Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

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The Eggplant: Lend Me Your Ears

The Rev. John Adams

The Eggplant: February 23, 2017 – Lend Me Your Ears

 

When I was in Seminary, one of the lessons repeated in many classes and contexts was that to be a good pastor is to be a good listener. As a priest, both members of your parish and others will often tell you about things going on in their lives, and your first instinct is usually to identify the problem and propose a solution. To be a good pastor, we were told, you must unlearn that instinct and simply hear people out; sometimes they do want your advice or a theological interpretation of their troubles, but often they just want you to hear them, because others in their lives or the world at large seem not to be listening.

This lesson comes back to me during this week every year; on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, we always read the story of the Transfiguration, in which God’s voice tells the disciples present to listen to Jesus. One of my mentors, a retired Methodist pastor, asserted that “listen to him” was the most important part of that reading and that any Transfiguration sermon not emphasizing it was doing the congregation a disservice.

While I am not inclined to go that far, I do agree that listening is as important a skill for every Christian as it is for clergy. In general terms, listening to our neighbors is an easy way for us to love them, requiring only our time and attention. To love those we encounter and treat them with the respect they are due as fellow children of God, we must listen to them seriously. In more particular terms, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged (Matthew 25:31-46 for example), so listening to such neighbors of ours today is one way we can follow the command to listen to Jesus here and now.

This Saturday (weather permitting), some of us Episcopalians from the Nebraska Panhandle will be engaged in such listening. Widening our Circle, a day of prayer and sharing organized by The Rev. Tar Drazdowski and led by Brother James Dowd, is an opportunity for us to listen to our neighbors on the Pine Ridge Reservation and exchange stories with them directly rather than repeating the narratives about their lives that we often hear in the media.

Exchanging stories with neighbors whose experiences are very different from ours helps us to recognize our common humanity rather than fixating on the ways in which we differ (religion, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc.). Exposure to more perspectives expands our appreciation of God’s creation and guides us to love our neighbors who are not ‘like us’ just as God loves them. Such listening can also illuminate ways in which we or our forebears have failed to show such love.

Probably my favorite author at present is N. K. Jemisin, who writes fantasy from a Black female perspective. Her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is set in a world reshaped by an ancient war among the gods; Bright Itempas, the victor, enslaved his surviving enemies and handed their chains to his priesthood, who conquered the world using the power of their divine captives. Jemisin tells her story from the perspective of Yeine, a young woman from the ‘barbarous’ fringes of the empire who finds herself summoned to the capital and thrown into the vicious political machinations of the ruling family and fallen gods scheming for freedom.

Besides being an intriguing story engagingly written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was an eye-opener to me as a male Christian of European descent. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that the war of the gods was primarily between Itempas, god of the sun and proponent of order, and Nahadoth, his brother who embraced night and chaos. The empire blessed by the former resembles the colonial expansion of western Christianity insofar as, in the name of religious devotion and the bestowal of order, it believes in conquering a people and then reshaping their religion and culture into the mold of the conqueror. Yeine’s experience as a conquered person partially exposed to both her own culture and that of the empire bears disconcerting parallels to the experience of Black Americans, Native Americans, and others who are not of European descent, particularly in the ways she is not accepted by her powerful family even when she does succeed in conforming to the capital’s expectations of her.

This story, this fictional version of the attitudes and dynamics that govern race relations in reality but which I often fail to notice, proved indispensable in helping me listen to my neighbors at a time when they were describing things so far beyond my experience that, even listening, I could not comprehend. But even when we find it difficult, we must listen to Jesus by attending to our oppressed neighbors, lending our ears to their voices and our eyes to their stories. Because we are called to love our neighbors, I encourage you to take the time to listen attentively, and to seek out the stories of those who look and act and think differently from you, so that in understanding their perspectives, you may come to love them as God does.

 

The Rev. John Adams+

Five Marks of Love – Free Lenten Offering from SSJE

 

The Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastic community, is offering “Five Marks of Love” as a free individual or group Lenten devotional. Below is their invitation, including a link to the materials:

 

This six-week series invites us to observe and reflect on the ways in which the Divine Life expresses itself in and through us; individually and in our faith communities, as well as in the world around us. Week by week we will explore each of the Anglican Communion’s five “Marks of Mission” (Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, and Treasure) through videos, questions, and exercises designed to help us speak clearly and act truthfully, motivated always by hearts marked by God’s love. We Brothers of SSJE believe that the Marks of Mission are actually “Marks of Love,” signs that God’s love is making its mark on us, and through us, on the world in which we live.

