A new look at an old story: Nicodemus

Nicodemus was not a bumbling fool. Neither was he a coward because he came at night, nor was he an ignorant person who came to ask a question whose answer he did not understand. Although he is often portrayed as these by what passes in some venues as Biblical scholarship, Nicodemus was a complex person.  

As a complex person, Nicodemus deserves a much kinder treatment than he frequently receives at the hand of those who preach and teach the Christian faith. For starters, he comes across as an independent thinker.  Rather than falling into line with whatever everyone else was saying about Jesus, Nicodemus demonstrated the courage to think and to act beyond the herd mentality.  Rather than to listen to prevalent opinion, he chose to go to what is called the primary source. That’s to say he went to Jesus himself that he might make up his own mind, through his own encounter with Jesus.  He was that sort of person who was not impetuous, but he was inquisitive, probing, and non-reactive. He was one who wanted to gather the facts from all facets. And since we have been exploring the topics of morality, ethics and the role of conscience these last several weeks, might I point out that in Nicodemus we have an example of the positive use of conscience. So often these days, it is presumed that conscience serves only an accusatory function; in this instance, conscience serves to compel Nicodemus not so much as to avoid the negative but to pro-actively seek the Good.

I would surmise that Nicodemus also was wrestling with a spiritual problem. How can we conclude that?  Well, it is the track record of scripture that when people came to Jesus, he always addressed the spiritual condition of the person. When people came with a physical ailment, our Lord Jesus always addressed the spiritual component before he addressed the physical condition. That is consistently the case in the New Testament. The paralytic is told that his sins are forgiven. The leper is told that not only is he healed, he is made clean. And so on.  So we can infer that Nicodemus has arrived at a moment in his spiritual life, in which those things that had been life giving were no longer life-giving. Perhaps it was, no, I would say it was probably that he had reached that moment of what the French call ennui, what the spiritual masters call spiritual boredom, or accidie, ( pronounced a see’dya) what the psalmist calls the “sickness that lays waste at mid-day. He’d lived a life steeped in the scriptures, been to the temple, done the requirements of the law, fulfilled all the obligations thereof, and what once had given him life and been compelling was not longer life-giving, no longer was compelling. But now there was an element of enthusiasm missing from those things. Like so many of us, Nicodemus had been there, seen it, done it and was bored with it.  Seen in that fashion, not only is Nicodemus a fairly complex person, but he becomes a fairly contemporary personality,  a symbol for our times.

And so, when Nicodemus comes before the Lord, Jesus tells him bluntly and plainly, “you have to be born again, you have to be renewed, you have to be born from above.”

And when Nicodemus ask how can that be, although it is masked, there is a quiet desperation in his question, a quiet desperation which eventually confronts all of us in the spiritual life because accidie is a thing that must be worked through, not a thing to which we ought to self-indulgently cater.

Faithfully,

Canon G+

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To be Changed into His Likeness

Some years ago when I was preaching at a Lenten Series supper and Evensong at Saint Andrew’s, Tioga, I preached a sermon about moral and ethical theology. After the service, the late George Williams came up to me and said these words: “I almost understood what you said. I almost was able to follow it.”

In honor of George, I offer this reflection:

Law and order! That’s what we need! More of it! What’s wrong with this world is that they don’t teach the ten commandments any longer! They don’t teach them in schools, as if they ever did, and as if it were the schools’ responsibility to teach them. Well, parents don’t teach them, as if they ever did, because isn’t it the school’s responsibility after all? Passing the buck as to whose is the onus for moral development and formation has certainly contributed to the muddled moralscape in which we live.

So, culturally, we tell ourselves, “maybe these values are supposed to be learned by osmosis.” Somewhere along the line, a child is supposed to learn something about right and wrong, good and evil, the difference between telling a lie and telling the truth, Right? And there’s where the argument for synteresis breaks down. Synteresis is what moral and ethical theologians call the innate sense that is to be found in all human beings that is the tutor as to what is right or wrong, just or unjust, what is the seeking after the Common Good, or what is to the detriment of the Common Good.

But synteresis appears to be a thing that is articulated, given voice by enculturation. It may be inherently a part being human, at least in most of us, to seek The Good, but what we understand as The Good is shaped not only by synteresis, but by the culture in which we live. Of course there are certain psychopathic and sociopathic personalities in whom the function of conscience is absent. But, for the most of us the function of conscience serves as a warning when we have transgressed.  In the Disney movie, Pinocchio, conscience was personified as Jiminy Cricket, an apt personification as anyone knows who has been kept awake with a cricket’s chirping after midnight. But in terms of moral theology the conscience is more often appreciated as the still, small voice of God to the soul.

