thinking theology

Archive for September, 2015

The Return of the Angels

The Return of the Angels

Before the 17th century, before the secularizarion of science, angels and other signs of the divine, were present to all people everywhere. With humanity’s increasing confidence that we could analyze and totally define anything, we moved away from a sense of wonder and toward a sense of mastery. We could not only dominate our world but the heavens also. Who needs the divine or messages from the divine when we can manage on our own?

Matthew Fox, the theologian, and Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist, note that we are now discovering the limitations of knowledge and the vast unlimited potential for change and learning within the universe. Perhaps this is why we are seeing a renewed interest in a different layer of reality, one that can include angels. There is even a whole shop devoted to angels in St. Jacob’s.

When we read the bible stories of angels, we note several things. The first is that although they begin by looking like people, they quickly become the voice of the divine. Often they begin their message by offering the assurance, “Don’t be afraid.” Usually the task or the message that follows is challenging at the least. Abraham packs up his home and family. Moses leads a group of people out of slavery. Mary gives birth to a baby who will break her heart and change the world forever.

To talk about angels is to talk about a world brimming with import, waiting for us to make meaning, weave history, make connections between intuition and knowledge, trust and hope. To think of the angels is to invite the Spirit to open us to a dimension of reality that we can experience with our souls and bodies. In this reality, all things are possible. In this dimension life is eternal because there is no separation of beings. Life is one vibrating, passionate whole.

Angels are gateways between the mundane and the cosmic. I have never encountered an angel, but I have often felt a comforting presence that has infused my soul with hope and resilience. Moreover, I know people, sane people, who have no other explanation for their experience, but that they saw an angel.

Matthew Fox says, “Awe and wonder and the kind of power that angels represent. . . call us to be greater beings ourselves.” In our time, when hope for the health of the earth, peace and tolerance, seem elusive, we need the angels to fill us with the humility to embrace change, the courage to give thanks even in this dangerous era, and the compassion to hold out our hands in love, holding in them our prayers for all creation and all the creatures, even the human ones.

It is time for us to witness to mystery and wonder. It is time to open ourselves to the winnowing of the Spirit of compassion. It is time to be filled with the voices of angels and to think about the messages that are everywhere we look.

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Tempters and Believers Mark 8:27-38

This passage tells of Jesus leading the disciples into a discussion of what they and others make of him. They respond by saying that some are confused and think he is John the Baptist, escaped from Herod. Others say that he is another Elijah, one who ushers in a new way of thinking, and still others that he is in the line of the later prophets. Jesus pushes further and queries what they themselves think. Perhaps only Peter answers because the others are as yet undecided, but in any case Peter replies that he thinks Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.

Jesus goes on to attempt to change the direction of their thinking, by showing that rather than any glory or worldly success, he is likely to be misunderstood, tortured and killed. He anticipates that Rome will see him as a traitor, which he is philosophically, if not politically, because he urges others to see the superficial nature of domination and political bullying.

Peter reacts strongly against this, perhaps out of love or fear. And Jesus says to him that he must get behind if he wants to go ahead. Like Satan in the temptation story, Peter is convinced of Jesus’ power to call others to change the world. Satan, whom we might think of as the god of expediency, was dismissed by Jesus as ultimately ineffective. Jesus’ stance shows that empires rise and fall; kings are born and die; wealth is retained in the hands of the few and then blows away like dandelion seeds. For Jesus, the only things that remain are generosity, compassion, sacrifice (in the sense of joyful offering of the self). The price for that may be misunderstanding, pain, and even death, but the reward is open eyes, a sense of purpose and the long view that follows the trajectory of God.

So Peter receives a stern lesson. He can get behind Jesus and follow along in his plan and methods. He can accept that titles and the illusion of safety belong to worldly leaders and governments. He can follow the way of Jesus, that means following the cross in the world, s sign of the way in which suffering and redemption lead to new life. I am always curious if Satan is behind Jesus too. Could it be that the great Prosecutor of Hebrew scripture is actually in the service of the cross. In his role as the tempter, does he feel joy that Jesus refuses his offer?

Which leads me to some contemporary questions. When people of faith are challenged, do we see this as an opportunity for us to decide where we stand? Can we see that the elements of temptation to choose the easier road, or the most efficient method, or what is often presented as common sense, might actually deter us from the vision of Jesus? Can we be misled by our need to define who Jesus is so that we forget the work that we have taken on in his name?

And finally, I wonder if we can see the Tempter as part of how we react as human beings. The Tempter is only demonic and powerful when we Christians are not standing behind Jesus. Do we want to get behind Jesus, his passion, his vision, his hope for us? We may find Satan there, also hoping for redemption, along with all the doubters and second guessers. But none of it matters, along as we trust the one whom we follow. Although he remains largely unnameable for us, slipping from definition to practice, from prisons to freedom without any bars at all.

