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A sermon given on July 1, 2012 at the Mennonite Congregation of Boston.

 

But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 

Daughter. Jesus responds. In this one word Jesus claims this unnamed woman, and gives her such an intimate identity. Now, prior to this impure interruption, Jesus had been traveling to the house of Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, at the request to heal his own daughter. Both of these woman have suffered severe sickness, even to the point of death. Disease has consumed them, and illness has marginalized them.

 

In the first interaction we meet Jesus in the midst of a large crowd. Pushing on all sides, brushing up against him, many people gather and surround him. 

Making her way through the crowd, an unnamed woman enters the narrative. She had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Twelve years she has remained unclean. Unable to go out in public, unable to be touched by anyone, unable to participate in the Jewish community. 

(Lev. 15.25)

“‘When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. 26 Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period.27 Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.”

For the Jewish people blood was life. It was the life force in animals and humans. There were even strict regulations about how to act around blood. To even eat some animals, the the blood had to be drained completely before consuming, for it belonged to God. And here, this woman stands, slowing dying, as she continues to bleed. The life force being drained from her. Through loss of life she is completely unclean.

The unclean woman his virtually been cut off from her family. Her lack of a name mimics her lack of any social standing or connection. We are left not knowing her background. Whether she was a mother, a grandmother, where she came from. All we are left with is her lack of identity. 

 What is given instead is the information that has so marginalized her. We are told about her disease, we are told about how it has ravaged not only her body, but her financial stability and her social community. Three times over she is marginalized. Back home, she was probably known as the one who is perpetually impure. 

Left in her despair and hopelessness, she becomes desperate. Without acknowledging any of the purity laws this audacious woman breaks out into the public sphere in search of this Jesus. She leaves her house without a male protector or accompaniment. She searches for Jesus, her last hope for restoration. Her impure body pushes up against the others in the crowd which would have made them impure as well, if only they knew. She reaches out to touch them hem of this strange man. The woman’s unclean hand grasps at the hem of this strange man’s clothes. Audacious, isn’t it for the impure to even touch the hem of the most pure. And yet, she does.

Immediately, as soon as the woman felt changes in her body, Jesus felt changes in his. No one else was aware of what had just occurred. Not even Jesus’ disciples for as Jesus responds asking, “who touched me” the disciples are quick to dismiss him by pointing to the surrounding crowd. It’s obvious, isn’t it? 

Restoration has happenend. A sort of resurrection has occurred for this woman, where the death of her social, economic, and spiritual self has risen again, with the word “Daughter” that has been spoken to her. 

The woman’s physical healing was not the end of this resurrection. For we see that after she is healed, Jesus calls out, “Who touched me?” After having been healed of this 12 year long old humiliating and debilitating disease she is forced to face it again. She cannot just sneak out and disappear back into the crowd. 

But, the woman approached in fear and trembling. Odd to feel that anyone approaching Jesus would feel this, given our tamed, often cuddly views of the Son of God. 

Like Abraham, in Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, the woman may have thought that despite all that had happened, despite how, as Kierkegaard describes for Abraham, “[God] wondrously made the preposterous come true,” 

God may also take away her healing, just as God was about to take away Abraham’s son Isaac. But she had faith.

In a sort of confession, the woman steps forward and tells the whole story. About her condition. About her lifestyle. About her threefold marginalization. 

Jesus responds, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. We are unsure if it is the faith of her touching his hem that makes her well, or if it is her confession that ultimately makes her well. 

 However, like most things in life, it is most likely a confusing mix of both. For one sees that yes she was healed at the touching of his garment, but this was the physical healing. The kind of healing we see here, though, comes in parts, for it is not until she becomes vulnerable before Jesus, confessing her own condition, in fact, owning her story, her history, that she experiences the societal or communal healing. If she would have just slipped away, she would have still been an outcast. She would have still carried the stigma. Though physically healed, her hidden secret and communal injury would still have oppressed her. It is both in the reaching out and coming out of the crowd that we see her whole healing. 

We see her salvation opening up before her. Her faith has made her well. Her, individual faith and communal confession has brought her salvation. For to be made well, in greek σέσωκέν, means to be saved from. She is saved from her physical ailment, her marginalization, her burden of having to carry around this identity. Through Christ, she experiences peace, wholeness, complete healing. She is no longer known as the hemorraging woman in her community, but the one with the audacious faith to reach out to Jesus. Her healing is not just for her, but for the those in her surrounding community, for here Jesus has broken down the barrier of hostility that has separated this woman from living fully in her community. She is now the one who is called Daughter. 

The story does not end here, in a typical Markan fashion, this story is sandwhiched in between the broader story of Jairus’ daughter. Almost in a mirror fashion we see correlations and important differences that enlighten both passages. 

