Study to Show Thyself Approved…

lyons-martyrs

One of the best practices in RenewalWorks is to embed scripture in everything. The vesting room has a sign on the door about robing priests with righteousness, but the true embedding is in the heart. I find passages that I memorized back in Sunday School at The Anderson Baptist Church serve well and it comes back to from the recesses of my mind.

A passage that haunts my mind are the words of our Lord found in the…

Gospel of John 9:4,“I must work the works of him that sent me, whilst it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”

Those words give my work a sense of urgency, not anxiety, but a focused energy. A year ago, I rose early to walk in my neighborhood. At four a.m. there are few folk around as I moved through the pools of light cast by the street lamps. I listened to the entire Church History and Martyrs of Palestine by Eusebius, some 35 hours or so. Several sections comprise long lists of Christians martyred via the most hideous tortures. One section lodged in my psyche.  The authorities devised unique and awful punishments for belief in Jesus. For a time Christians suffered one eye gouged out, the foot opposite mangled, and a sentence to the copper mines. Soon a host of Christians was gathered there.

The presence of so many Christians, including several bishops, led to the growth of a Christian community with “houses for church assemblies,” 63 appointing its own bishop, 64 and, because they were denied written scriptures, listening to recitation by a blind Egyptian who knew them by heart. 65 It appears that those who became too old or infirm to work in the mines were allowed to live on, fasting and praying, in a separate settlement near the mines and this evidently became a special focus of the Christian community, led by the Bishop Silvanus and the blind “reader” John. 66 Despite a presumably high mortality rate, the community was periodically reinforced as new batches of Christians were sent there; in 306– 7, most arrivals appear to have been from Palestine and Gaza; in 308– 9 we hear of two groups from Egypt, one comprising 97 men, women, and children,,, —

Mattingly, David J. Imperialism, Power, and Identity:
Experiencing the Roman Empire – (Miriam S. Balmuth,
Lectures in Ancient History and Archaeology) (p. 189).
Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


One story, a note in one of the ancient manuscripts has caught in my imagination,

“Many of them were Egyptians. The Greek adds in this place the account of one John, who had learned the Scriptures so thoroughly by heart, that Eusebius states, that when he saw him standing up and repeating portions of the Scripture to the congregation, he supposed he had been reading till he drew near, and discovered that he was quite blind.

Can you see it?  A crowd of cripples, surrounding an old man with a ring of snow white hair round his bald head. Listening as if their very life depends on it, (cause it does) the company of the walking wounded hear the depths of the words”Let not your heart be trouble, believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms”  or “Be not afraid, I have overcome the world.”  Blind eyes shut he sees the Good News of God in Christ.  Seeing eyes look beyond the damaged present to the world to come.

Screen-shot-2012-02-03-at-9.16.27-AMI join that gathering from time to time in my mind.  At the edge I stand, unobserved,  listening to the words of life from one who knows the price of faith. What if he had not embedded the Bible in his soul?  What about me?  If all I had was my memory how much scripture would I have?

THE EPIPHANY

The Magi - Henry Siddons

The Magi – Henry Siddons

What would have happened if, at Epiphany, there had been wise WOMEN instead of wise men at Bethlehem? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts!

Most people know nothing of the Epiphany. As a feast of the Church, The Epiphany ranks with Christmas, All Saints, Ascension and Pentecost. Unlike Christmas Eve, we will not need four services tonight to accommodate worshipers.

The Word Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to manifest or to reveal. The deep mystery of the Incarnation – the coming of the Second Member of the Trinity – to live as a human being, now is revealed or displayed not just to the Jews but to Gentiles.

magiIn Judaism the thread of universal salvation weaves in and out among the fabric of Israel’s special call.  Periodically individual gentiles found their way into the household of Israel,   such as Rahab the harlot of Jericho who hid the spies sent by Moses to scope out the Promised Land and Ruth the great grandmother of King David was a woman of Moab.

The theme of the Book of Jonah is the concern the God of Israel has for gentile people, even including the hated Assyrians. This concern is a source of much aggravation to the prophet Jonah.   Isaiah predicts that the nations will come to the light revealed in Israel. In today’s Epistle, Paul writes to the Ephesians,  “that … the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

Now,  Jesus, the Son of God, has been born in Bethlehem.  The Magi arrive, the first non-Jews, to encounter the Christ child. The scriptures do not label these mysterious figures kings or indeed number them three. Echoing Isaiah their gifts are gold, frankincense and myrrh. Or as the little boy put it, “the Wise Men arrived bringing gifts of common sense, frankness and mermaids. “

2012-1_Epiphany

Following the star, they came via Jerusalem where the wise men met the wise guy, Herod, King of Judea.  They asked to see his newborn son.  Herod had no such son.   Bethlehem is the place to look they were told.  “Come back and tell me when you find him” said the wise guy.  And when they came to Bethlehem the star stopped over the house where the holy family was living.  After they worshiped they wisely went home another way avoiding the wise guy back in Jerusalem.

