of life and hope, not death.

Lent is a season of life and hope. We travel along with these catechumens, those in Carthage and those here at St. Mark’s, we travel with Winnie, as she speaks a word of truth and hope on yet another side of the world. In that journey we receive life as a gift, not as something we earn by lifting ourselves by our bootstraps or resisting a piece of candy. With Jesus and with Perpetua we focus on the life that God gives us and we move on toward that new life of the resurrection.

Their delight

A sermon preached at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd

The General Theological Seminary  Thursday, March 6, 2014

Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked*
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord*
and they meditate on his law day and night.

Thus begins the first psalm of the Psalter that has served as the primary prayer book and hymnal for Jews and Christians for millennia. There is nothing random or accidental in this choice. Psalm 1 sets out the theme of worship which is also the theme of life: the way of righteousness and the way of wisdom.
In our direct discourse, active voice, Strunk & White, always positive, American culture, it might strike some as a little odd that the first stanza is fundamentally negative. You are blessed for what you DON’T DO. This sets the psalm in the context of the real world—the way of blessing or happiness is not simply a trivial default setting but an alternative to ordinary things that we see regularly. Walking the way with the unambiguously wicked and criminal is not usually the most common problem for churchgoing and seminary type people, and our personal accounts of loitering with sinners and partaking of sinfulness usually put them safely in the past, even if we enhance them for dramatic effect. But after working in various seminaries for twenty-four years and hanging out with clergy for much longer—sitting in the seats of the scoffers—that’s prime real estate. We could probably solve our financial problems by charging sky-box rates for the seats of the scornful. I’ll get back to what I mean in a minute.

What is important in this psalm, as in many ancient texts, is not what is at the beginning or the end, but what is at the center. The person that is blessed is who? The one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on God’s law day and night. That word, “law,” does not refer to collections of statues and prohibitions. The word is “Torah.” The new Jewish translation renders it as “teaching” and even in its narrowest understanding, Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible, which tell the story of God’s creation of the world and of the people Israel, and of their redemption in the Exodus. This introduction to the Psalms tells us that the one who is truly blessed takes delight in all that God has done, and particularly in study and meditation on those texts that convey our heritage.

Of course, I’m thinking of the scripture, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament, but there are also all those other voices of our heritage, whether they are contemporary, or from a few hundred years ago, or ancient. About three weeks ago, our faculty adopted a declaration entitled “The Way of Wisdom,” which will be released to the public later this month. In one passage of it, we say this:

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church, whom we call “theologians,” were at once biblical scholars, pastors, and critical thinkers of great spiritual wisdom who drew deeply from sophisticated philosophical reasoning as they guided the course of the Church in their time. Preaching the Gospel was integral to the transformation of the lives of all Christians. Responsible preaching required study and study was also worship.

“…study was also worship”—the teaching of the Lord was their delight and they studied that teaching day and night. Their study, their teaching, their preaching and their pastoral work were all one blessing. In one way or another, almost all of us here today are called to an office of teaching, and in that we share in that great delight and awesome responsibility of continually learning and digesting the teaching of the Lord.

When Professor Malloy returned from grading the GOEs, he told some of us that one of his colleagues there remarked that, on the liturgics question, not one student made the connection between Lent and Baptism. That got me to thinking: it is not just a historic connection, Lent is really our preparation for baptism—we travel the road along with the catechumens, and particularly this year, the preparation for baptism is emphasized in the lectionary: from the Temptation in the Wilderness to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman at the Well, to the Man born blind, to the Raising of Lazarus—each Sunday we progress along the Way of Wisdom further into the mystery of life in the risen Christ and though we may already be baptized we accompany the catechumens.

PERPETUAPerpetua was one of those catechumens when she was arrested. Tomorrow will be the one thousand-eight hundred and eleventh anniversary of her martyrdom. She is particularly important to me, because the central part of The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is written by her. It is the earliest Christian writing that we have that unambiguously presents a woman’s voice. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honor, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” Her sorrow was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. They rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. This is the end of her account of one of her visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

Thus her vision of heaven depicts aspects of the baptismal service of the late second and early third century. As we meditate and study we hear voices new to us and we are transformed as part of that great cloud of witnesses. Those people in the seats of the scornful that I mentioned earlier, they are always looking for the short-cut—how do we get recognition, or success, or a program out of this?  How can we skip reading, and still get credit. One can regularly hear them scoffing at anything that spends effort that doesn’t yield results. But those who delight in the teaching of the Lord, they are like the tree planted by the stream of water, bearing fruit with leaves that do not wither. When the time comes, they have wisdom to share with the saints who need their encouragement.

Listen to Him

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY March 2, 2014

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Mount of the Transfiguration
The season after Epiphany has been very long this year. Because Easter falls almost as late as it possibly can, Lent begins later, so we have eight Sundays this year that follow the ministry and teaching of Jesus, before we get to Lent, and today is the last of them. Lent comes from the time in the early church when the catechumens, that is, the people who were preparing to be baptized, had their final instruction and preparation. If you read the writings of Christians from the second and third centuries, baptism was the most precious and important thing—the joy of baptism overcomes all else, because in baptism we are joined with Christ in the resurrection. That’s why baptism primarily takes place at Easter. So Lent is above all about baptism. Today is the pivot point when we move from this season of becoming immersed in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, the radical blessings and challenges of the Sermon on the Mount: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;” “beware of practicing your piety before others;” to the season of our Lenten preparation for baptism and Easter.

The Gospel lesson today is no accident. Like Moses, Jesus goes up to the mountain, and after 6 days, he is in the presence of God in a cloud. He is transfigured; he shines with the presence of God. It’s the same Jesus, but different, more…like in the Resurrection! And that Voice, it says something, “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

Where have we heard that before? In this same Gospel, Matthew seems to be repeating himself. The same words came from the cloud when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. At this point, in the presence of Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah the prophet and the Apostles Peter, James and John, Jesus baptism and resurrection are joined. And from that point forward in the Gospel Jesus is moving inexorably to Jerusalem, as we move through Lent toward the same thing—the Holy Week of the triumphal entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the institution of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Most of us were baptized a long time ago, but that does not make our baptism a thing of the past. In baptism we are joined with Christ in his life, his death and his resurrection. And being baptized does not mean that we won’t profit from preparing ourselves for baptism—not again, for we are baptized once and are joined in Christ’s body—but to understand and accept the joy of baptism, in which death is defeated and we are set on the way of life.

On the mountain, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here…” “Let me put up tents here for you and Moses and Elijah.” It was good. Peter wanted to just dwell there, in the joy of the resurrection. But the voice came out of the cloud: “… with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” In the immediate previous story in the Gospel, Peter argued with Jesus, saying NO when Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the religious authorities. So listen, Peter—this is not just about tents and renaissance fairs—you and Jesus are going to Jerusalem. The road to baptism and resurrection is the road of real life with all the difficulty and uncertainty that real life brings.
When we talk about the joy of baptism, we are not talking about something superficial or pretend; not good feelings for the sake of feeling good. We are talking about the defeat of death through living life. We learn from the life of Jesus: hopeful, courageous, comforting, healing. In him we see that hope is not wishful thinking, but engagement with life’s difficulties with the knowledge that, in the end, God’s love triumphs. As we look forward to the way of Lent, look forward to your own baptism, which we re-affirm every Easter. Learn to live in that hope, which we learn walking with Jesus.