While Jesus was still speaking, messengers arrived from Jairus’ house. They inform him of the death of his 12 year old daughter. Instead of the sick and impure reaching out to Jesus, as in the first story, we see here Jesus reaching out to the most impure, the dead girl.

Numbers 19:11 

11 “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. 12 They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean. 13 If they fail to purify themselves after touching a human corpse, they defile the Lord’s tabernacle. They must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, they are unclean; their uncleanness remains on them.”

Though, now we recognize the health reasons for pure and impure laws, was also realize that a culture of clean and unclean had occurred and it was no longer to keep individuals healthy, but as a way to separate and demean others. Jesus breaks this by continuing his journey to the the young girl, and asks the father, to not be afraid, but to only have faith. 

Upon arriving at the house there are many mourners, family and friends wailing and weeping at the death of this young girl.  

Jesus, oddly comments that the girl is not dead, but merely sleeping. This quick comment may have been said in order to downplay what he was about to do and the impurity that he was about to walk into. 

He enters her room, taking the little girl by hand, and tells her to get up.  

And she does. Another resurrection which is only complemented by her physically having something to eat.  A whole healing.

Disease and illness consume these stories. They make both the woman and little girl unclean. Becoming impure, or an outcast, both are identified by sickness and death. For the woman we see the agonizing length of 12 years as she is forced to live with her condition. She experiences a kind of death, in her removal from society, family. For the little girl we see the briefness of 12 years as she is overcome quickly with sickness and experiences an actual death. But both are healed in the same year.  

In the story Jesus ends the category of “sickness” and “death” to define humanity. He replaces it with familial terms of daughter.  

Society, both then and now, likes to label individuals. Here the two persons are labeled as sick and unclean, which are oppressive, and Jesus heals them and restores their identity in God. 

Even today we struggle with sickness. Illnesses today that consume individual’s identity include things like AIDS/HIV, Cancer, or even Diabetes. They cause us to consider these individuals as unhealthy, not in the sense that their disease is afflicting them, but unhealthy in what we might think of such people, of their life..  

Sickness changes the way we interact with others. Individual’s become known by their illness rather than own being. We are often quick to assume things about such people as well. If they’re not healthy, they must be impure.  

In fact these people who are regarded as impure in our society, threaten our own health. We desire to quarantine them or rid ourselves of them because they expose just how frail our human bodies are. We create leper colonies. 

What I’m not doing in this message is disregarding the health profession, or the need to take care of people, or to seek cures for disease. People need to flourish and be well. 

However, I’m cautious of the culture around sickness, the stigmatization of individuals with sickness or disability. I’m also weary of the consumerism around health care, because I do not believe it is a product. 

Jesus, though, offers an end to the category of sickness and death. These two words as labels are overcome by the resurrection and replaced with peace and life.  

God brings wholesome peace that restores all aspects of life through the resurrection. Through the Holy Spirit we are taken up into a new identity as those created and called by God for a healed and restored community. 

 

As a community gathered and called here by God, we are called to participate in the healing and hope of God. So we must ask ourselves, if here we experience the freedom and liberation of the healing that is seen through Jesus Christ. A wholesome healing that brings true peace. 

Let us be like the audacious woman, reaching out in faith to the one who can restore our identity. So also let us confess, and claim our history so that it may no long own us. Let us also see from the little girl, how Jesus reaches out to the most impure to restore life. Thus we ought to as well. Let us see how Christ has ended the category of death and sickness to restore us all. 

May the creative love of God surround you, the redeeming healing life of Christ form you, and the sustaining hope of the Spirit be with you. Now and always. Amen. 

 
 
 

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I’ve recently been reading a book that my brother gave me for Christmas. It’s titled “The Idea of the Holy” written by Rudolf Otto.

So far I’ve really been enjoying Otto’s work. In a sense he is reclaiming a sense of mystery within the religious sphere, something that I would argue is necessary for approaching theology. He introduces this term, numinous, to talk about the felt presence of that which is, giving us ideas of the divine. Another approach that he introduces in the book is to break down the dichotomy of rational and irrational thus spanning the divide to give the reader an idea of the non-rational. This moves the conversation from a debate about the rationality of belief to another realm that is seemingly other.

Two aspects of the Numinous are the Mysterium Tremendum and the Mysterium Fascinans. So there is this experience of the tremendum leading to tremor, awefulness, and fear as well as an element of ‘Overpoweringness’. This would connect to some theologians ideas that as we begin to talk about God, all we are left with is our own stammering and stuttering. The flip side is the element of fascination, that in the presence of the wholly other there is something that strangely attracts us, fascinates us, draws us in.

“The ‘mystery’ is for him not merely something to be wondered as but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac-element in the numen” (Otto 31).