The Epiphany is our story, the story of all non-Jews who have no claim to be children of Abraham, all who are beyond the perimeters of ordinary grace. Evelyn Waugh in the novel, Helena, has the title character pray the following prayer to the Magi, “You are the patrons for all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.  … For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

Ethiopian iconBlaise Pascal once wrote,

“The knowledge of God is very far from the love of God.”

We come tonight celebrating know what we know realizing that our most elegant descriptions of God are always just descriptions.   We will never know enough to know what we want to know.  The good news is that we experience God without understanding.  The love of God is a very different economy from the economy of epistemology!

Jesus never said, “repeat after me.”   What Jesus said was, “follow me.”  So let us follow him who was manifested to the magi, that through his cross and resurrection, the love of God revealed through him will be manifest in us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

James Tissot

James Tissot

A Strong Silent Dreamer

Joseph - Toulouse Lautrec

Joseph – Toulouse Lautrec

Joseph is the silent partner of the Holy Family. No word he spoke is recorded in scripture. He was a man, however, who paid attention to his dreams.  It is for his dreams that we remember him.  Men and Women are different in many ways and there also seem to be some differences between the dreams of fathers and the dreams of mothers: Mothers tell us who we are and Fathers tell us who we are to become.   Mothers are about origins/birthing, the nesting frenzy of booties, cribs, gowns etc.  There is only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it! On the other hand, Fathers tend to look to the future and show up at the hospital with baseball mitts, footballs and open college accounts on the day their child is born.

We see some of the same issues in the story of the nativity. Mary gets most of the attention and nearly all of the credit.  Joseph gets little attention and no credit at all. Yet Joseph is the ordinary-extraordinary man that God chose to be the earthly father to his only son, the Christ.  The thing that strikes me about Joseph is that he is a man who pays attention to his inner life.

Flight into Egypt - Henry Ossawa Turner

Flight into Egypt – Henry Ossawa Turner

I.       JOSEPH’S DREAMS

Scripture records four of Joseph’s dreams.

  1.  Mary is pregnant.  The child is not Joseph’s child.  As he was pondering what to do he fell asleep and dreamed.  A messenger (angel) of the Lord appeared to him in his dream and said, “The child is the product of the Holy Spirit so do not fear to marry Mary. ”So Joseph took Mary and went to Bethlehem and the baby was born in a stable in a crowded city.  And the angels came to the shepherds and the shepherds found the stable.  Time passed. It appears that the baby family settled in Bethlehem, as that is where the Magi found the family, tradition says two to three years later. Here Herod enters the story.  He is the stereotype of the “wicked king”.  He learned from the mysterious eastern visitors that a “new” king had been born and decides to kill him before he can become a problem. Recently I learned that Herod had one of his 11 palaces in sight of Bethlehem, a fortress-palace called the Herodion.  In my mind I see the King standing on the single high tower of  the place watching the torches move from house to house while his henchmen did the terrible injustice to the innocent.

    James Tissot

    James Tissot

  2. After the Magi have departed by another way, true to form, Joseph had a dream.  An angel told him that Herod would kill the child and that the holy family should flee to Egypt. Joseph arose right then and by night took Mary and the child and traveled to Egypt.
  3. After Herod had died, in a dream, an angel instructed Joseph to, “Go home.” Back they go from Egypt to Judea.  Back in Judea Joseph is uneasy about the new ruler, Archaleus, Herod’s bouncing baby son.
  4. In yet another dream an angel gives further instructions, “Do not stay in Bethlehem.  Archaleus is as evil as his father.”  So they settled in Nazareth and Jesus was known as a Nazarene.
Christ in the Carpenters Shop - John Everett Millais

Christ in the Carpenters Shop – John Everett Millais

II.      JOSEPH: A  MODEL  OF  A  FAITHFUL   LIFE

Where would we be today if Joseph had not paid attention to his dreams? Joseph was sensitive to the realities of the spiritual world. He becomes for us a model of faith. Had Joseph not been in relationship with God he could have attributed the dreams to indigestion caused by the pizza he ate last night. Or maybe because of the stress he had been living with. This radical openness to God, this willingness to be led by the Spirit is a critical component of what it means to be used effectively by God.  A Hasidic tale speaks of the “faith treasure” that lies within each of us, if only we will pay attention to the guidance given us.

