How to be human

Moral Theologians instruct us that there are three main virtues, known as theological virtues. They are Faith, Hope and Caritas. Caritas is one of those specialized Latin words. Sometimes it is translated as Love; at other times Charity. In English, of course, there is a vast difference between Love and Charity, though presumably any act of Charity springs from an intrinsic attitude of love which finds its expression towards meeting the need of an individual or group.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Saint Paul articulates that the greatest of these virtues is love, and that is doubtlessly inspired by the words of Saint John’s Gospel such as we have heard this morning. But we might notice just how inter related these are.   Faith, in the way in which Saint Paul expresses it, is not a dogmatic system of belief—as we sometimes refer to the Christian Faith—as an expression of systematic theology. No, in Saint Paul, it is different. Faith is a thing that springs from our response to the love of God which we have encountered in Jesus Christ. As a virtue, Faith entails the development of a dynamic relationship of trust towards God. It also entails a dynamic relationship of trust towards other people in our lives. So we place our faith in those of whom we have the experience that they have earned our trust.

But without faith, hope is not possible. One of the great things that springs from our capacity to grow in faith is the capacity to have hope. Absent faith, eventually the human spirit becomes hopeless, downtrodden, browbeaten into the dust of the earth. Absent hope, the only response that makes sense is radical alienation.

Carried to its logical extension that means separation from God, from one’s fellow human beings, and ultimately from life itself. One finds that sense of radical alienation in the existential philosophy of the last century; one finds it also expressed certain hate groups that seem to be gaining ascendency today. Because if I have no hope and no influence of positivity, something essentially has to come in to fill that void. Those might include: fellowship with others who express their radical alienation in the same manner as do I; it might have to do with turning to drugs, or alcohol to numb the innate human drive to find meaning to life.

If it is true that without faith, there is no hope, it is also true that without hope, humans have a diminished capacity for love. If I have no ideal, nothing in which to believe, then why should I be concerned about anything other than myself. Absent faith, hope and love we all too quickly find ourselves down a path to sociopathy.

And that is why religious experience is fundamentally a part of what makes us human. It serves as a critical reminder that

-life has meaning and has a purpose

-that life is based on a series of relationships with G od and with our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, and the family of humankind,

-Faith, hope and love channel our attention from negative, self-destructive thinking to positivity and potential rather than failure and self-loathing. Without these, the world devolves into a vicious, hostile environment.

In 1971, a somewhat obscure Country singer/songwriter published a cut “Angels from Montgomery.” That song had a bit of popularity when it was performed by Bonnie Raitt. The Chorus is:

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

So it is for good reason that we are reminded of these virtues: Faith, Hope, and love do more than abide forever. They are the minimum required building blocks that make us human.  Want to be human? Abide in the love of Jesus, strive to live a life filled with faith and hope.

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The Lord is Risen Indeed Alleluia!

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.

This has always intrigued me. In scripture, God always speaks the language of positivity and the language of hope.

Even at those moments such as one encounters with the prophets, where there is that dark and angry tone of excoriating judgment, there is always a note of hope. Even when it is not likely that his people will either hear or heed his voice, there is always that subcontext of God who created all things in love. While God may be angry or frustrated with his people, it does not seem to be in his character to hate them.  So even those prophets whose message was so strident, there is that note of compassion: “if only my people would listen to me.” “if only they would turn with new hearts.” “if only they would follow and obey my commandments.” “if only they would be my people and if only they would let me by their God.”

Over the years it has been the task of preachers on this happy Easter morning to try to persuade people that the resurrection of Jesus is real. And of course there are a number of resurrection appearances of our Risen Lord recorded in the New Testament; most of them are not private audiences but involve two or more witnesses. Those appearances have a weight of authenticy about them. They are credible, if for no other reason, no one makes up a tale about someone being raised from the dead—and if they had concocted such a tale, who among them would endure the suffering and painful deaths that all the apostles endured (except John). They would have folded—changed their story—as part of a plea deal. But they didn’t. And that in itself testifies to the truth. It makes no sense from human experience; Easter, this day of Resurrection,  while incomprehensible from from the human point of view, teaches us

·         that God is greater than the human point of view,

·         that the power of God is greater than all things in heaven and earth

·         that in the face of all things broken in the world, God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

·         That the love of God is greater than the hatred of the world.

That our Lord’s message to the disciples, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” is just as applicable today as it was then.

When we live fully in the power and the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, things change.

·         We are no longer held prisoner by the fear that is in the world,

·         We are no longer, chained by the negativity that grips people’s lives, and institutions and systems,

·         We can give up what I call the little liturgy of the wringing of the hands over the dismal prospects of a bleak future, because we can come to trust in Him who promises, “Behold, I make all things, New.