Later he states that the mysterium “is a bliss which embraces all those blessings that are indicated or suggested in positive fashion by any ‘doctrine of salvation’, and it quickens all of them through and through; but these do not exhaust it. Rather by its all-pervading, penetrating glow it makes of these very blessings more than the intellect can conceive in them or affirm of them. It gives the peace that passes understanding, and of which the tongue can only stammer brokenly. Only from afar, by metaphors and analogies, do we come to apprehend what it is in itself, and even so our notion is but inadequate and confused” (Otto 34).

In two ways one is left stammering in the presence of the numinous, the non-rational, that which can only be spoken in metaphors and yet, oddly enough is attracted to this ‘wholly other’, this that is incomprehensible, this when thought about leaves one confused. One is left in this paradox of the now and not yet, the that which is and the ungraspable, the tremendum and the fascinans.

Now I am only half done with this book, but from what I have read so far I have really enjoyed. It is unfortunate that this seems to be one of the few works that Otto completed, however, in this short book he says so much. What is fascinating is that what he is describing seems to fit with some of my ideas about the necessity of study for unattainable goals, i.e. art to attain creativity, philosophy for wisdom, science for logic, and theology for God. All of which could be described as irrational as all deal with goals that (like pi) are never fully completed.

I leave with this prayer that he includes in Otto’s chapter “The Holy as an A Priori Category” by Henry Denifle. “Loving, tender Lord! My mind has from the days of my childhood sought something with an earnest thirst of longing, Lord and what that is have I not yet perfectly apprehended. Lord, I have now for many a year been in hot pursuit of it, and never yet have I been able to succeed, for I know not aright what it is. And yet it is something that draws my heart and my soul after it, and without which I can never attain to full repose. Lord, I was fain in the earliest days of my childhood to seek it among created things, as I saw others before me do. And the more I sought, the less I found it; and the nearer I went, the further I wandered from it….Nowmy heart rages for it, for fain would I possess it….Woe is me!…What is this, or how is it fashioned, that plays within me in such hidden wise?”

Namaste.

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Disappointment Sunday

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew 11.

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him,

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied,

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John:

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’…

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

The Word of the Lord.

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing and acceptable to you. O God, as we begin to enter a new year, open our hearts and eyes to your creating and sustaining work around us. Loving God, as we count down the the seconds may we open our tightly clenched fists of anger and frustration to hands that can heal and forgive. Thank you God, for the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who live and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Though today is officially called Christmas Sunday, another not so good holiday also falls on this day. Now, before I reveal what this holiday is, I’m pretty sure that most, if not all of us have participated in it at some point in our life. It is a result of waiting. Of anticipation. Of hopes and expectations. Of idealizations. That’s right, I’m talking about Disappointment Day. The day after Christmas. The day we realize that we did not get what we wanted. All those gifts under the tree did not really satisfy us. The buzz of Christmas has worn off and now we’re experiencing a kind of Christmas hangover.

Things did not go as we expected. It is here I believe that we learn something about God’s providence. It is as these points in our lives where we see God being in control. The reason we experience disappointment is because we have this idea that somehow we are the ones in control. We are the ones who know what is best for our lives, as well as what is the best for others lives. And disappointment happens when we learn that we are not in control. And instead of leaning into the holy mystery of God’s providence and opening our eyes to the larger picture of God’s creating work, we would rather mope around in our own disappointment.

I’m sure each of you has had experiences when you’ve been profoundly disappointed by someone or something you had been waiting for and looking forward to with anticipation.

There is a certain sacredness to disappointment that we glance over in our lives. It is no doubt that we will experience disappointment in our lives, that things will not go the way we wanted, or the way we thought they should. And the sacredness of this moment is that we realize our own vulnerability. Disappointment shakes us up. It awakens us. It breaks us out of our routine. Our habits. And this awakening allows us to have the grace to see our lives in a new way. To evaluate where we have come and where we are going as well as see where God has been moving and where God is leading.

Now some of you might be feeling uncomfortable talking about disappointment during a season that usually surrounded by joy and celebration. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this is also a great time to talk about some of the disappointments people had about the messiah and how this impacts and changes our perspective on some of our own disappointments.

Everyone had expectations about the messiah, the anointed one. The Jews had experienced messiahs before. There was the Messiah of Cyrus, King of Persia who released the Hebrews from Babylonian exile. There was Simon who was a political leader during the early instability of roman rule, who his followers called messiah. And so everyone had these messianic expectations. Everyone thought they new what the messiah would be like and what he would do. It was obvious that the messiah would gain political power and overthrow the Roman rule. It was obvious that the messiah would be powerful, mighty, strong, a warrior leading the cause of the Jewish people.

Now Jesus. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and was the son of Joseph. And a look at his family tree reveals many disappointments. It includes stories that are sometimes a little uncomfortable. Stories that maybe should have included a parental rating of at least PG 13.

