Meditation - Joseph Wood

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I'm writing this meditation on June 5th,  preparing to depart for Jerusalem and my best friend's wedding. Amidst all of the planned festivities, my friend has invited a small group of us to share a quiet moment together at the end of the Sabbath, and she's tasked each person to bring a favorite quote or bit of biblical insight to offer the group. I suddenly realized this morning that I had never actually picked out a quote, but-as I searched frantically for something appropriate, something profound without trying too self-consciously to be so-I stumbled across this advice from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in one of his letters to a friend*:

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in themselves, to become world, to become world in one's self for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on each of us, something that chooses one and calls them to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves ("to hearken and to hammer day and night"), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.

I know that's quite the block of text, but I'd highly recommend it. The way Rilke describes romantic love echoes almost perfectly the challenge that I think lies at the heart of Christianity. It's the task for which we were born and baptized. Our lives are "barely large enough" to begin to properly love our neighbor (partners included), but we are called again and again into the fullness of that communion, striving to recognize the Divine in the "world" of each and every person. We choose that love not because it is easy, but because it's the only thing that allows us to become wholly ourselves. It's what it means to be the Body of Christ. So, as I prepare to witness my friend's wedding, as we remember the Pulse massacre, and as Baltimore celebrates Pride once more: Love boldly. You are world, the kingdom of heaven come near, and God has so much salvation to offer in your "upward-beating heart."

 

 

* Rainer Maria Rilke, "Seven: Rome, 14 May 1904," Letters to a Young Poet. 

Beginning, Middle, End - Taylor Daynes

This week’s readings are full of beginnings and endings. We have Genesis 1:1, the first chapter of the first book of the bible—a new beginning if there ever was one. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Paul’s gentle farewell to the Corinthians, and the final verses of the final chapter of Matthew. Those short verses from Matthew also contain a beginning and end: the commissioning of the disciples, and Christ’s promise to remain with them, “always, to the end of the age.”

Because it’s also Trinity Sunday, I’m inclined to look for a third party to this duo of end & beginning, hello & farewell. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find quite the right word. I’ve cycled through several as I’ve drafted this post (weirdly, the all seem to begin with the letter p). Here are a few I’ve tried: presence, preparation, packing, prayer.

Honestly, though, the p-word that has been most revelatory for me as I’ve contemplated the cycle of leaving something dear in order to start something new, is poetry. In writing a poem I sometime surprise myself—giving voice and dimension to wisdom I was unaware I possessed. That act of voicing—hearing, translating—is so important. It’s one of the many calls of that most elusive member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

With this idea of voice in mind, I would like to share a rather long poem by Eleanor Wilner, “Reading the Bible Backwards,” whose wise, distant voice has helped me remember that beginnings and endings—no matter how momentous they might feel—have quite a lot in common. She guides us through a familiar world by way of an unexpected path: the poem begins with apocalypse and ends with creation—linking these two apparent extremes by means of imaginative exploration. By the end (which also the beginning) I am reminded that first & last are human distinctions; there are many reasons to be calm and hopeful at every stage of every journey as long as we can remember that God is with us. Perhaps that is the logic behind this week’s assortment of biblical lessons.

Here’s the poem: “Reading the Bible Backwards”

Thank You - Mary Sulerud

Thank you

For a year that changed my life and how I imagined serving God post-retirement

For a community of faith that is responsible for its own healing and care and that of others

For lay leaders who taught me what it means to endure faithfully and still look ahead to what it

is that the Spirit is bringing

For helping me see that God was calling me to move and live in Baltimore

For opening my eyes to my struggle with racism and prompting me to do something about it

For your extraordinary kindnesses to me and to Peder

For your laughter, your intellect, your heart, your presence, your love and hospitality to the

neighborhood, the city and the world

For a staff that is incomparable

For music that lifted my heart and helped me know God

For simply embodying your name Emmanuel—God with us

You will be with me always.

Mary Sulerud

Remembering - Mary Sulerud

Amid the rush to get out of town, preferably in the Mid-Atlantic to a place that is near a big body of water, it is easy to rush by the purpose of this week-end, remembering those who laid down their lives for this country's freedom, while serving as members of the armed forces. While I am hardly hyper-patriotic, I know this country has no small number of shortfalls, it is worth noting that many chose not only to serve this country, but to exhibit courage that led to their deaths.