We are eager to share with others our experience that these Marks of Love are not a list of tasks to be checked off; rather they are signs that our life is rooted and grounded in the Being of God. Therefore throughout the series, we will reflect not on what we should do, but on how we should live. We will draw on our own monastic spirituality to suggest how we all can balance action with contemplation, so that our words and deeds proceed from the deepest places of our hearts, where God dwells.

This series is designed for use by individuals and small groups. Small group facilitators are invited to download the series facilitator’s guide to help you encourage participants to discuss and learn together. For individuals, be sure to check out the workbook and online video content, which will guide your own exploration. All materials and videos are free online and as downloads at 5marksoflove.org.

By the series’ end, we hope you will feel ready to offer yourself, body and soul, to God’s Mission, and to live for God’s glory.

Yours in Christ,
David Vryhof, SSJE
Director of Formation and facilitator of “5 Marks of Love”

Ask a Priest – What is the “Prosperity Gospel?”

 

The basic idea of the Prosperity Gospel is found in scripture: “If you follow in my ways, I will prosper you.” For example, in the Book of 1 Kings 3:14, God says to Solomon in a dream, “if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” Hint: Solomon breaks those commands in future verses.

 

I think there are some key problems with prosperity gospel theology, and we can talk about them using the example of a square and a rectangle. Here’s a quick logic lesson!

 

Consider this: “If an object is a square, it has four sides.”

 

We know that’s true. It’s pretty basic. But it gets troubling if you flip it: “If an object has four sides, it is a square.” That ISN’T true! We can think of rectangles, or parallelograms, or rhombuses, or that four-sided thing one of the kids drew on the back of a worship bulletin after getting back from receiving Communion.

 

But there’s a trick that logicians know: if you reverse it AND add a “negative” to both sides, any true if/then statement will stay true! (This is called a “contrapositive”)

 

So with our phrase above: If an object does NOT have four sides, it is NOT a square.”

 

True again, right? Once you assert the “if” part, the “then” part always follows.

 

The problem is that if you perform the same move on the key thought in the prosperity gospel, you get into trouble really fast.

 

Here it is: “If you follow in my ways, I will prosper you” becomes “If you are NOT prospering, then you do NOT have faith.”

 

This is troubling in all sorts of ways. One is that if you take it to mean literal earthly wealth, it immediately condemns the poor … who Jesus repeatedly instructed us to love and serve. Another is with illness, or natural disaster: if you believe that the faithful will be prospered by God, then anyone who becomes sick, or is afflicted by a natural event, must not be faithful either … and because the prosperity gospel teaches that this is God’s will, that means they “deserve” their afflictions and sufferings

.

We also know all sorts of examples of people who are suffering or oppressed because of the actions of others. Our chief example is surely Jesus, who is tried unjustly by Rome and the Pharisees alike, and given over to great suffering. Far from being faithless, Jesus is faithful even unto death, and death on a cross. This is in spite of his incredibly human moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he voices his longing that this punishment would pass away from him.

 

But if the prosperity gospel gets us to answers that seem to be in such tension with the rest of the faith, what IS the good news that scripture has about God’s love for all who love God? Why do we see bad things happening to good people?

 

One answer about the good news is from Psalm 139: there is no place on earth we can go where God will not be with us. This means, to me, that God doesn’t abandon Jesus on the cross, and that God doesn’t abandon us if we are sick. God isn’t only near to the healthy, or the wealthy, or the powerful. God is with each person in the world. As a fellow hospital chaplain said to me in the year we served together in west Chicago, “Everyone’s first in line with God.”

 

When people cry out their pain, it helps us find the places where God enters in. This is true in grand ways, such as Exodus 2:23, and it is true in small ways, when we can find peace and love even in the face of hardship.

 

I do believe that God is faithful to those of us who walk in God’s ways … I just also believe God is faithful even to those who don’t. Jesus didn’t offer forgiveness from the cross to those “who walk in God’s ways” … he offered forgiveness to those who “do not know what they do.”

 

That might be the central moment in all human history for me. If someone ever asks me “when I was saved,” I usually refer to that.

 

Meanwhile, we are called to be comfort and community to one another – not only to those whose prosperity (in health, wealth, or human power) seems to indicate that they have a miraculous life, and perhaps even one blessed by God, but to those who seem not to be prospering. The poor, the sick, the refugee and the powerless – these are all our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, and if we want to know where God’s love for a hurting world is, we might try starting with what we ourselves can do.