Isaac, a poor Jew, lived in an old hovel many miles from a large city.  One night he dreamed that if he would make the long journey to the far-off city, he would find a bag of gold hidden under the bridge leading to the city’s main gate.  The man was so poor he had nothing to lose, so he ventured forth on what seemed like a foolhardy trip. Isaac, slowly and arduously, made his way to the city.  After many days of walking, he finally arrived.  But to his dismay, Isaac saw that the main bridge leading to the gate of the city was heavily guarded.  Upset and lost, the poor man stood there under the bridge, hoping for an opportunity to make a search for the treasure.  His disquieted presence soon caught the attention of the captain of the guard, who looked down on the poor figure and shouted, “What are you doing here, old man?”

Isaac, in the simplicity of his poverty, told his dream to the captain.  Hardly able to contain his laughter, the captain replied, “Why you old fool, where would we be if we took notice of our dreams?  Why, only last night, I dreamed that if I were to journey to a small village, miles from here, I would find some treasure hidden behind the fireplace in the miserable hovel of an old Jew named Isaac.  Be off with you, old man.  Take your foolishness elsewhere!” And, of course, Isaac went home as fast as he could and found treasure behind his own hearth.

The question is how do we become like St. Joseph?

III.     HOW TO BE LIKE JOSEPH

Morton Kelsey, in his book, Encounter With God, gives us some hints.  He says:

Act as if the spiritual realm exists.  Churches are full of people who live as if the physical word – the world of the five senses – is all there is.  What if we began to act as it the world of scripture, which assumes there a supernatural, were true.  How would that change how we live our life?  Would we be different at our jobs?  Begin by saying, “There is a realm of realty that is beyond the purely physical world. I want to know more about that realm.” Pray and ask God to reveal this spiritual to you.

Begin one’s pilgrimage with serious purpose.   What would happen if we engaged our spiritual life with the same energy that we do our jobs?  What would happen? Be as honest with oneself as possible.  We must be honest before we are able to face and grow through many things.  Denial is the mark of human nature since the Garden of Eden.  We hope that if we don’t admit that there is an elephant in the living room no one else will notice either.

Begin spiritual disciplines:

  • Keep a journal.
  • Keep records of dreams.  God still speaks to us from our unconscious.
  • Read and study the spiritual life.
  • Pray, experiment with prayer.
  • Give of time, talent and money to this parish and beyond.
  • Practice the faith – we don’t have to get it right every time – faith is a laboratory.

 Seek God.  It is important to become as open to God as we know how and then expect him to meet us. As Scripture states if we draw near to God, God will draw near to us!”  God speaks to us in many ways.  On many occasions, I have heard the word of the lord coming from the lips of someone who never knew that what they said had some power for my life.

 IV.     WE ARE CALLED TO BE A COMMUNITY OF JOSEPHS

 Many of us are walking around, hunting and hoping for what might have been or what might be but that is where it ends.  The Good News today is that God is at work in the world.  The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. And they are us!  I invite you and me to be open in this New Year to the possibilities that God has for us.

 Folks in Alcoholic Anonymous speak of the “consequences” of alcoholism.  I have a dream that Saint John’s will be a place where people encounter God with all the extraordinary “consequences” such encounters entail.  What consequences await us this year?  We have new dreams and we have the old dreams that have yet to come to pass.   Dreaming dreams is part of my job, but the dreaming of this community is everyone’s responsibility.  What is your dream?  What is your dream for you, your family, and this faith community?

Dreams require sacrifice. As Robert Johnson puts it,

“Sacrifice really involves the art of drawing energy from one level and reinvesting it at another level to produce a higher form of consciousness.”  In 2014  what are we willing to sacrifice that we may become whole in body, mind and spirit?

 Here also Joseph is a sign and a model to us.  Tradition says that Joseph was much older than Mary. Here his whole life has been uprooted by this mysterious pregnancy and birth attended by angels, shepherd, and wise men.  He is faithful to the call of the angels in his dreams.  He pulls up stakes time after time, moving to new towns and a new country.  He goes back to Bethlehem with Mary and the boy and sets up his carpenter business all over again.  Luke tells us that Joseph was alive when Jesus was twelve and in the temple.  After that he disappears from the scriptures without a trace.

 V.      CONCLUSION

 Joseph, the patron saint of workers, is also the patron of people who keep on keeping on. Those who put one foot in front of the other, day after day, week after week, many coming like Joseph to the end of their life or rope without seeing the thing they have hoped for and had been promised.  Apparently Joseph died before Jesus began to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Joseph was more faithful than successful.  He is the patron of the doggedly faithful. What a moment it must have been when Jesus went to the place of the dead proclaiming the resurrection?  I’ll bet that right behind Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Elijah was the man who first taught Jesus what it meant to call somebody Abba/daddy. Pray that we, like St. Joseph, will be open to God’s working in our lives.  Pray that we will hear God’s call in our dreams and then with patience and courage follow where God leads in 2014 and in the age to come.

Amen.

Flight into Egypt - Edwin Long

Flight into Egypt – Edwin Long

There is a Way Forward!