As my own father who served in World War II nears his 90th birthday, I am reminded especially on Memorial Day of his oldest brother, my uncle Ralph who served in the European theatre in World War II and who was one of the sharpshooters who liberated Dachau. My father and his brothers grew up in a household that on my grandmother's side was only one generation removed from their Austrian and German immigrant ancestors. German was spoken in their home as frequently as English. When my uncle was drafted that linguistic skill and his sharpshooting skill made him an asset to the army moving north toward Germany. He and another scout thought as they advanced that they had come upon a prisoner of war camp, patrolled by a lone guard, in a watch tower.  After repeated calls in German to the guard to surrender were met with blasts of machine gun fire my uncle shot the guard, and then entered with his fellow soldier what he later told my father were the "gates of hell".

I grew up believing that war is always hell. What my uncle Ralph reminded me was that there were some things that human beings did to each other that were as hellish as war, Dachau being one of them. While I try to live my own life as non-violently as possible I do know that there are situations and occasions that have challenged my non-violent ways. Remembering those who served our country in all forms of national service has helped me to see that practicing non-violence can never be confused with inaction or passivity.

On this Memorial Day, this is what I remember:

Those who have served this country and especially those who died doing so. That list ranges from those who serve in the armed forces, and the diplomatic services to the martyrs of movements of social justice and mercy, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

I remember that mercy, justice and peace walk together, and in a sinful and broken world it is always a struggle for those virtues to overtake our human impulses to triumph over others at their expense.

I remember that to practice what I believe is a privilege that I must insure is available to others.

I remember that I have been given so much and with that comes great moral, spiritual and civic responsibility.

It's All Greek to Me - Joseph Wood

It’s easy to forget how much our experience is bounded by the language we use, how it colors our interpretation of everything we encounter. And no, I’m not just talking about “alternative facts,” though the political arena certainly offers prime examples about how rigidly our vocabularies and their contexts determine our worldviews. One person’s “Truth” becomes another person’s “truth,” even “belief” or “opinion,” and so on and so forth until we come to appreciate just how precarious communication can be. Translation between individuals can be hard enough, so it’s no wonder that we struggle so mightily to pin down meaning as we traverse across languages and millennia.

On the surface, this week’s Gospel reading seems like a nigh impossible theological thicket, revealing its fruits only to the most stalwart of scholars. What does Jesus mean by all of this syllogistic talk about “if you love” and “they who have [the] commandments”? Who is this “advocate” and how will they reveal all the valences of relationship between the believing community, the Father, and Christ? Overwhelmed by such questions, I turned back to the Greek to look and see if the original language could help me discern a way forward. Where we say truth, the writers of the New Testament said ἀλήθεια (aletheia), which literally means not-hidden. With this slight shift in perspective, the verse gains an almost pun-like quality with the surrounding talk of knowing and seeing. The advocate who Jesus promises to the disciples once he has apparently departed is “the Spirit of truth” insofar as they reveal and uncover what would otherwise be obscured. Where “the world” (κόσμος, kosmos or creation) may be oblivious to the identity of Jesus and the radical new closeness he offers, the Spirit helps us become revealers of a way of living that springs from love. Even the legalistic title of the Spirit as advocate helps expand upon this idea. Παράκλητος (parakletos) would mean an advocate or lawyer in the parlance of biblical Greek, but it even more literally means para-, from close beside, and kaleo, to make a call. The Spirit acts as advocate—or even comforter or helper—because of how impossibly near it brings our lives and the Divine life. We see God because of how intimately we are known and bound together in the Triune life. We are different from the rest of the world not by how much we fulfill commandments like some kind of holy checklist; instead, we differ by rejecting false dichotomies that would suggest the absence of God. The Spirit calls out to us again and again from all that is close beside, all that we experience. When we can recognize God regardless of differences of context or language and respond in love, then perhaps words like “orphans” will lose all meaning—then perhaps there will be no question about Christ’s presence in our midst.

Mother's Day - Taylor Daynes

When I was in nursery and grade school, my mother managed to get my brother and me to church on a semi-regular basis. Though neither he or I particularly loved the experience of being roused early and wrangled into uncomfortable clothes in order to spend the next hour being quiet and listening to sermons and stories we didn’t understand, I’m grateful my mother persisted in this thankless effort. I believe it was a gift to have been introduced to the cadences and language of the Bible at a young age—albeit reluctantly at first. And while I don’t think such early introduction is necessary, I’m sure that my sense of wonder was stirred in a special way by some of the images I absorbed during those services.