Let’s read his genealogy in Matthew 1.1-16.

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob (now Jacob we know was the one who tricked his father to receive a blessing), and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar (now this addition of Tamar would alert most Jewish readers to the difficult story of her and Judah’s relationship, she was his daughter-in-law), And Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon, the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab (who was a foreigner, a prostitute, and by Levitical law should have been put to death, but she was the one who aided the Israelites in their conquer of Jericho), and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth (and Ruth was another foreigner, a Moabite) and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah (ouch, Bathsheba is not even mentioned, and the name of Uriah brings back the failure of David), and Solomon was the king who seemed to give voice when samuel warned the israelites of having a king. Solomon developed a huge army, had many wives and concubines, he taxed the citizens, and he even enslaved some….Israelite history is a little rough.

Here we see in Jesus’ lineage, a raw and honest perspective. Jesus did not come from the Perfect family. Many of these people were disappointments, some broke the laws found in the Torah, but what is fascinating is that it is through these people that God creates salvation. It is through these humans, and their mess ups that God redeems God’s people.

Jesus was not what people expected. As the Jewish people were living under Roman rule, they waited in anticipation for a Messiah. A messiah that would return the nation to the glory and prosperity of King David and Solomon. Before the nations split into Israel and Judah. Before the two kingdoms were conquered and the people exiled. Before they were held captive in their own land, first by the greeks and then the romans.

There was nothing left of their once prosperous kingdom. All they had were their histories and their expectations. They believed that a Messiah would come and save them. Save them from their captives. This messiah would be a warrior, driving out the occupying nations and restore the name of Israel.

But Jesus reveals that he is a different kind of a Messiah. At the beginning of his ministry he reveals himself when he reads Isaiah 61. Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth, and in the temple reads the following:

“The spirit of God is on me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from God.”

He then concludes saying the most radical thing. He tells them that this passage was being fulfilled that very day. He was the messiah, the anointed one.

And how do the people respond. They become angry and they chase him out of the temple and try to kill him.

Jesus lets them know that he is the messiah who would bring liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. He would be a messiah for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcasts, the marginalized, the single parents, the illegal immigrants, and criminals.

Jesus was not what people expected. They were disappointed and angry. They didn’t want some teacher who surrounded himself with sinners. They didn’t want a weak leader who would allow himself to be arrested, tortured, and crucified without even defending himself. They wanted a warrior. But we, having known the story of Christ, know that Jesus was the Messiah. But these people had false expectations. They were confused on who the Messiah would be. And they missed the transformative work that the Messiah did.

Jesus was a disappointment to some.

And we sit here today in our disappointments. Not only the disappointments from yesterday. But our disappointments from our year. Our life. I’m sure many of us are sitting reflecting. Thinking that this is not where I expected myself to be. Things have not turned out the way I desired them to be. God did not do what I wanted God to do.

And it hurts.

Sometimes we need to mourn our expectations. Not all expectations are bad. Or false or lacking. Things just don’t turn out the way we thought they would. And in our disappointments we may experience anger, fear or confusion as we find ourselves not knowing what to do next. Or how to proceed, to move forward.

Anger, fear and confusion. I’m sure that most of the disciples felt this as they saw their Messiah get beaten and killed. Wasn’t he the one. The one to save Israel? The one to restore our glory? Was he the one, or should we have waited for another.

And we sit in our disappointment. Our frustrations. Our confusion. Asking God, “What’s up? What is going on here? I thought I knew where you were leading, I thought I got it”

But we learn that despite our disappointments, despite our anger, our fear, our confusion, our hatred, our sadness, our mourning, our frustrations, God’s will is done. Even if we are the one’s who are disappointments to others, if we are the one’s who frustrate, confuse and anger others, just like Jesus’ genealogy, God will use us for God’s healing and reconciling work in the world.

Disappointment is natural. It happens. We have all these high expectations and things just don’t follow through.

Jumping back to messianic expectations. There was nothing wrong with Jesus the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled what was required of him. He taught a radical and life freeing message. He showed what it means to be completely dependent on God and on others. Where the problem came from was others false expectations. The pharisees and teachers were so focused on their own expectations and desires that they missed the Messiah. They missed how he was healing people. How he liberated people. How he brought good news to the poor and oppressed.

It might be easy for us to point out their short comings. Their hardness of heart. The points where they just didn’t get what Jesus was doing. It’s easy for us to point the blame, but can we really blame them? How often do we focus on our own expectations and miss what God is doing around us? The pharisees were just being really careful, and Jesus was rocking their world. He did things that were unorthodox, and sometimes even seemingly heretical or sinful. He healed on the Sabbath, and hung out with the least. He talked to Samaritans, even taking water from a women there. The pharisees were many times justified in their concerns. God had given them the law. And the law for them was an act of Grace, and here, this man seems to be going against it. Like the pharisees sometimes we are justified in our expectations and disappointments. And Jesus also recognized their confusion, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” How many times is this a prayer for us? How many times do we know not what we are doing?

