Wednesday, February 23, 2011

March 6, 2011. The Last Sunday after Epiphany

© 2011 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Exodus 24:12-18

This passage reads like bona fides for Moses.  People did not elect him:  God chose him.  Moses went up on the mountain alone, and he stayed there forty days and forty nights.

When persons run for President of the United States, typically they run for close to 600 days and nights, and  they don’t benefit from the presumption that they are spending time close to God.

Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.  

Compare those data with date from a major modern example of pyro-techniques”   The fire in the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Center burned for 99 days

Psalm 2

God seldom  laughs in the whole of the bible, but Jesus laughs often.  See my 1973 article Did Jesus Laugh, first published in The Lutheran Forum.

Yet in the second psalm, the “kings of the earth rise up in revolt, and the princes plot together against the LORD and against the Lord’s  anointed:"

God responds by laughing.  He derides them, as if to say, “I gotcha!”

Rarely do we imagine Jesus mocking his enemies.   He taught, “Do not return evil for evil.... Bless those who curse you.  Do good to those that spitefully use you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.”

2 Peter 1:16-21

Peter lays out his own bona fides.   Although  we have no fool-proof way to check them out 2,000 years after the fact, Peter certainly seems to feel it important that we accept what the he and other eye witnesses as accurate.

When Peter speaks of the prophecy in Scripture, he is not referring to Christian scriptures, but to Hebrew scriptures, the only scriptures he knew.  He asserts that the Holy Spirit  spoke through God in the creation of those scriptures.

Peter observes that their reports more fully confirm the prophecies in Hebrew Scripture.

Peter asserts that he and others who report the power and coming of our Lord Jesus report what they have seen with their own eyes.  They were present at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit descended and said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 17:1-9

More bona fides;  for Jesus this time.   The transfiguration places Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah, two major spiritual icons.    

It’s such a moving triumvirate, that Peter, James and John, allowed to witness it, don’t want to leave.  Peter says:  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

From spontaneious religious experience to church architecture:  ever was it thus.

Rather than trust spiritual experience to regenerate itself, Peter, James and John, like many throughout religious history, want to preserve the experience in permanent dwellings.

God interrupts suddenly with a bright cloud that overshadows them, and a voice affirms of Jesus in almost the same terms that the Holy Spirit had used at Jesus’ baptism:  "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

Jesus ignores his disciples' plea stay enraptured on the mountain.  “He came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

When we have had a powerful experience of God, often we want it to last forever.   Yet manna, God’s holy food for our journey, cannot be freeze-dried.   It comes in ample supply for only one day at a time.  Any leftovers rot

The readings from Exodus, 2nd Peter, and Matthew all emphasize spiritual credentials – Moses’, the apostles’, and Jesus’.  What about our own?

In John 13:35, Jesus said, “By this shall all know that you are his disciples if you have love one for another.”    If you were put on trial as a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you.”

Today's collect emphasizes that the transfiguration occurred before the passion, adding:  “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”

See also

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February 27, 2011. Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany.

© 2011 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

Do you experience insistent “faithless fears”?

Is it faithless to have anxiety about the fate of planet earth?  Or is that fear faithful?

Was the father faithless to be anxious when his prodigal son took his inheritance and squandered it in riotous living far away from home?  When he saw his son returning far down the road, he ordered that the fattened calf be made into veal scaloppini, and dashed to embrace him, “For this my son who was lost is found!”

Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to exist not just in heaven, but here on earth.   Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done not just in heaven, but here on earth.  

Those are wrong who proclaim that politics and religion should not mix.  They must mix if we are to have good religion or good politics.

Rather than seek deliverance from anxiety, we might use our anxiety to prompt us to act righteously.

Should we really cast all our cares on God?  Is that a way to treat our friend Jesus?

This Collect is the intoxicating opiate that Marx warned about – a drugged dependence on God rather than a faithful acceptance of the vitality and capacity that God has given us.

Atheist George Bernhard Shaw faithfully warned:  “Beware of the one whose God is in the skies” (“Maxims for the Revolutionary” in Man and Superman (1903).

Beware of love which is so immortal that you have no need to act on it until death.

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace

  -- Andrew Marvel.

Isaiah 49:8-16a

The Lord says to the prisoners, "Come out"… to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves."…. The Lord …will have compassion on his suffering ones.

“If your high school is a safe place for lesbian and gay students to come out, please stand.”

Only three students remained seated when this request was made at a recent conference of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Lgbt students need data far more accurate than this in determining whether to “come out” and “show themselves.”  Likely several students stood just to make their schools look good, with no close attention to the stark risks which lgbts face if they show themselves.  