 

May God draw us ever more into that love,

Fr. Benedidct Varnum +
St. Augustine’s, Elkhorn

First-Plymouth Choir Sings Compline at Trinity Cathedral Feb. 19

The Schola Cantorum of First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln

The Schola Cantorum of First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, will sing the office of Compline at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Omaha on Sunday, February 19, at 7:00 p.m.

The congregation will gather by candlelight as the 18-voice choir sings chants and ancient settings of psalms and evening prayers. Compline, sung at the end of the day, offers holy space for prayerful meditation through music.

“Compline is designed to connect us with a deep sense of peace,” explains Trinity’s Canon Precentor, Marty Wheeler Burnett. “As candles illuminate the darkened cathedral, we experience the light of Christ through scripture and song.”

At First-Plymouth, the Schola Cantorum offers Compline once each month. The service, described as “ancient worship for the modern soul,” attracts a diverse congregation, including young adults and persons seeking a contemplative worship experience. The choir typically sings from the balcony, surrounding worshippers with reverberant sound and soft candlelight.

The choir, directed by Tom Trenney, has been selected to sing for the national convention of the American Choral Directors Association in Minneapolis, Minnesota next month.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral is located at 113 N 18th Street in Omaha, Nebraska. For more information, please visit http://trinityepiscopal.org or call 402-342-7010.

 

 

Featured Sermon: Rev. Charles Peek – Sermon for Recovery Eucharist

Sermon for Recovery Eucharist and Commemoration of Father Samuel Shoemaker by the Reverend Charles Peek
Preached January 31st, 2017, Trinity Cathedral, Omaha

There are people who shy away from AA because they think it seems too religious. Welcome to the Episcopal Church where we seldom make the mistake of seeming too religious.

You can tell by my outfit that I’m not a cowboy, so let me introduce myself: I’m Fr. Chuck Peek and I’ve been sober since April 30, 1986. For those for whom that form of introduction doesn’t mean anything, I’m a failed drunk. Once I belonged to the Poor Me club…poor me, poor me, pour me another! I don’t have to live like that anymore thanks to a program of recovery, such as AA; AA in turn owes its thanks to Fr. Sam Shoemaker, whom we celebrate tonight. Fr. Shoemaker, in turn, owed his life and ministry to his dedicated grasp of the essence of the spiritual tradition of Christ’s Church.

When we celebrate Fr. Shoemaker, we are celebrating a priest who was not at times shy about being critical of priests—something we can all relate to. (If you’ve been standing outside, finding fault with the Church, come on in and meet some of us who not only know its faults but sometimes are its faults!)

Among the legacy Fr. Sam left us was a kind of wish list for priests. Fr. Shoemaker’s “wish list” for the priest of the church is, it seems to me, no different than the wish list for all Christians, and, taken possibly in reverse order, no different than what the 12thstep asks of those recovering:

“…I wish they would not forget how it was

Before they got in. Then they would be able to help

The people who have not even found the door,

Or the people who want to run away again from God.

You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,

And forget the people outside the door.

As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,

Near enough to God to hear [God] and know [God] is there,

But not so far from men [and women] as not to hear them,

And remember they are there, too” (“I stand at the door,” silkworth.net 2016)

The spiritual steps offered as the steps to recovery in AA (or any other twelve-step recovery group) include steps that should be familiar to every practicing Christian. They include taking a moral inventory, making amends for harm done (in Christian repentance, it is not enough just to tell someone you are sorry for hurting them, you need to make amends for the harm), making a daily practice of meditation and prayer, turning our wills and lives over to God, which folks in Recovery and a great many Christians call “surrender”: laying down the arms of self-destruction and hoisting the flag of surrender to a loving God who can make us whole and useful.

In a letter to Fr. Shoemaker, Bill Wilson (sometimes called the founder of AA) said that the steps summed up what had been taught “primarily by” Fr. Shoemaker. Without Shoemaker’s teaching, Bill said, “there could have been nothing—nothing at all,” and he usually listed Sam’s name among the “co-founders” of AA (along with Dr. Bob Smith).

If you have been in meeting rooms of AA you have seen pictures of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. You never see Sam’s picture, nor do you see the picture of Ebie who helped Bill get sober but couldn’t stay sober himself, and you certainly don’t see pictures of the long-suffering spouses, such as Lois. If I had my way, every one of their pictures would hang in the meeting halls. But, then, the program of recovery constantly reminds me that it is not all about Chuck Peek getting his way. Being a member of AA is not conditional on the member getting his or her way. (Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true of the Church as well.)