·         We are no longer consumed by the pettiness that is the hallmark of the press and grind of daily life, because we know that we dwell in the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

·         We can fully live in the vision of this morning’s epistle, for if we have truly set our minds on the things that are above, and not the things on earth, we will be continually renewed by the way in which our life is hidden—that’s to say covered, protected and enfolded, with Christ in God.

Here’s the mistake that most people make: the resurrection of Jesus is not an intellectual proposition. It is not a time worn, outdated dogma of the Church. And we need to quit acting as though it were those things. The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is a proclamation about a dynamic relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ that transforms life wondrously.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed.


Canon G+

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Palm Sunday: the Passion of Jesus

He died. Just as any of us do. For some of the people standing there, it was a huge disappointment. No new era of reign of God appeared. Just one more human life snuffed out. Call him an itinerant preacher, or a prophet, he was just a part of the surplus population who came to an end. Granted, more tragically than most, but then most of the prophets did not come to cheerful ends either.

Of course, not everyone turning from the scene of the crucifixion had that reaction. There were those who had hindsight—which they say is always 20/20. Even the centurion, hardened by his years of service to Rome, a man who had seen much in the way of human suffering and tragedy, and who had dished out more than his share of it upon people—even he was able to see something different. It was not just his sense that a mistake had been made, or that there was a miscarriage of justice. Hardened though he may be, as he turned away from the horrific scene at Calvary, these words escaped his lips: surely he was the Son of God.

And of us, what thoughts press upon us as we turn away from Calvary this morning?

Do we think as some do that Jesus died in vain? After all hatred still seems to go on in the world. The message of love as agape has never really taken hold. The kingdom that Jesus preached does not appear to have reached its perfection. And if that is your reaction, then you must ask yourselves, “Have I grown indifferent to the message of the Gospel that I am not moved by our Lord’s sacrifice?”   “Does it no longer move my heart, because it is just lost in the vast sea of instances of human beings’ inhumanity to one another.”

Or maybe it is that we ourselves are overwhelmed by a sense of horror that is conjoined with guilt and remorse. For, if you were raised with a certain understanding of the atonement, then you would understand that Jesus died for your sins and that is but a polite way of trying to work around the painful awareness that I caused this. I was the causative agent of his suffering and his death. I was the responsible one.  It may have been a Roman soldier who did it in historical time, but I might just as well have been the one who plaited the crown of thorns and pressed it upon his head; I might just as well have been the one who took the nails and drove them into his hands and feet and plunged the spear into his side.

That is, of course the traditional way in which our Lord’s Passion is proclaimed. But when a person remains stuck with that sense of guilt and remorse, then ultimately, what is supposed to be redemptive, the sacrifice of Jesus, becomes instead itself an occasion of destructive sin. Because ultimately Calvary is not about what I did. It is about what God has done.

The classic teaching of the Church about the Passion of Jesus is that it is to be used to move us to a sense of thanksgiving. We are called to be thankful because of the many things that Jesus endured for us and for our sakes. It is hoped that our gratitude is the lever that helps us to change our lives and our attitudes towards one another. Having a profound sense of thanksgiving is the basis of spiritual renewal in Jesus Christ.

But lest we think too narcissistically about it, the Passion of Jesus is not solely about me. It is about the redemption of all that is broken in the world. It is the message that God’s grace can overcome all things in a world gone wrong and how it is that even in the midst of all that has gone wrong and descended into madness, that there is hope where there is the grace of God.  


Canon G+

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Jesus Wept

When I read the raising of Lazarus, it strikes me how I have come to appreciate it differently over time. I have always been deeply touched by what my grandmother taught me was the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” For years I had presumed that Jesus was weeping over the loss of a friend, weeping as many of us have wept over the loss of those who have been near and dear to us. Regarding that scene, the divine sorrow of Jesus at the loss of Lazarus commingles with the sorrows of our shared humanity.

He who is soon to be victorious over death can conquer it, but he does not short circuit it. We may celebrate the resurrection and we may be people of the resurrection, but that does not insulate us from those very human emotions of grief—stages and emotions that Dr. Kuebler-Ross described so well in her important book, Death and Dying.

I have come to appreciate the courageous faith that comes out like an allegation from Martha and Mary, that oftentimes has been the allegation of the times in which we live, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Coming from them, it is a statement of faith in the healing power of the Lord Jesus. He, who gave sight to the blind man could have prevented Lazarus’ mortality had he been there to heal Lazarus. In our time, of course, that statement comes out more as an allegation—an existential cry of agony reflective of what we think of as the absence of God in the midst of crisis.