A friend is proud that her granddaughter and two classmates at an Episcopal high school had the courage to remain seated.  The grandmother is strategizing with the three regarding how to persuade administrators to restore the Gay-Straight Alliance which they disbanded when a few parents complained.  The parents did not want their children even to hear about such people.

How comfortable would prisoners feel sitting on the pew with you.  How comfortable do you feel when face to face with “the least” among us?

Isaiah’s rhetoric can easily sound reassuring if we hear in it only about God’s deliverance of our spiritual ancestors in a time thousands of years ago.   How comfortable are we to allow God to use us as agents of deliverance for prisoners and those who are in darkness right now?

Psalm 131

With only two verses Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm in the bible:

 Praise the LORD, all you nations;
   extol him, all you peoples.

For great is his love toward us,
   and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

   Praise the LORD.

With only four verses, Psalm 131 is not far behind.  Perhaps if we say if four times we’ll be closer to knowing it by heart

My take on the first verse:

O LORD, I am not proud; *
I have no haughty looks.

I might say this to God, but would others say the same thing about me?

Would the beggar to whom I nodded “No” as I left Dunkin Donuts this morning say of me, “He is not proud.  He does not look haughty?”

I might feel better about myself if I invited her in with me and bought breakfast for her. I might also use my communications gifts to promote laws that would assure that fewer people needed to beg, free of the caprice of how generous I feel day to day.

My take on Verse 2

Would we want the President of the United States to pray?:

I do not occupy myself with great matters, *
or with things that are too hard for me.

If our child comes to us with a great matter that is very hard, should we respond with this verse?

The text invites us to think of ourselves more lowly than we ought to think.  It promotes a humility that diminishes our spiritual resources.

My take on Verse 3

But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother's breast; *
my soul is quieted within me.

I like the speaker’s acceptance of personal responsibility.  “I still my soul, [God]”, not “God, please still my soul.”  

The speaker summons an image of earlier stillness common to most human beings, when we were unweaned.

Soul can get us there.   Spiritual sedation is efficacious. We do not need Tylenol or aspirin.

The verse, indeed the whole psalm, has potential as a “speech act”; that is, with it the speaker purports to cause something to happen, and does not merely describe what might happen.

“With this ring I thee wed” is also a speech act, as is “I now pronounce you husband and husband” if said in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., or in the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon.  In all other states “I now pronounce you wife and wife” lacks efficacy as a speech act.

Be still, my soul.  Be still.

My take on Verse 4

The first three verses of Psalm 131 are all written in the first person singular, as something the speaker says to God.  Without warning, Verse 4 shifts to the third person:

O Israel, wait upon the LORD, *
from this time forth for evermore.

The shift works to snap a speaker out of private meditation.  It proclaims the public significance of such meditation:  Do this meditation communally forever.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

As a paragraph in a letter to Christians in the fledgling church at Corinth, this text shows Paul rambling through personal and corporate ethics.  His guiding principle is that we think of ourselves as “stewards.”  He illustrates:  “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”  

But that reflection does not sit well with him.  He’s been in jail enough not to trust his criminal justice system.   He knows too that what he has said and what he plans to say later in this letter will surely make him unpopular with those whom he criticizes in the church in Corinth.

While Paul does not abandon his “stewards” metaphor, he tempers it: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.”

This paragraph is not a good model for establishing how Christians should make ethical decisions.   Saint Paul is writing a letter, not a juridical treatise.  

Witness the problems that Pope Maledict has put himself into, indeed the whole Roman Catholic Church into, by his resistance to being “judged by [other Christians]  or by any human court.”

Matthew 6:24-34

These are not comfortable words to the rich:

"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

One way to soften this judgment is to exempt oneself as not wealthy.  It’s easy to find many who are far wealthier and then assert their greater wealth as prima facie evidence that they serve wealth more than they serve God.   And yes, we might admit, there are those poorer than ourselves. Even Jesus, we might note, observed “The poor you have with you always.”

My friend Larry Graham warns against such solipsism:

"The poor you will always have with you" is not a commandment.

How does your income compare with incomes of others in the United States?  See the latest summary from the U.S. Census Bureau  For a more global perspective, see  how income in the United States compares with income in most other places.

When God asked murderer Cane where his brother was, Cane replied snidely, “Say what?  Why are you asking me?  Am I my brother’s keeper?!”

Your brother’s prison warden?  No.  Your brother’s brother?  Yes.

Who are my brothers and sisters? “God has made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26)

See also

February 20, 2011. Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany.

© 2011 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Collect takes a cue from Saint Paul and treats love as a spiritual gift – not something we give, but something God gives through us.   Like Saint Paul, the Collect treats love as God’s “greatest gift” – greater than faith, greater than hope.