Not only the conception of the program of Recovery but also its very language echoes language and concepts found in the sermons and books of Fr. Sam Shoemaker. These same words and thoughts also echo the scripture once read in recovery meetings before there was a Big Book (the manual Bill Wilson wrote for AA), especially The Book of Acts, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of James, and Paul’s hymn to love at the close of Corinthians. And they all in turn mirror the standards used in the Oxford Groups that were forerunners of AA and for which Fr. Shoemaker was the American leader. Let me give one example of the close resemblance: in his preaching, Sam Shoemaker charged each listener to come to a “decision to cast my will and my life on God.” That is almost word for word the 3rd step of recovery (found in your program): “We made a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God.”

Now having mentioned the Big Book, let me say that tonight’s celebration is not necessarily a recommendation to go out and immediately read a copy of “the big book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. (Unless of course you are in Alcoholics Anonymous, and then it might be a great idea to read the manual!) But as to what good the book will do for those not addicted or committed to helping addicts: all the spiritual steps of any sound spiritual discipline are there to be sure, but they are definitely framed in the language of addiction, and possibly you are not an addict and do not operate from a personality that leans to any obsessions.

Perhaps…although for most everyone the possibility bears more thought than it is usually given. But even with the specific language to people who are addicted to substances, or behaviors, or experiences, the spiritual principles in the book come through loudly and clearly, so maybe a Christian or a church study group could benefit from a reading of the Big Book.

There you would find that the principles are simple and basic. Love and Tolerance (and the honesty, openness, and willingness necessary to become loving and tolerant) are the keys, and when it comes to being loving or tolerant, honest or open, it is my experience that we all stumble, all fall short. “All fall short of the glory of God.”

These principles we try to practice one day at a time. Scripture tells us that sufficient to the day is the evil thereof…meaning: we only get one day at a time and waste it if we try to live yesterday or tomorrow, if we take it for granted, or if we devote it to a fixation on all that is wrong with the world. We live only when we live the day we have, thankful for its blessings, and devoted to the solutions to our life’s problems. In short, your day is either run by the evil of people, places, and things, or it is run by the goodness of the grace of God! You cannot have it both ways, you cannot serve both God and what is not of God!

[During the Sunday Eucharist at St. Luke’s, Kearney, our celebrant tonight, Fr. Ness, gathers people for thanksgivings and blessings, and he always begins by asking them all to take a deep breath of the Spirit. Spirit and Breath come from the same root word, and a little thought will tell you that breathing is important to spiritual practice. Nothing better arrests a moment of panic than getting control of our breathing. Nothing eases stress better than regular, deep breathing. So I want you to take a moment right now and, with me, breathe deeply in and out: slowly breathe in God and breathe out what is not God, breathe in the spirit of God, breathe out what is not of the spirit of God, breathe in peace, breathe out discord . . . already you may feel the benefit of this, and you will find that adding this to your prayer and meditation times helps you to peace and quietness of mind.]

Now there are basically three things programs of recovery say about God:

First, Recovery tells us that there is a God and I’m not it. No matter from what religion or denomination, it is fundamental to every spiritual life to get rid of grandiosity and embrace humility. And by grandiosity I mean from both ends, the grandiosity of feeling that you are better than everyone else and the grandiosity of feeling you are worse than everyone else.

Now my good friend, retired Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jim Schmitt tells the story of parishioner who was just a horrible man—mean and abusive to his family, dishonest in his life, awful. But one day that changed and the change lasted another day and into weeks and weeks and Fr. Jim finally asked him what had happened that made the change in him. The man, now in recovery, said it was simple: he had turned in his resignation as head of the universe . . . and God had accepted his resignation!

So, first “there is a God and I’m not it”; then secondly recovery tells us that God is and has been all along in our corner. We don’t discover that God is with us now that we’ve gotten sober or clean. Drunk-a-logs (the stories we tell of our former drinking lives) prove that God was with us over and over again. And that tells us that the God who has been with us all along is not the hateful, angry God we had been taught or we had come to believe to be God. God was not missing in action, though we often missed the signs of God’s presence.

There is a God and I’m not it. God is and has been with us all along. And finally God expects something of you. I know we do not not seek controversy and I am sure this will be controversial, but here it is: contrary to a lot of sentimental Christianity preached today, God requires more than pious words. We are called not just to say God is in our hearts or Jesus is our savior, but to strive to actions that make those words real. The 3rd and 7th step prayers in The Big Book are essentially the prayer that God might do with me today whatever it takes to make me useful to God and other human beings. And one follow-up thought about being useful . . . we can’t be useful off by ourselves. Every addiction I know of—again to a substance, a behavior, and experience doesn’t matter—ends up isolating us from others. We may have started out going to the bar to be social; we end up alone in our rooms hoping no one will bother us. You cannot remain in isolation and recover and you cannot remain in isolation and be useful.