The allegation made by Karl Marx was that religion was the opiate of the people.  And, I suppose if the point of religion and having faith were merely crowd control, we would have to agree with his analysis.

But the point of Christian Faith is not crowd control. The point of Christian Faith is held up for us in a snapshot in this morning’s Gospel. The point of our practice of faith is transfiguration. The ethics of Jesus are on a higher, more complex plane that do’s and don’ts and crowd control. The ethics of Jesus are about how we learn to put the dynamic of love—his love—into our daily lives and into practice in the world in which we live.

We are called to proclaim Christ as the one who transforms, and more than transforms, but transfigures culture.

We celebrate what it is to:

To be made into the likeness of Christ, to radiate his love, his presence, his grace in the world in which we live. As we prayed in the Collect this morning: that we may be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. It is not enough for Peter and Andrew, James and John to be passive participants. Their lives were forever also transfigured on the mountain. There’s a saying sometimes applied to items on Facebook: having seen a thing, you cannot unsee it.

Peter, Andrew, James and John cannot unsee the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus. And as we come to the vision glorious week by week, we cannot unsee it either. We should be profoundly affected by what we have come here to behold. Having witnessed His transfiguration, let us become challenged the signs of his transfiguring love in the world.

Faithfully,

Fr. G+

 

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The Minimum

When I was in seminary, I’d a friend who had spent a significant time in the Army before he discovered a vocation to the priesthood and came to seminary. Because of his years in the Army, he’d picked up on a saying, which seemed applicable for many situations, and he used to joke about it. Here’s the saying: “The minimum is good enough; otherwise it wouldn’t be the minimum.”

Unfortunately, there is a tendency, a very human tendency to apply that maxim to a wide variety of human endeavors. Especially it seems to be in vogue when it comes to dealing with what should be questions concerning moral and ethical theology.  If “the minimum is good enough, otherwise it wouldn’t be the minimum,” then discourse about right and wrong become a conversation about “what can a person get away with” and still preserve the appearance of moral decency. 

 Because human beings have a marvelous capacity to rationalize almost anything, it is easy to lose track of synteresis. Synteresis is what ethicists call the fundamental human sense of what is right and wrong. Synteresis is not particular to either revealed or applied theology. It is more the innate sense within that has to do with right and wrong and a human desire to seek that which is good and that which is positive. In the imagery Saint John’s Gospel, it is to be drawn towards the light not the darkness. Because of the human tendency towards rationalization, when synteresis is clouded, discussions about right and wrong devolve into what’s called ethical relativism, or what the ethicist Daniel Maguire called the muddle on the moralscape.

“The minimum is good enough, otherwise it wouldn’t be the minimum.”

Jesus’ ethics transcend this. He pointed out in Matthew 5:20 that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. And while this is one of those difficult sayings of Jesus, for we are left to wonder how we might accomplish such a thing in contemporary life, those scribes and Pharisees had, in fact reduced the requirements of the Torah to the minimalistic standards. So although they lived out the minimum requirements of the Law from a legalistic view, they were far, far indeed from the Spirit of the Law.

One way in which they had done that was to separate the notion of holiness from righteousness. They saw holiness as being set apart, cutting themselves off from the wickedness of the world, and they reduced righteousness to being a complex system of legal requirements to be met, rather than being a living relationship between God and man.

Yet, even in the Torah, the Law, the religion of the Old Testament, there were ways in which holiness and righteousness were knit together: that is demonstrated in the first lesson today. “You shall be holy,” says the Lord. But the way to holiness is to love justice and to do acts of mercy to provide for the downtrodden and those in need. “You shall not reap to the edge of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip the vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.

The ethics of Jesus are based on a foundation of love. That is reflected in today’s gospel. Today’s Gospel is particularly a warning about not catering to the desire for revenge. As an aside, I am reminded of the old proverb: “If you go for revenge, dig two graves one for your adversary and one for you.”

The collect also reminds us about the importance of love by reminding us in no uncertain terms that all our deeds, without love, are meaningless and worthless.

If the minimum is good enough, then I suppose we have to identify that in Jesus’ terms the minimum is the ethic of love: love that goes the extra mile, love that turns the other cheek; love that looks down from the cross and prays, “Father forgive them.”

Faithfully,

Canon G+

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The Least in the Kingdom

No mere reed shaken with the sultry wind of the desert; No mere reed shaped by the prevailing winds of popularity and fashion, John the Baptist is an uncompromisingly harsh figure which arose from an uncompromisingly harsh desert wilderness. You do not seek out John the Baptist to see someone mollycoddled in the lap of luxury and affluence.