D. H. Lawrence complained that we human beings use the word love so much that we have diminished the power of the word to say anything clearly. Lawrence suggested that we stop using it for several years.  Perhaps later we would re-discover it authentically.  Perhaps not.

Poets have been known to place extremely high standards for what can be called love.  In his sonnet sequence to the mysterious male “W.H.,” Shakespeare early on describes their friendship in charged, sensuous language:

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:

But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

That is to say, ‘You are gorgeous, and I will keep you fixed as gorgeous by writing words about you that Louie Crew and thousands of others will still relish four hundred years later.’

Flattery might be welcome when affection is reciprocal, but in time the poet’s friend lost interest.  In anguish, the poet fortified himself with idealism that sounds increasingly manipulative:

Sonnet 116

 Let me* not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.    Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

  *  [italics are Quean Lutibelle’s]


In other words, ‘You may think you can leave me, but I won’t let you.  I’ll keep you alive in my poetry, and I’ll bear whatever you make me bear until doomsday.  I cannot possibly be wrong in my understanding of what love is. So there!’

Would you welcome being fixed forever on a page or in an artist’s painting or sculpture when you no longer gave a fig for the poet or artist?

Is the love the poet professes healthy?  Is it love?   Maybe Shakespeare was charitable to hide the identity of  “W. H.”?

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx loved a monk who did not reciprocate his affections, and Aelred, like the speaker in Shakespeare’s sonnets, takes pride that his own affection remains constant and reliable.

Saint Paul says, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13.3).

It’s easy to want to be a loving person and to persuade ourselves that we really are loving.   It’s hard to love as God loves, unconditionally and without manipulation.”

It is easy for me to say,  “I love X but do not like X”; but is that not a cop out? That distinction makes love less demanding so that I can feel better about my failure to love unconditionally.

Sometimes I have used   “I love X but do not like X” to rationalize the fact that while in the abstract I may wish the best for the person, in reality I prefer to have as little to do with the person as possible.

In September 1995, I represented the Diocese of Newark at a Worldwide Conference on Evangelism at Kanuga.  In a breakout session, a person from New Zealand felt called to witness to me knowing that I am a gay Christian:  “We love you, Louie, but you are a defilement on the Body of Christ.”

Matthew 5:38-48

In Matthew’s account, Jesus cuts no slack for ‘safe’ distinctions about what love requires.  He commands that we love even our enemies:  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

I suspect my soul would short circuit as with a huge power surge were I truly to see how much God loves the persons who most displease me.  How might I love them as much as God does?

In William Werc’s Prayer William says:

…But here all know [I'm gay], Jesus...
  Do they hate queers as much
     in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco?
I wish my company had a branch
     in one of those places.
Even their bishops claim to love us,
     though clergy do throw love
     around very glibly.
I wonder if they'd love a son or a daughter
     who is one?

I wish you'd talk back, God.
     I'm one weary quean ….

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

Reading Leviticus is sometimes hard work.  Teaching the Bible as Literature at the university, often I have passed out copies of the legal code related to using laboratory mice when researching carcinogens.  That gives a modern literary parallel to the rhetorical purposes in Leviticus. Much of Leviticus is devoted to public health concerns through elaborate purity codes.

Yet right in the middle of its heavy emphasis on health issues the passage today speaks as clearly as almost any other biblical text about the demands of any love worthy of the name love Theologian Carter Heyward says, “Love without justice is cheap sentimentality.”  Leviticus concurs:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. 

Why do so few know these imperatives?   Why would many Christians be unable to name the book in which they appear?   Is it easier to go for the queers?

I get the impression that few lay Christians have voluntarily made it all the way through Leviticus unless we are lesbian or gay and for our survival have to know well the few bible bullets that some aim at us.  See my collection of texts that address homosexuality in Scripture.

Psalm 119:33-40

Here, as often in the psalms, the speaker expects to please God by following the law.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.

Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.

Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.

Good sentiments, Saint Paul would agree, but daunting.  Who could succeed in living up to the law’s demands?   Christ met those requirements for us.  We are saved by grace, not by our own righteousness, but by Christ’s….  

1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

Are you aware that God lives in your own body?  That’s what Saint Paul emphasizes.

Does it make any difference in how you think about yourself and in how you think about others if God has taken up residence within  you?

Ernest gave me a t-shirt on Christmas that proclaims:  “Don’t be stupid.  We have world leaders for that.”  Saint Paul makes a similar point:  “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours….  all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”

In the Eucharist we become blood kin to God.   Is that merely an imitation of two little boys cutting themselves to share blood as a bond for life?  Or something far bigger?