Making our new understanding real by putting words into action is exactly what we heard urged by St. Paul in tonight’s second reading: “Clean out the old leaven of malice and evil and eat of the bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Cor. 3)

We do not get into action once for all. We get into it daily. Sometimes we get over-confident or lazy. So the fact is that all of us some time, some of us all the time need to be reprogrammed, need to reboot the system. We celebrate Sam Shoemaker because that’s what Sam Shoemaker teaches us how to do. Let us celebrate Sam’s day by listening to what Sam teaches. My few examples all come from his book Realizing Religion—even in the title you can hear the idea of making something real. Anyone can be religious, but the challenge is to make that religion real in your life. So here is just a sample of what Sam taught.

Sam wrote, “There are laws for the production of the Christ-type of life. Without heeding them it is . . . foolish to hope for success.” 7

And with that he noted, “It is extremely hard, and in most cases frankly impossible, for anyone to secure results which are fundamentally spiritual without using any spiritual means, or fulfilling any spiritual conditions.” 6-7

Again, Sam taught, “Surrender to the Divine Life . . . takes on reality as we have in mind definite cooperation with God in definite work for one definite person.” 79

(When we first get into recovery, the definite person is ourselves; as we grow in recovery, then the definite person becomes another person in need.)

Then Fr. Shoemaker knew what all sound psychology teaches us, that one of the three things most needed in our lives is a sense that our lives have meaning and purpose. He told us that in recovery, we are:

“Armed with that fortifying [strengthening] sense that we are cooperating with God and doing the work which of all work [God] most wants done.” 78

I could hear that thought echo scripture tonight when Dottie read the reading from Isaiah, “Awake, awake, put on your strength”! (Isa 51)

And since you have all gathered here in a church tonight, here is what Fr. Shoemaker tells us about Church:

Sam taught: “We need the Church—need its irksome discipline as well as its inspiring teaching—and not less the Church needs us.” 69

How many ever stopped to think the Church might need us!

And he added: “There is no greater testing place of character, especially of the disposition which is able to work with others, than the fellowship of the Church.” 69

As I come to a close tonight, I want to say a word to those of you already in Recovery; remember this: the fellowship of the program is meant to lead us to the fellowship of the spirit. In the Fellowship of the Spirit, then, let me close with Fr. Shoemaker’s invitation to all of us…to you tonight…and invitation I repeat with fervent hope that you will take it to heart:

God will always give the regeneration we want . . . God has a great spiritual experience and destiny to which [God] calls you, if only you will rise up to receive it.

AMEN.

Can Monasticism Save a Post-Christian World?

Brother James Dowd to Speak at St. Cecilia Cathedral Lecture Series, February 23rd

Throughout much of the history of Christianity, the church has often turned to monasticism when times became particularly tough either because Empires were ravaging their people or because Empires where falling apart, thus creating chaos. At other times, when the church was in need of renewal, it has often turned to its monastic sisters and brothers to lead that renewal. Thus, when either the world or the church or both were in danger, monasticism has often flourished.

 
Brother James Dowd, a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, a Benedictine monastic community in the Episcopal Church and the “monk in residence” for the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, will explore these themes and how they apply (or not) to a Post-Christian World and in particularly in our North American context. Consideration of the New Monasticism and the “old” Monasticism, specifically through a Benedictine lens, will highlight this talk of the Cathedral Lecture Series.

 

Saint Cecilia Cathedral
Cathedral Cultural Center 701 North 40th Street Omaha, Nebraska

Thursday, February 23, 2017,  7:00 P.M.

 

Sponsored by: Trinity Cathedral, Saint Cecilia Cathedral, Cathedral Arts Project

New Feature: The Eggplant -by The Rev. John Adams

The Rev. John Adams

The Eggplant: January 26, 2017

Eastern Nerd and Western Priest
by The Rev. John Adams

 

Greetings, Nebraska Episcopalians! At the request of our illustrious editor, I am inaugurating a new monthly (or something close thereto) column for The Nebraska Episcopalian. Depending on the season, this may entail me addressing questions from our readers, sharing thoughts from my ministry, finding the spiritual in books or movies, or pontificating on subjects heretofore not contemplated. Given such unexplored possibilities, I am dubbing this column “The Eggplant,” in homage to the short poem “Pentecost” by David Craig: “What is this Holy Spirit? / And what is it doing in the eggplant?” Whatever you read here, it will on some level reflect the fact that God’s Spirit moves mysteriously, often in the things we least expect.