The flipside of advent is that not only are we celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but we also get a glimpse of the waiting for the Second coming. And how many of us know what to expect? Or do we harbor some false expectations? When Jesus returns, will we recognize him?

The Jews two thousand years ago had false expectations thinking the messiah would return in power and military might. The early Christians expected that Jesus would return in their life. What kind of Messiah are we expecting?

Are we expecting a Messiah dressed in fancy clothes waiting to give us anything we ask for? A higher paycheck, a bigger house, fame?

Are we expecting a Messiah who is middle-class sharing our family values, call for tax cuts, and reductions in welfare?

What we are given, is seen in the gospels. In Matthew we see the Messiah as a teacher showing a way that is radical, who enables the poor, who liberates. In John we see the Messiah as the eternal Word, light, God made flesh.

And as we wait in anticipation for the Messiah to come again, we are reminded by Paul to look for the incarnation in each other. We should look for the incarnation in the poor, needy, the outcasts, the immigrants, the republicans, the democrats, those who are strange or weird or different than us, and those who we think are completely wrong.

And yes, these people will disappoint us. It is inevitable because we have the habit of building expectations for each other.

So when we experience disappointment let it be an opportunity for us. Let it be an opportunity to broaden our expectations. To awaken ourselves. To let us see the world in a new way. To see where God is moving. When we experience disappointment it should lead us to faith. Faith that God is at work. That God might be doing something new in our lives. The pharisees trusted their expectations more than God. They thought they had it figured out. And as we know through the gospels, God did something new. God blew out from their expectations. And through this new thing, God brought redemption and hope. Reconciliation and healing.

In our disappointments, let us see this as an opportunity to give up our control and trust in God’s providence. That God’s will is ultimately done. Let us find hope in our disappointments because in our let downs God might be doing something new in our lives. Something refreshing. Something to stir us up and call us back to the love and grace of God. Something that awakens us to the incarnation, the image of God, in those around us. Let us experience the inbreaking of God in our lives. And let us remind ourselves that when we hear the word disappointment, that instead of becoming discouraged we turn and look for what God is doing around us.

So Happy Disappointment Day and as we begin the great returning (of christmas gifts), the tearing down of decorations and as the buzz of Christmas wears off, let us turn to each other in our disappointments. Let us release our false expectations and open our eyes to how God is already at work around us. Possibly doing something new.

May you embrace your disappointments this season as you realize that things have not turned out the way you expected. May you release you false expectations, opening your hearts and yours eyes to the movements of God around you. May you look with hope that God is doing something new in your life and trust in the Love, Grace, and Mercy of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God forever. Amen

 

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Luke 1.46-56

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

 

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing and acceptable to you. Give us, O God, such love and wonder that with shepherds and magi, and pilgrims unknown, we may come to adore the holy child, the promised King; and with our gifts worship him, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Tonight is the night. After four weeks of waiting. This is it. It’s funny how the Christian New Year begins in a season of waiting. The first day of the Christian year begins in advent, a season of waiting. It doesn’t begin with some huge event. No fireworks. No countdown. But waiting. Waiting with anticipation. We have gone through the Sundays of Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. And we wait.

These sundays point our attention, they give us glimpses of what we are waiting for. And what are we waiting for. Gifts? Food? Parties? Those things are great…but What we are truly waiting for is the incarnation. The Word of God, the Son of God, made flesh. The Son becomes Human. This is the sacrifice of God that the Father sends his Son to dwell on earth, to live as a human. To experience everything about being a human, even death, and by becoming human Christ shows us what it means to be truly human, what it means to truly live.

And who is the one chosen for this task, but a young Palestinian Jewish woman. Mary. The one who bears Christ.

When she learns that she will give birth to a son, the Son, her response is worship. She begins saying in the magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” However, I’m sure that most mothers at the advent of their children’s birth say something similar. This intense joy of giving life is common to us all. We all celebrate the gift of new life.

What is different for Mary is that this child is special. Not special because he would be her son, as all mothers would claim, but he is special because he is the Son. The Son of God. Now in the middle of her song of praise, Mary’s words shift. She begins to talk about what God has done and also what God will do.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In this phrase we are given a glimpse of the Gospel. We see in Mary’s song an image of equality. Of the proud, powerful, being brought down and the lowly and the hungry being raised. Depending where one is in her or his life, this imagery can be seen as either judgment or salvation. In fact this imagery is present in the prophetic visions of the messiah.