No mincer of words, nor one who spares the feelings of the hearer is John the Baptist, proclaimer of something that is not very much in vogue these days: no proclaimer of opinion, but the herald of unvarnished truth. Nothing about your encounter with John is a feel-good moment. Here comes the bulldozer. There is nowhere to hide. Repent while you can because soon and very soon it is going to be too late to escape the consequences of the choices you have made and the fate you so roundly deserve.

“What shall I, frail man be pleading, who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing?”

And yet, Jesus says that while John is the last and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and that there is none born of woman who has arisen that is greater than John, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

How can that be? How can it be that one who so galvanizes to repentance is relegated to so low a place in Jesus’ vision of the kingdom?

For all his vision, for all his gumption, for all his stirring proclamation, how was it that John missed it? What did John fail to see?

He failed to see this: the positivity of conversion, the joy of transformation. John’s ministry and that of all the prophets is a sad commentary that the via negativa, the negative way, is a more powerful motivating factor in human life than that which is positive, hopeful and life-giving.

It is a whole lot easier to be against something that it is to be for something. It is a whole lot easier to be against sin than it is to be for transforming grace. It is a whole lot easier to reduce the dynamic ethic of Christianity to dogma and doctrine (“do’s and don’ts,” things done and left undone) than it is to be for the dignity of every human being. It is a whole lot easier to shut people out than it is to welcome the stranger. It is easier to say of the other, “you don’t belong here,” than it is to say “I can see the face of God in you.”

But the ethic of the kingdom as Jesus taught it was based on a positive dynamic. And John didn’t get it. And most of us have a hard time getting it too. It may be that love triumphs over fear, but there’s nothing quite like the cold icicle of fear in the very marrow of one’s bones to get our attention.  Why is it that the still small whispering in your ear the middle of the night generally does not have the message, “you are loved, and all is right with the world?” It is because we, like John, have the propensity of listen to the negative and to give it more credence than the voice of hope.

As much as we might need the voice of John the Baptist, we also need to be redeemed from it. And we will not be redeemed from hearing that voice of the via negativita until we learn another discipline: and that is the gift of Advent. That is to learn to wait with eager longing for the voice of God. But to do that we have to learn a new skill, one that is hard to cultivate: to learn to wait with patient expectation.

Faithfully,

Canon Greg+

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John the Baptist

The enigmatic figure, John the Baptist looms over Advent. His stern voice of deep approbation pierces across centuries even to this day.  Curiously clad, and yet more wondrously subsisting on crunchy honey, John is the last formidable voice from that bygone era of the prophets: Jeremiah and Isaiah; Amos and Hosea; Joel and Micah and others whose uncompromising message was not tailored to please anyone who heard it.

Yet, stridently uncompromising as his message is, there is an element of hopefulness in it. In a world that is unforgiving it is a hopeful message that repentance is possible. That one can change the direction of life before it is too late. That there is, as Psalm 130 would have it, the promise in that Psalm that with God “There is forgiveness with thee, therefore thou art to be feared.” The real, compelling message of John the Baptist and the real, compelling message of the Gospel is that new beginnings, so rare a thing in this life, are actually possible with God.

As you may have noticed from reading the Advent Booklets, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos, and Kairos. Human beings most usually live with a preoccupation of Chronos: the passage of time that is the never ending of seconds that pass into minutes, from months to years and from years to lifetimes. A thing is put in motion, and like a great and tragic machine it must run its course. That is what we call chronology. From the point of view of Chronos, there are only consequences. You chose to do thing A and thing B follows. The consequence is that you get what you deserve.

That is becoming ever more true in this computer era. This is the age of the death of privacy. Websites abound that invite you to google yourself. Credit scores and everything else instantaneously available.

As a culture, we have become essentially like characters trapped in a William Faulkner novel, who cannot escape the past because they are prisoners of it. Due to the miracle of Google and Facebook, you cannot escape the past. If you have Google Maps on your phone, it will track “your places” that is to say everywhere you went on any particular day. It can be turned off, but how many of us know that? Most of us don’t. So most of us participate in monitoring and tracking without even knowing it.

Only in Kairos, God’s time, is repentance possible. In Chronos, you can change direction, but you cannot escape the consequences of what you have chosen or what you deserve. If they were aware of that so keenly in the time of John the Baptist, how much more keenly ought we to be aware of it these days. The good news that is given by John is not that you need to repent; the good news is that you can repent. From the standpoint of Chronos, it is already too late. Only in the love of God has the dimension of Kairos entered into the world.