Being a priest in Chadron, Nebraska (and quite enjoying both the parish and the town) was something I never expected. After growing up in Northern Virginia, I thought I was going to the wild west when the Spirit called me to Omaha as a Resurrection House intern. I never imagined that I would like the city so much that I would want to stay, or that the welcome I received there would open me to the possibility of living and working elsewhere in the state. So now, as the Bishop’s Society Curate serving as priest-in-charge at Grace Church, I find myself living and working in a place very different from the suburbs of Washington.

There are many things I like about living in Chadron (being able to walk everywhere, the low cost of living, the beauty of the hills and forests, and the general niceness of the people among them), but I do find myself missing the presence of a bookstore. I’ve enjoyed fantasy and science fiction novels since middle school, with the consequence that it didn’t take me long to exhaust the small library’s supply of books on my to-read list. But a happier consequence of being a nerd for that long is a willingness to listen to the Spirit speaking even through things that, on the surface, have absolutely nothing to do with God.

Take, for example, the X-Men movie series, to which I was first introduced in college. The series is driven by the fictional relationship between ‘normal’ humans and ‘mutants,’ where the former are afraid of the superpowers awakened in the latter during adolescence. With the exception of one minor character who prays as a Christian, God goes unmentioned across six movies, even though one might expect some folks who develop unusual powers to wrestle with those powers as divine blessing or curse, or anticipate theological and Biblical arguments in the mouths of normal human politicians and preachers condemning mutants as unnatural offshoots to be controlled or eradicated.

But over the course of the series, as some normal humans have tried to deal with mutants by making them register with the government, suppressing their powers with a medicinal cure, using them for involuntary scientific experiments, and killing them all, and mutants in turn have responded in a variety of ways, including hiding their powers, using those powers to help humans, attempting to rule the world through fear, and trying to kill all the humans, a theme that I find very Christian has emerged. The movies’ happy endings, such as they are, occur when the mutants and normal humans who are committed to living and working together thwart the designs of those who would rather dominate or destroy the other.

Setting aside the superpower element, it’s not hard to see parallels between this fictional series and the real world, where certain groups of people fear other groups who differ from them and seek to dominate or destroy them through laws, threats, and violence. We see it today in the conflicts around differences of sexuality and gender, race and language, religion and nationality, and in the efforts of those who, like the films’ heroes, strive to maintain peaceable and equitable coexistence despite the fear and mistrust.

But for us who follow Jesus Christ, we are called not to fear those who differ from us but to love them as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). This requires from each of us a commitment to see those who differ from us as human just as we are, a willingness to turn the other cheek rather than pursue revenge when we are wronged (Luke 6:29), and the will to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). And fictional and secular as they are, the X-Men movies offer us some ideas of how we might do that in a modern world where those who differ from us might possess weapons of mass destruction, or might be willing to harm literally anyone, or might just be changing the neighborhoods around us by their mere presence. Or to consider another angle, at baptism God awakens in us the superpower of loving even those who differ from us; just as the mutants wrestle with questions of whether to exercise their superpowers only to the benefit of other mutants or in service of all humankind, sometimes to the point of sacrificing themselves, we too must ask ourselves whether we love only those who are ‘like us’ or share God’s love with all.

So that long tangent serves to a) offer an example of finding the Spirit moving in something we might not expect, b) serve as a recommendation of the X-Men movies to those who have not seen them but are not turned off by the idea of superhero movies (just as films, all six are entertaining, with two being excellent and only one being a bit of a trainwreck), and c) provide an idea of one direction “The Eggplant” might take. So please do leave comments and questions on Facebook and let us know what you’d like out of this column. Thanks for reading!

Featured Sermon: “In Christ There Is No East Nor West…”

Sermon from 1-22-2017, Epiphany 3A
Preached by the Rev Benedict Varnum at St Augustine of Canterbury in Elkhorn, NE

 

Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?

 

There’s a great hymn, In Christ There is No East nor West — Hymn 529 in the Hymnal in front of you. Its second lyric — “In Christ no south or north” might sound like a direct reminder of the US Civil War, and for years I assumed that was why the hymn was written.