In Luke 3 John the Baptist fulfills his role in the ministry of Jesus. He is the one who prepares the way. He begins by going into all the country preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is written that he fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah, which reads:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation’”.

Did you catch it. Again the image of mountains being made low and the valleys being filled. This is a radical message and it’s good news. This is gospel.

The gospel of luke begins with this expectation of equality, that through Christ, in Christ, we are made equal. “And all people will see God’s salvation.”

The incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is the inauguration of God’s Kingdom on Earth. God breaking into our world and redeeming us and all creation. Broken. Flawed. Imperfect. This is something to celebrate. This is why Mary’s spirit rejoices. The best part of it is we are also called to participate in this restoration. We are called to carry on this incarnation. Through the Holy Spirit we are taken up into the relationship of the Father and the Son and through this we are made agents of God’s reconciling work in this world. We are the one’s to create equality among all people. We are the one’s who “fill the valley’s” and “bring down the mountains”. We are the one’s who bring healing to a hurting world. We are the one’s who bring glimpses of the kingdom of God to those whose senses have been calloused by the difficulties of this world.

Now as followers of Christ we are compelled to participate in Christ’s peacemaking work in the world because of the incarnation and inauguration of the Word. If we are not called to hope, love, joy, and peace, then the incarnation, the inauguration of the kingdom means nothing. However, we know that this is not true, and because we, like Mary, rejoice in the coming of Christ we also are called to a certain responsibility. The Kingdom is here, but not fully, and we play an important role in it.

The incarnation can be scary for us though, because sometimes we can be the mountains that need to be brought low. Sometimes we are the one’s who are missing the kingdom. Sometimes we are the one’s who are caught up in the ruckus and busyness of life. Sometimes we are the one’s who forget to truly love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our neighbors as God loves us. Sometimes we are caught up in the competition of life trying to prove our worth by how much stuff we have.

This way of living, this mountain living, is the lifestyle that creates those valleys that others must suffer through. But thankfully the incarnation of Christ saves us from living that way. Christ saves us from our individualism, our materialism, our obsession with always having to be right, or better than someone else. Thankfully the incarnation saves us and gives us new eyes to see all of humanity in the image of God. To see Palestinians, immigrants, Iranians, North Koreans, those from different ethnic and racial backgrounds and those currently working for equality within the US as beloved children of God.

On the other hand, sometimes we are the valleys that need to be filled.

Often we are stuck in the middle of a cacophony of messages that tell us things that are not true about ourselves: that tell us we are not loved, that tell us we are a disappointment, that tell us we’re not good enough. Sometimes we are the valleys because we try to live in a society that is oppressive for us. We try and compete in an economic system that is impossible for us. We think that  in order to feel valuable, to feel important, to feel loved, to feel accepted; we must have a new this, a new that, new clothing, a new car, a bigger house and so on.

The incarnation is salvation for us, because Christ show’s us that we don’t receive our value by what we do, or what we have, or how much we make, but that we receive our value, our importance, our life because of whose we are, because we are children of God. You don’t have to worry about competing in this world because God is fond of you. And God not only loves you, but God likes you. You have been chosen as God’s beloved. You are God’s beloved.

So whether we feel like a valley or a mountain in our life, know that that on this night, we celebrate the incarnation of the Son, Salvation is Created for all. The mountains are brought low, and the valleys filled as we learn to see each other with the equity that God sees us. We are being saved from our mountains and our valleys. Because we are saved, because of the incarnation we have been made agents of God’s healing and reconciling work in the world. We are the glimpses of God’s coming Kingdom. We are the ones who through and with the Holy Spirit work to liberate others from their mountains and valleys.

Finally through our imitation of Christ our Lord and Savior, the Word made flesh, we have seen what it means to be truly human. To truly be God’s beloved. And what it means to be fully human is to be completely dependent on the Triune God and on our neighbors.

And so this Christmas, as we celebrate with friends and family, let us pray that we experience the incarnation of God. That the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, may truly be transformative for us, allowing us to participate in and see a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. May you experience the saving work of Christ’s incarnation as your mountains are brought down and your valleys filled. And may you truly see yourself and others as God’s beloved. And finally may this season orient and transform your lives so that you reflect hope, love, joy and peace to world around you.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirt. One God forever. Amen.

 

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There is this statue at  Princeton University that portrays the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac. More specifically the story of a father willing to slaughter his son out of complete obedience to God. This sick story is one that should disturb most people. In the passage itself, one is not given much detail about what the father or the son is feeling, the audience is left to fill in those parts.

Now I am not one to enjoy such sacrificial tales even to the extent of feeling queasy when hearing people talk about atonement, but the fact that such a story is located in the beginning of the Bible makes me struggle. Like I described to my Old Testament precept class, it is hard being a pacifist when there are so many stories in the Bible that literally make one ask, WTF? (I try and stay out of the book of Judges).