Aside

St. Clement wrote: “Another consideration shows us clearly how much of this early teaching has been lost. The church now devotes herself solely to producing good men, and points to the saint as her crowning glory and achievement.

But in the older days she claimed to be able to do much more than that. When she had made a man a saint, her work with him was only just beginning, for only then was he fit for the training and teaching which she could give him then, but not now, because she has forgotten her ancient knowledge.

Then she had three definite stages in her course of training-Purification, (right living) Illumination (knowledge of the kingdom) and PERFECTION.” (resting in the higher reality, attaining completeness in God) THE STROMATA OF ST. CLEMENT.

Titus Flavius Clemens c. 150 – c. 215), known as Clement of Alexandria, was the head of the great Catechetical School of Alexandria, Egypt and as such knew a lot about the formation and maturing of Christian souls. When I read his words I am strangely heartened because he could be speaking of 21st Century American Christianity. We are able to produce good people, although even that is in question. We are moral but in an untested (rather passive) way, assuming that getting along by going along is morality.

Saint Mark preaching in Alexandria
– Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516

What we might assume is a mature Christian is in fact, from Clements’s point of view, a beginning. That brings me to the common life of Christians at Saint John’s in Memphis, Tennessee, the community I serve. We are a community of fairly moral people. Our sins are more of a sniveling sort than the boomer variety, just as deadly but not as flashy! So we have a modicum of right living but are restless and at 6’s and 7’s. Clement tells any who will listen that beyond “more or less right living” lies illumination– knowledge of the kingdom. Beyond Illumination lies Maturity, but let us not burden ourselves just yet with perfection.What are YOU Reading Banner

Today Clement from the 2nd Century is our life coach, thanks be to God, for he describes is exactly where we are poised. Saint John’s Reads is our commitment to illumination, to gain knowledge of the Kingdom. Reading the Bible has got to be the primary way to gain this illumination. What good news!

Saint John’s Nave

For those who follow this blog who are not at Saint John’s, I invite you to join with us and read the Bible through this academic year. You can find resources to aid you at www.stjohnsmemphis.org. September 8, 2013 is pledge Sunday. Folks are signing a pledge to read the Bible this year and these pledges will be posted. So join us.

If we want to grow then we go back to the ancient ways and walk in them. j

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III – One Hundred Seventeenth Patriarch of Alexandria

Image

Pope Shenouda III One Hundred Seventeenth Patriarch of Alexandria

Shenouda III was a powerful, forceful and holy advocate for his people and for the Gospel for 40 years, 4 months and 4 days and God took him.

Link

English: Author: Lanternix

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Shenouda_III_of_Alexandria

Few Americans know anything about the Coptic Christians of Egypt and North Africa. Read of the late Patriarch and know that God works in places other than our own.

Mild Embarrasment …

Coptic Kristallnacht

I almost never engage in politics in the pulpit as that is not why I walk up into that holy furniture.  However, I am increasingly annoyed by the attitude of many American Christians in the never-ending culture wars that pass for a civic life in this country.  What has annoyed me?

It is very irritating to hear the talking heads of the Christian press as well as people I encounter  decry the “persecution” Christians are enduing in this country.Whenever I hear this sentiment, I remember the words of an anonymous Christian who said, “the most American Christians have suffered for the sake of the Gospel is MILD embarrassment!   This is absolutely true and to think otherwise is inflated and silly.  What set me off?  The images of Egyptian Coptic Christians attacked in the streets of Cairo while churches and homes of the faithful   burn in the background!

Muslim violence against Christians

Coptic Symbol @ Philae

Coptic Symbol @ Philae (Photo credit: kudumomo)

The Christians of Egypt are the largest community in the Middle East amounting to about 10% of the population of Egypt.  They have lived and  labored under the yoke of Islam since the late sixth or early seventh century.  Historically they are the descendents of the most ancient Egyptians and their language, Coptic, is ancient Egyptian written in Greek letters.  As is the case with the conquered the Copts occupy the lowest levels of society and account for the vast majority of sanitation workers.

Yet even in the face of periodic persecution and general prejudice they continue steadfastly in the faith of Jesus Christ. Under the leadership of the late Pope Shenouda III the church prospered.

Pope Shenouda III - 117th Patriarch from Saint Mark the Evangelist

Pope Shenouda III – 117th Patriarch from Saint Mark the Evangelist

For forty years as the 117 successor of Saint Mark the Evangelist he labored founding churches (one in Memphis), defending and proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ. He died last year beloved by his people and respected by the Muslim leadership.

Let us pray for these brothers and sisters who face real persecution rather than claiming self-indulgent notions of faux persecution for ourselves.  Yes, the American culture in increasingly hostile to us. But my best guess is that this hostility is because we are not Christian enough rather than persecution for our faith.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Egypt.  JWS