 

But I looked it up this week and I was wrong. Turns out, the text of this hymn was a poem by a British poet writing under the pen name “John Oxenham,” originally for a gathering on the theme of The Orient in London. That is, it was written to reflect on the unity between Eastern and Western influences in British public life, in the earliest days of the 1900s, as cultures clashed and reconciled. The music was added in 1925.

 

There’s a story, perhaps true, that during WWII, two ships containing, respectively, Japanese and American alienated persons about to be re-patriated, were anchored alongside one another, their occupants glaring across the waters … until someone took up this hymn, and suddenly both sides began singing it back and forth (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).

 

The words from the full hymn are drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the Bible — 3:28, in which Paul writes There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. That, of course, was one of the most powerful messages of the early days of the Gospel, and one we still need to hear.

 

But where we hear the echoes of the North and South in the US Civil War, the earliest followers of Jesus might have heard echoes of the “North” and “South” they knew as well.

 

What you may know (or may have forgotten) about the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, is that way back in the First Book of Kings, there’s the story of how the Twelve Tribes that God brought out of Egypt became divided, later, into two kingdoms. This is in 1 Kings 12, and it is one of the pivotal scriptures of the Old Testament. It describes how ten of the twelve tribes became the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while two in the South remained the Kingdom of Judah — from which the words “Jew” and “Jewish” come.

 

The Northern Kingdom included the kingdoms of Zebulun and Napthali. There they were, up north of Jerusalem, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, later generations would call this the region of Galilee … which is why the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of “Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles.” And when Isaiah was writing, he was writing with an awareness that Zebulun and Naphtali were among the first to fall to the Assyrian Empire that came. Isaiah was providing both the ancient and the contemporary names. Which means that in 740 BC, when Isaiah was writing, those were already old names.

 

So why does Matthew use them?

 

Because Jesus didn’t come for Judah in the South.

 

And Jesus didn’t come for Israel in the North.

 

Jesus came for all of the People of God. And Matthew — the Gospeller most in touch with his Jewish history and tradition — wants us to realize that this means God has come for the Lost Tribes, too, and not only the people of his nation.

 

This is the Jesus that John the Baptist proclaimed before his ministry began. John warned the Pharisees — the leaders of religion in his nation — that “God can raise up children to Abraham,” even from the stones of the River Jordan where he worked and taught. That is, being part of the tribe of Judah isn’t what saves you: God’s love, told by the Gospel of Jesus, is. That story is right before today’s readings, there in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3.

 

This is the Jesus who came to gather all of us. He taught (in Luke 15) that the shepherd of 100 sheep will come and find even one that goes astray, or that a woman with a fortune of 10 coins will sweep out everything in her house to shine light on the floor and find even one that is lost.

 

This is the Jesus who traveled through the land of Samaria, unclean to Jews living under the ancient law, and he spoke to Samaritans. He spoke to women in public, also a forbidden action. He used Samaritans as an example of how to be faithful to God, to remind people that it is our actions, and not our ancestry, that unite us as a witness to God’s love and the Gospel that Jesus brought.

 

This is the Jesus who came and dwelled in Capernaum, in Galilee, in Zebulun and Naphtali — which are all names for places in that region north of Jerusalem by the Sea of Galilee — so that those who heard him would realize that the ten lost tribes were not to be lost any longer. All of God’s people are to be gathered back under the Good Shepherd.

 

So. Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?

 

Paul wrote to the earliest Church in Corinth in dismay at their divisions. He asked them, “Has Christ been divided?” He asks why they say “I belong to Paul,” or “Apollos” (a Greek name), or “Cephas” (which is the Aramaic name for “Peter,” with both words meaning “rock.”).

 

We might as readily ask of our divisions today: do some of us say, “I belong to Hillary?” and others “I belong to Sanders,” and others “I belong to Trump?”

 

But Paul might ask us, “Has Christ been divided?”

 

For none of these is the Messiah. None of these is the Christ. None of these is the shepherd who seeks to gather all together. And surely the Christ who spoke the Gospel to all, who forgave all from the Cross, is as much the Christ of those who are dismayed by Trump’s behavior as the Christ of those who feel that they were left behind these past eight years. Christ is the Shepherd of ALL sheep.

 

The name above all other names, as Paul reminded the Corinthians and the Phillippians and others, is Jesus Christ.

 

And today we hear the story from Matthew’s Gospel of how Jesus Christ calls us. How he began to call people to himself. The first moments in which he began the great work of gathering all people together again:

 

Jesus saw Simon-Peter, and Andrew, and called them to come with him. He told them “I will make you fishers of people.”

 

And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And he called to James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they left their father in the boat and followed him.