A poor interpretation of this story is to say that this interaction (if one can even describe it as such) between Abraham and Isaac foreshadows that which will happen to Christ. Not only does this view do injustice to the context and placement in the Hebrew tradition, but it also gives a very troubling view of God. God is the father who thrusts the knife down.

However, upon reading the book Getting Involved With God by Ellen Davis, I discovered an interesting insight about this story. In this story of Abraham and Isaac, one sees God being vulnerable. Now this may surprise you. Vulnerable is not often a word we use to describe God. Though, I think the more a person reflects on this particular adjective, verb, whatever…it may become clear that in fact this word might be better than some other qualitative words and even greater that the quantitative words that are used in relation to God (and yes I am aware of the rhetoric there).

What Davis makes clear is that up until this point God has gotten burned, several times. (Recognize that my language will get a little loose here as I talk narratively about God, rather than theologically, though I would argue the two are intertwined). On this man, Abraham, God is placing all his bets. God tried working through all humanity at once; fail. And so this innovative way of blessing others through a nation sounds like a fantastic idea. Yet, can Abraham be trusted. Thus this epic task of seeing if this father (who is quite old) would be willing to sacrifice his “one” and “only” son out of obedience to God. (I’m not sure why God would “pick” such a task, but I believe God works interculturally).

Davis writes, “I am convinced that this story appears only twenty-two chapters into the Bible because it tells us, not everything we need to know, but something fundamental about the God of Israel. And the sooner we learn this, then the more headway we are likely to make in comprehending and accepting Israel’s complex witness to that God” (61).

This story, describes to us “a God who is vulnerable” (62). Davis continues, “We are more comfortable using the “omni” words-omnipotent, omniscient- to describe God. Yet if we properly understand the dynamics of covenant relationship, then we are confronted with a God who is vulnerable. For, as both testaments maintain, the covenant with God is fundamentally an unbreakable bond of love” (62).

This vulnerability is thus even expressed up to the very horrific Friday when a completely innocent man was confronted with the monstrosity of violence and out of love…you fill in the blank. Thus Christ dies, not because the father thrusts the knife down, but out of complete vulnerability and love. Through the resurrection then, the monstrosity of violence is overcome.

Davis ends this chapter really well. “When reason fails, as it does at least one Friday each year, then we must listen to the stories with our hearts” (64).

Namaste.

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Castles Galore.So friends. I made it to Princeton. It is one beautiful place. Currently the dorm I’m staying in, Hodge Hall, is older than Bluffton University. That blew my mind. There is going to be a lot going on these next few days, but I wanted to post this to inform you all that I’m going to try and keep up with this blog more; reflecting on life, readings, teachings, and other experiences.

My mailing address is:

Jason Frey
Princeton Theological Seminary
SBN 106
P.O. Box 5204
Princeton, NJ 08543-5204

If your sending a package not through USPS:

Jason Frey
c/o Princeton Theological Seminary
64 Mercer St.
Princeton, NJ 08540

Keep in touch, Salaam!

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In a Pair of Corduroys

I began reading this book titled, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another by Rowan Williams. I must admit that upon first reading it, nothing was really sticking to me. I was really struggling to continue reading. I’m not sure whether it was the style, my setting, or the topic of desert fathers and mothers that really was connecting to me. I eventually put the book back on the shelf after one chapter. However, later this evening I picked it back up. I began to find that the topic covered was interesting in that I haven’t really thought or developed much concerning sin.

Now let me state that I believe that Sin is ultimately some kind of violence. Not always physical violence, but also emotional, relational, spiritual and so on. This means I also believe that sin is something communal (as all things are human).

In this first chapter there was a lot that interested me (the second time I looked at it). Two things kind of stuck out to me. First is that Sin is something that only  the individual can recognize and reconcile and second Sin is a way of building solidarity and connection with our neighbors.

In the beginning of the chapter Williams explains how how experience with the Divine is always dependent or related to our experience with others. “The actual substance of our relation with eternal truth and love is bound up with how we manage the proximity of these human neighbors” (12). In a way it is appropriate to say that Sin separates us from God, because ultimately Sin separates us from our neighbors. This is related to the idea that Worship always has a simultaneous experience with the people around us and with God. You cannot experience, relate, worship God without a community around you. (Now the idea of an inner community always being present within ones identity is something to be discussed later).