Faithfully,

Cn. Greg+

 

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Zombie Apocalypse Part 2

Transitions are always difficult. We’ve seen some evidence of that in the events of the past week surrounding the election; but we also see it in the apocalyptic language of this Luke 21:5-19, the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday Morning. But at some point you have to ask yourself a question about this imagery of violence in the gospel: is it a solemn warning of the zombie apocalypse to come, or is it encouragement?  Was it the intention of our Lord to scare his disciples or to strengthen them? Or maybe both?

The first reading of that Gospel passage would suggest the theme of fear in the midst of the uncertainty of life. Look at the temple, the sign of God’s abiding presence in the midst of Israel, the symbol of God’s protective providence. “Don’t take it for granted that it will always be there. Someday you will look and it will be gone.”

What is suggested in Jesus’ comment is not too popular with the hearers. Because what seems to come across in the wider context of his comment is this: take your faith for granted and you will be complicit in its destruction. That’s not a real feel-good statement.

But the rest of the statements of our Lord  contain an element of comfort:

-you don’t need to go chasing after every new thing that comes down the pike, (what’s implicit) is that you already know all that you need to know

-take care that you are not led astray and sidetracked (what’s implicit is) stay focused

-you’re going to endure hardships (but what’s implicit is) you will be given the grace of God to face all those things that you fear, even those things that you fear the most. Even including: arrest, being imprisoned, having charges brought against you, betrayal by your family members. But what is implicit is you will not face these things alone because the grace of God will be there.

While we may not be focused on these positive aspects of today’s Gospel, they all seem to distill down to one particular focus: “By your endurance, you will save your souls.”

While we might appreciate endurance when it is demonstrated by professional athletes, we do not necessarily appreciate endurance in other areas of life. For while we don’t live in the first century, we share with that century that familiar trait of all human beings: we still have the tendency towards self-indulgence, not self-discipline, opting for the easy way out, not the path of courage. We want our faith to be there to bail us out of the difficult moments, we may want to be spiritual so long as we’re not talking about “spiritual discipline.”

And yet Jesus reminds us that it is by our endurance that we will gain our souls. Endurance essentially means being faithful and being disciplined in our practice of faith. When you think about it the athlete who has not faithfully practiced and disciplined himself (or herself) in training has no gas in the tank when it comes to that endurance moment for the extra effort, the extra burst of speed, the ability to go the extra mile.

By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Faithfully,

Canon Greg+

 

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The Zombie Apocalypse has not yet come

While on travel to Williamsport the day before the general election, my eye caught sight of one rather distinct yard. Amidst the collection of election posters in yards all up and down the street, there was this one yard. What was peculiar about it?  Where there might have been election posters to proclaim preferred candidates of the occupants of the house; there were only Christmas lights.  While my first thought was to think how the homeowners were rushing the season, when I thought about it longer, I found a hopeful message. In the midst of what has been one of the more acrimonious campaigns on record, here was a different message. The light shines in the darkness; there was that beacon of hope even in the midst of all the ugliness of the campaigning. It seemed to be saying, “here is respite. Christ can come, even to this.”

I suppose I should have stopped to thank the owners. For here was a hopeful message: the zombie apocalypse is not coming. Christ the redeemer is coming.

My impression of this past election season has been to hear voices from many that have articulated a great deal of concern, anxiety and outright fear of the unknown that might be coming. That fear will not magically diminish with the result of the election. For, as in the case of all elections, some will get what they want, and others will not. The challenge for the winner is this: campaigns highlight differences but the post-election challenge is to heal the brokenness that the campaigning has fueled. Can that be done in the highly polarized climate in which we are living at the moment? That is the major issue that only time will be able to tell.

So I found myself thinking about how most of us can become fairly worked up over the fear of the unknown, and I also found myself thinking about the passage of the Gospel that is often appointed for Thanksgiving Day. It is that passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus keeps assuring his disciples “to be not anxious.” A thing that I freely acknowledge is far more easily said than done, especially in the world in which we live—a world in which a New York minute is considered to be the luxury of time.

We humans put a lot of anxiety into life; Jesus instead invites us to invest a sense of calm trustfulness in the grace of God, pointing out that while we cannot lengthen the span of our lives through worry and anxiety, we most certainly can shorten them by overindulgence in worry.

The first step in addressing the anxiety problem is to develop a sense of thanksgiving. A thankful heart always brings with it the invitation to spend time in the here and now in gratitude, rather than to dwell in the nightmarish land of what horror there might be.

So I pray that as we prepare for the coming holiday season that we do so by allowing time for thanksgiving and rejoicing, counting our blessings and remembering that it is always a right and joyful thing to give thanks.

Those ‘be not anxious verses’ are in Matthew, Chapter 6.

Faithfully

 

Canon Greg+

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