There is a goodness, a Wisdom that arises, sometimes gracefully, sometimes gently, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes fiercely, but it will arise to save us if we let it, and it arises from within us. like the force that drives green shoots to break the winter ground, it will arise and drive us into a great blossoming like a pear tree, into flowering, into fragrance, fruit, and song . . . into that part of ourselves that can never be defiled, defeated, or destroyed, but that comes back to life, time and time again, that lives -always- that does not die.  China Gallard “The Bond Between Women”

The Unpleasant Side of Incarnation

In Mark 7:24-37, we hear of an encounter between Jesus and a woman of the region, a region that in Mark’s day was considered to be inimical to Jews. I am going to retell the story with emphasis.

Jesus traveled alone to the region of Tyre, although it is well known that it is not a good place for Jews. He had arranged to spend some time at a house there but he decided it would be prudent not to let anyone know that he was travelling through the region.

His reputation had spread, however, and people talked about the Jewish preacher and healer who would be coming. A Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him and immediately she came and bowed down at his feet. She told Jesus that her child was ill and begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

Jesus was repulsed by this unclean Gentile woman. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

At that, Jesus heard the Spirit within him, and he had a change of heart. Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis, all through the territory of the Gentiles.

It would be easy to explain away Jesus’ gender and tribal prejudice, but if we do so, I think we miss some important teaching about incarnation. As in the story of the Garden of Gethsemane, we would be more comfortable with a less human Jesus, but to do that, is to deny our own humanity and our own potential for spiritual and social evolution.

Jesus was after all, a man of his time, his culture, the prejudices of tribe and gender and religion. All humans begin in this way. I am sure you can each think of something you thought about another culture or race until you learned more about it. The “demon” that is sickening our world is a lack of understanding that we are responsible for each other, that we are family, despite external or even cultural difference. If we thought of people we consider foreign as our family, we would not kill each other. If we thought of prisoners as people just like us, we would not be satisfied with merely locking them out of sight.

This story of Jesus turning from fear, prejudice, and repulsion to kindness and acceptance models for us how we must be. Having made this discovery, he continues on through the towns of the Gentiles, presumably learning and opening his mind to the wider mission, the unity of all humanity in peace. It is important for us to understand that the incarnation was not about a drop-in proto-human, but about someone like us, a person with choices and possibilities, a person who could move beyond the boundaries to which he was assigned by birth and upbringing.

As in all stories of incarnation, it reminds us that we are called to be Christ-like, to move from fear to love, from prejudice to delight in diversity, from self-righteousness to the vision of a shared humanity.

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

Only ignorance keeps a bird encaged.

The Masters have fled from their cage

and have become guides, showing that

the only way out of ignorance is faith.

I think Jesus teaches us that compassion and courage, accompanied by faith, will lead us to freedom, whose other name is heaven.

Thanksgiving Eucharistic Prayer

Sentence: O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let all the earth keep silence in adoration. Habakkuk 2

Collect: Stir up, O Holy One, the will of your faithful people, that, being blessed with your presence, we may respond with our whole hearts. May the spirit of generosity bless our giving and grow our faith and Jesus’ mission. In his name we pray. Amen

Prayer over the Gifts: Gracious God, accept the offering of our labour and gratitude. May the gifts of heart teach us compassion and generosity. Amen

Prayer after Communion: Holy One, your word and sacrament give us food and life. May we bring you true spiritual worship and be one with you. We pray with Jesus. Amen

Thought: Whosoever is generous, and loves, not earthly goods, how poor so ever he be, he is like God; for all that he has in himself, and all that he feels, flow forth and are given away.
John of Ruysbroeck, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage.

Great Thanksgiving

Presider: Spirit of generosity and grace, you hear the cry of the poor and your presence is revealed in their faith. You call all people to rejoice and to share the bounty of the earth; through word and sacrament, we remember that all life is You; and your dream is for your people to see the unity of all. Joining in the song of the universe we proclaim your glory:

Sanctus

(A time to feel the Divine presence)

Presider: Gracious God, in the beginning you created life from your own being. You made plants and animals, miracles and wonders; food for our sustenance and mysteries to challenge and teach us. You called judges and prophets, poets and rulers. You spoke through sand and storm, desert and oasis, books and symbols, community and relationships. You showed us the holiness of the whole creation, within us and around us. You asked us only to love and appreciate this gracious gift of life.

When Jesus knew that his time of trial approached, he gathered his friends and family together. Anointed as sacrifice and blessing by a woman disciple, Jesus reached out to those who loved him. He took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it and gave it to his friends, saying, “Take and eat: this is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” After supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, gave you thanks, and said “Drink this, all of you,” as a sign of his life, given as the covenant of love and forgiveness for everyone. He said, “Whenever you drink it, remember me.”

(A time to remember Jesus)

Presider: Holy One, we offer this bread and this cup with grateful hearts. May Jesus fill our lives with compassion and generosity. May the Spirit come upon these signs of hope and promise to make us courageous in service.Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in relationship with all that lives, we lift our songs of praise.
All: Amen. Amen. Alleluia, amen.