“We love to think that we know more of God than others; we find it comfortable and comforting to try to control the access of others to God” (15). This connects with sin because it seems that when we talk about it, we often talk about other people. Sins that aren’t necessarily gripping us. However, what Williams leads me to see is that we need to focus on our on experiences of Sin. Williams includes a quote by Poemen, “If you have sin enough in your own life and your own home, you have no need to go searching for it elsewhere” (22). Often what I hear people say when talking about Sin (specifically in someone else’s life) is that they recognize some of their own faults, but that the faults of another are far more worse. What I find ironic is that this finding fault in another seems to be an action that causes some kind of skewing of relationship (sin?). Could it be the fact that when we judge another, finding a speck in their eye, we fail to recognize that in doing so we have just plunged a log in our own?

Here are a few stories that Williams includes from the desert fathers:

“There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault. So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest sent someone to say to him, “They’re all waiting for you.” So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of somebody else.” When they hear this, they called of the meeting” (20).

“A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and followed him out; he said, ‘I too am a sinner'” (21).

“A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, ‘If I see my brother sinning, should I hide the fact?’ The old man said, ‘At the moment when we hide a brother’s fault, God hides our own. At the moment when we reveal a brother’s fault, God reveals our own'” (21).

In the first story, what I interpret is that sin happens. We make mistakes. We hurt people. It’s sad but it happens. I don’t think that is what matters. If we really think about it, it happens to all of us. It’s nothing new. What matters is the reconciliation that takes place. Even more, our experience with damaged relationships, hurt, and pain, allow us to see others with compassion and gentleness.

Now one might begin to think that this understanding minimizes Sin. Williams addresses this by saying that when we focus on our own sins, we recognize the cost in ourselves. He states that, “If it can’t be addressed by you in terms of your own needs it can’t be addressed anywhere however seductive it is to say, “I know how to deal with this problem in your life – and never mind about mine” (20).

I think something beautiful happens when we begin to recognize our own frailty. Our own ability to mess things up. Our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I think this beauty happens only when we express this with another. It creates some kind of deep connection where hope can truly be experienced.

Now we realize that through Christ we have already been reconciled to God. There is nothing we can do about that. It’s already been given.

“They are not, in their tears and penances, trying to make up their debt to God. They know as well as any Christian that this is paid once and for all by the mercy that arrives in advance of all our repentance. They simple want to be sure that this assurance of mercy does not make them deceive themselves and others. If they continue with this awareness of the sinful and needy self, it is so that they will understand the tears and self-hatred of others and know how to bring them to Christ by their unqualified acceptance and gentleness” (30).

Now like in suffering, I am in no way trying to justify sin, or explain it, or make everything good about it. Sin is something that happens, we become separated from our neighbors, which separates us from God, but as we recognize our own frailness we feel compelled to connect with others.

I think that as we focus on and recognize our own failures, it changes the way we interact with others.

As I write this, I get the feeling that this is incomplete and maybe in a way too optimistic. We rate sins. We see some as more severe than others (though again this is a focus on others). And it is here that I am stuck. I’m stuck because I’m not sure how this all fits with such experiences of extreme pain, death and so on. But if we begin to develop communities where forgiveness, reconciliation and vulnerability is key, then it is possible that quite miraculous things could result.

“A healthy church is one in which we seek to stay connected with God by seeking to connect others with God, one in which we “win God” by converting one another, and convert one another by our truthful awareness of frailty. And a church that is living in such a way is the only church that will have anything different to say to the world; how deeply depressing if all the church offered were new and better ways to succeed at the expense of others, reinstating the scapegoat mechanisms that the cross of Christ should have exploded once and for all” (27).

This is very prophetic what Williams is stating here, because in a sense, we are still scapegoating others. Blaming others for issues and problems that we are very much a part of. We still make ourselves feel better by pointing out the faults, or perceived faults of another. “At least I’m not like him” or “Have you seen what she has done” are replaced. To be honest it sucks that the Church is often a community where these statements are most often heard. These statements, though they make us feel better about ourselves for a brief moment, have no purpose in advancing the reconciling and healing work of God that we are called to participate in.

My hope is that we in turn develop communities where we include everyone. To not include everyone means that we fear that God is not in control and the Spirit is not at work. This leads to the fact that often we force people to conform to our image, rather than let the healing work of the Spirit to conform the person into the image that God has created him or her to be.

I get really frustrated in the way that most of the Church has been discussing issues of immigration, same-sex relationships, and Muslims (“Mosque at Ground Zero”). It seems that the way we have been interacting with these topics is often out of fear. Fear ultimately means that we doubt that the Spirit is at work. Overcoming this fear is what lead to the inclusion of Gentiles in Acts. However, currently instead of moving with love, we move with fear. If we choose to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (by recognizing our own failures) then we will begin to see the Spirit working and respond with “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

“We love with God when and only when we are the conduit for God’s reconciling presence with the person next to us. It is as we connect the other with the source of life that we come to stand in the place of life, the place cleared and occupied for us by Christ” (35).

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