 

We are invited to take that journey too. We are invited to follow along with the Christ who went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

You, and I, are invited to let go of the fishing nets we think we need to sustain our way of life, and risk everything to follow the one who can teach us to make one another our life’s work instead. To become fishers of people.

 

We can let go of the nets that we use to ensnare and tangle one another in order to feed ourselves, and instead find true relationship with one another. We’ve known how to use those nets for all our lives, and they are familiar, and trusted, and have fed us this far. But they’re not the tools Jesus will teach us to use.

 

Because we are divided right now … just like Simon-Peter and Andrew and James and John once were. These and the other disciples were divided then! They argued about who Jesus was. They argued about which of them was the greatest disciple (Jesus once famously stopped them on the road to call them out about that!). They argued after Jesus rose into heaven about whether the Gospel was only for Jews or whether it was for Gentiles also. They had to come to terms with the question of whether they could trust their own unity in Christ.

 

But the great question for us now is whether we can hold to a greater unity than our divisions: the unity of understanding that we are all following Jesus?

 

 

In his sermon on the occasion of Tony Anderson’s ordination this past week, Bishop Barker preached about the division we find our country in: in which some find the character of the president-elect so reproachable that they cannot imagine that he will govern on behalf of all Americans … while others find the systems of power in our government to be so corrupt that they believe the act of voting for someone who promises to change them — however imperfect he may be himself — is an act of true patriotism.

 

I know that we reflect that exact diversity. And this is a serious spiritual challenge to our community: whether we can remain a loving family, committed to one another and to the Gospel of Jesus, in the face of our disagreements here.

 

Friends, brothers and sisters: I believe we can make it. I believe we have been building up the strength we will need for this journey day by day and year by year over the decades that this church has stood. Where we have learned how to work together in small ways, we will know how to work together in greater ones. And where we have weathered small disagreements, we will learn how to heal from larger ones.

 

God has taught us, over time, the way to succeed. That way involves placing Jesus and his Gospel first. That is always a step that guides us, and disrupts our allegiance to any earthly power or movement that falls short of God’s love, which includes all.

 

And it involves us really listening to each other. We need to be able to speak what is in our hearts, and hear what is in one another’s. We may not all be able to do that right away: this is a discipline, and it will take practice. It means listening without hoping to argue or change — only to understand. That’s a risk … but risks are the only thing that can deepen relationships, and deeper relationships are the only thing that can heal real division.

 

We may not always be sure whether someone wants to hear what we have to say, but we can take the risk of trusting them to hear it and still care about us, even if they disagree.

 

We may step on one another’s toes now and then … but wouldn’t we rather do that in honest daylight through trying to talk to each other?

 

And if we listen to God, maybe we can have conversations about unity and division that help us heal, instead of lament. That help us connect, instead of build barriers. That help us love, instead of shout down.

 

So maybe today is the day that you can drop the net that you think you need. Maybe today is the day to get out of the boat that represents one way of life, and once again take up the journey that follows Jesus. Maybe today is the day that you become a fisher of people — waiting to see what you can gather from the stories of the people around you … not so you can gobble them up and feed yourself, but so that you can be amazed by how many beautiful people and stories God has placed in the world.

 

Maybe as we travel ahead towards Lent and then Easter in these coming months, you can follow Jesus through Galilee, and Samaria, and Judah, and on into Jerusalem, carrying a Gospel too powerful to be destroyed by any Cross … even the cross of our own divided moment today.

 

So let us give thanks today, for a Christ who cares for the Northern Kingdom, as well as the Southern. For peoples from the East, as well as the West. And may you be heartened to follow him, today and always.

 

Amen.

Prayers for our nation

For Our Nation:

Almighty God, you have given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech you that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

For Social Justice:

Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

 

We pray especially this week for President Donald Trump and all who are entrusted with our national, state, and local government, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth, and we pray for those who are on the Women’s March in Washington D.C.

Angels Among Us

St. Martin of Tours Clothesline

St. Martin of Tours has a clothesline in its front yard where we put coats, hats, mittens, socks, etc. we collect in our Fall clothing drive. They are then picked up by people who need them, at any time of the day or night.

Recently, Deacon Robin McNutt headed outside to place the last of our coats on the line. When she got there, she saw that the clothesline was full of coats, scarves, blankets, hats, and even boots that had not been there before. An unknown angel had replenished the line with an abundance of warm items. Many of them have already been claimed by our South Omaha neighbors.

We are grateful for the angel or angels who brought the items. You have warmed our neighbors and our hearts.

Vicar Kim Roberts+