“If you had been here, there would have been no Kosovo. If you had been here, there would have been no Sandy Hook. If you had been here, there would have been no humanitarian crisis of starvation in the South Sudan, no refugee resettlement crisis of Syrians. If you had been here there would have been no Zika virus. If you had been here there would be no Isis, no Boku Haram. Dylan Roof would not have entered Emanuel A.M.E.  in Charleston, and killed all those people.” And so on.

This is the allegation of suffering humanity that on the one hand searches desperately for God, while on the other hand it denies that God exists. This is the allegation of a suffering humanity that would prefer Merlin the magician to Jesus the redeemer. Merlin has a magic wand; Jesus shows us the way of the cross. Merlin waves a magic wand and makes everything instantly better. Jesus, on the other hand, teaches that redemption is possible and that walking in the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. As the human race we might prefer Merlin; but God gives us Jesus. In the long run, Merlin’s results are temporary; Jesus’ results are the well-spring of eternal life.

At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus wept. But the cosmic Lord through whom all things were made and have their being weeps for his friend, but not his friend only. There is the cosmic dimension to His divine tears. He weeps for the human condition. He weeps in compassion for all that we suffer.


Canon Greg+

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Blindness that cannot be healed

When you read Saint John’s portrayal of the Lord Jesus in his Gospel, suddenly it will come to you that the beloved disciple’s portrayal of the Lord Jesus is complex. For although John portrays Jesus as a totally transfigured being, he also portrays the human side of Jesus in the way that the other Gospel writers do not.  This can sometimes be jarring. As John presents him, the Lord is not always shown as Jesus meek and mild. In the Gospel of John, Jesus has some very human moments. Among these are moments when he’s dealing with frustration, or when he’s sick and tired of trying to explain the same thing over and over again to those who fundamentally don’t get it. And, there are a few moments when his divine patience wears thin when he is dealing with those who do not see him for who he was and what he was about in his earthly life.

The picture of the Lord Jesus in John’s Gospel shows us one  who can be somewhat abrasive on occasion, who is sometimes obtuse, and who can resort to the use of sarcasm and irony to get a point across.

I don’t know about you, but what I appreciate about John’s portrayal of the Lord Jesus is that it gives an element of hope to the likes of me and you, who also struggle with lack of patience, who sometimes become angry and deal with that anger through sarcasm and who possess just enough cynicism that we, too, appreciate the element of irony in life.

So the great irony in the healing of Bartimaeus is this: it is a simple matter for the cosmic Lord of all creation, the divine Word incarnate to bend down, to spit on the ground and make mud with his saliva, and in an act reminiscent of creation to spread the paste/mud over Bartimaeus’ eyes. It is a small matter for Jesus to tell him to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. Reconstructive eye surgery is apparently simple for Jesus. But helping people to see the light of God in front of them is a different matter. It may be a simple matter to heal Bartimaeus. But the same cosmic Lord of all creation, the same divine Word incarnate cannot restore sight to the spiritually blind scribes and Pharisees.

Spiritual blindness, of course, can have its origins in ignorance. When it comes to the topic of ignorance, moral theologians make a distinction between vincible and invincible ignorance. Since invincible ignorance implies an ignorance that is so profound that it cannot be overcome. Invincible ignorance implies that there is a circumstance which exists in which the primary actor cannot know the consequences of an action and therefore is not culpable.

This week, in the news, a case was reported in which a mother, Wendy Lavarnia of Phoenix allegedly left a loaded gun within the reach of a two-year-old child. That child was able to reach the gun and when he did, he pointed, fired the gun and shot and killed his brother. It would be presumed that the two-year-old acted in a state of invincible ignorance. You could not say the same for the mother. Vincible ignorance is of a sort that can be or might have been or ought to have been overcome. Probably the mother did not know when she set the gun down, that the two-year-old could reach the weapon and did not know that the child would point and fire the weapon and she might say that she was ignorant of those things. But hers is vincible ignorance; she reasonably ought to have thought that placing the gun within reach of the two-year-old could have the potential for tragic consequences.

But Jesus makes it clear that in the instance of the Pharisees that theirs is neither vincible nor invincible ignorance. It is a willful rejection of the grace of grace of God—a refusal to see the light in front of their very eyes. And, sadly, though he may be the cosmic Lord of all creation, the warning for them, and by extension for us is that there is a sort of blindness that even He cannot heal.


Canon Greg+

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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.


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.


Fr. G+


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