May we become one with the one whom we receive.

See also

February 13, 2011. Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

© 2011 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.  


O God we thank you for marvelously making us.  We thank you for minds that can create and hearts that can assess what we need to do. We thank you for being in our world to prompt us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.  May we do that in honor to Jesus Christ our Lord, and in honor to you, his father.  – The Quean Lutibelle Prayer Book

The BCP version would have us grovel yet again.  Do you like those who grovel before you?  Why should we think that God does?  Groveling is often easier than acting rightly.  In groveling we plead for a special handicap that most often we do not need.  God wants us to be friends, not slaves.

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

Ecclesiasticus makes my point more forcefully.  The choice is ours: we can keep the commandments or not.  We can act faithfully or not.  God is watches us but does not rush in to do work which God has made us fully able to do.

Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.  

Psalm 119:1-8

The 119th is the longest of the psalms, yet these first eight verses do not seem auspicious.  Like many others, this psalm promotes faithfulness to the law.  Like many others, this psalm begins in the third person talking about God, and shifts (here halfway through, at verse 8) to the first person, talking to God.  This rhetoric is likely not accidental.  It invites the worshiper to participate at a safe, non-committal distance at first and then, without serving notice, the psalm has the worshipper talking directly to God.

The first verse says that people are happy when they walk in the law of God.  The last verse has the reader/listener to make a real commitment: “I will keep your statutes.”

Prayer is sometimes utilitarian, as a way to keep the faithful in line.  Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” It turns off some of the critical faculties, as does the rhetoric of this psalm.

When the debate was not going his way in the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin was wont to say, “Gentle, I move that we pause for prayer.” On one occasion, Alexander Hamilton, who was not on Franklin's side of the issue, replied, “Gentleman, I move that we not bring in any outside interference.”

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land.  They said "Let us pray." We closed our eyes.  When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.  - Desmond Tutu

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The Anglican Communion seems in a virtual free-fall right now.  Many dioceses are facing major budget crunches and people who are dying are not being replaced with anything like the number of those lost.  Scholars and theologians have been referring to America as post-Christian for almost half a century, and most vestries are facing the evidence glaringly before them even if they have never heard of scholar’s prognosis.

In 1957, between my junior and senior years in college, I took a three month trip through Europe with a friend who had roomed with me in prep-school.  (The trip cost me, including round-trip boat passage and all other expenses, only $870).  I was continually struck with the age and grandeur of church buildings, and I was surprised by how many of them were nearly empty of worshippers.  In recent decades that same phenomenon has been increasingly obvious in the United States, even in the Bible Belt.

Strife likely did not cause most of our departures, but it surely does not draw new members.

Even the church in the first century was beset with strife.  In chapter 3 of his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint tells his readers that they are too caught up in arguments that have nothing at stake in them.  What difference does it make that you learned a truth about Jesus from one person and I learned the same truth from another?  What difference does it make that you are a Presbyterian and I am an Episcopalian?

The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.  

That was a hard sell for Saint.  It’s a hard sell for most Christians today.  Especially as times get harder and resources fewer, the bickering can easily grow more intense.

Someone has said that we academics fight the hardest of all precisely because there is so little at stake in the outcome of our disputes.

Matthew 5:21-37

One the features that I highly treasure in Christian scriptures is their iconoclasm.  Christianity is an anti-religion religion.

So you want forgiveness?  Jesus tells you how to get it.  Pray to God saying: “Use the same standard in judging my sins that I use in judging those who have sinned against me” – Quean Lutibelle’s rendering of “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive….”

So you want to feel close to God?  Don’t head to God’s house for a quick fix of holiness.  Don’t try to buy God’s good favor with fine offerings.  God is not interested! Instead, first go see the one with whom you are in conflict and be reconciled.

Don’t read scripture to justify your harshness to others:

Let your word be `Yes, Yes' or `No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.  

At our best, Christians are loving, not judgmental or rancorous.

For some, Episcopalians provide the first evidence that Christians can love nonjudgmentally:

"Father Gribbin came right into her house like he was perfectly comfortable there!"

The young atheist referred to Emmet Gribbin, chaplain at the University of Alabama in the 1960s.  The student's friend had had a baby out of wedlock, and the student observer was pleasantly shocked to discover that a religious person could respond without scorn.  Instead, Father Gribbin saw to it that the mother and the baby got what they needed, materially as well as spiritually.  The baby grew up, and its mother and stepfather became Episcopalians decades ago, as is the prominent lawyer, who was the undergraduate atheist student at that time.

Through love and simple kindness Father Gribbin spoke far more cogently than most of their childhood pastors.

See also