There were the old faithfuls—the ones so ubiquitous you didn’t need to go to church to know about: Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, the three kings. But there were some stranger, more mystical passages too. For example, one from this Sunday’s Gospel, “in my father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2, KJV) still conjures a mental picture of a long, bright hallway and a feeling of expectation. It’s also (nearly) iambic pentameter, one of the most common rhythms of English language poetry and speech. Likewise, with the idea that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), the hallway and all its mansions became part of my own mind—in a way affirming imagination and creativity as a holy pursuits (which my mother also encouraged).

Or, at least I’d like to think so—that the random assortment of disconnected images and rhythms gleaned from childhood encounters with scripture has become part of my unconscious repertoire, integrating with a collection of other forms and associations. When I attempt to write a poem, essay or (gasp) sermon now, I still have those first images. I can apply the pressure of thought to them, or with a little grace, hope that the right one emerges at the right moment. This alone is enough to make grateful my mother insisted (more often than not, anyway) that my brother and I get up on Sunday morning. This Sunday, Mother’s Day, I will be sure to tell her that.

Gates - Taylor Daynes

This week, I really, really wanted to reflect on Sunday's Gospel without bringing a poem into the mix (as I usually do). Still, I couldn’t stop myself from doing a cursory search of the word “gate” on poetryfoundation.org (in reference to Jesus’ cryptic reminder to his followers, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice” (John 10:1)). My search yielded over 450 results, which is telling about the symbolic and imaginative resonance of gates. After a quick scan of the first dozen or so poems, I rediscovered one I’d read before but forgotten. It’s called, appropriately, “The Gate,” and was written by Marie Howe.

Here it is:

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world

would be the space my brother's body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man

but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,

rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.

Howe frequently weaves Biblical allusions through her poems, so it’s not out of bounds to imagine that she is specifically referencing this week’s Gospel. But even if she did not have the story in mind, the idea of the gate, the world onto which that gate opens, and who does the opening, are central ideas in poem and Gospel alike.

As is typical for the Johannine Jesus, a metaphorical story meant to illustrate the role he plays in his followers’ salvation proves baffling instead. In response to their confusion, he explains, “I am the gate for the sheep.” Though he doesn't say so explicitly (the disciples have to be left to puzzle something out on their own), Jesus is also equally the shepherd and the gatekeeper—part of a little trinity where each role is necessary to the others.

The more I read Howe’s poem, the more brilliantly it sheds light on the meaning of John 10:1-10. Jesus says that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. […] They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” In Howe’s poem, it is her deceased brother who shepherds her; his absence becomes the gate through which she enters. His familiar voice calls her with the piquancy of a remembered cheese and mustard sandwich, teaching her about love’s persistence beyond death, and showing her “This”—the world the shepherd, gatekeeper, and gate help the wandering sheep to reach.

Perhaps there's a message here about the nature of the trinity—that it takes forms as specific as we are, and yet at the same time universal and transcendent. Probably each of us could write a poem (or several) if we had the skill, recounting a transformative experience such as Howe’s—in which we felt the gate open for us, heard the shepherd calling us by name, and knew that we were entering the sheepfold for real, not as imposters, thieves, or bandits. We enter and know that even in times of great pain and loneliness we are united by our love for one another, and that God is here too, offering to share a meal with us.

The 50 Day Challenge - Mary Sulerud

After the long vigil that is Holy Week, following the 40 days of Lent it is often tempting after the joyful celebration of Easter Day to give a great sigh and call it “done.” However, the Easter Vigil and Easter Day are not single events or the end. Easter is the beginning of our celebration of our new life in Christ. The season of Eastertide is in fact 50 days long, 10 days longer than Lent and I often wonder what would happen if we put as much energy into celebrating Eastertide as we do in journeying with special observance through the season of Lent.

So, I am proposing the 50 Day Challenge.

It is a simple challenge really! What would happen if each day of Easter we vowed to do one thing that showed that we are living as resurrected people, as God’s reconciled creation. Here are some suggestions that come to mind: committing ourselves to the stewardship of God’s creation or eco-justice by marching with scientists on Washington, by adopting a waterway with our Facebook friends and keeping it clean, patronizing Farmers' Markets locally, supporting environmental causes, planting gardens, or even container gardens; knowing that we can’t “take it with us” by creating wills, engaging in estate planning and in addition to leaving our worldly goods to support our families, leaving support for Emmanuel and other charities we care about when we join the saints in light; showing how much our community of faith means to us and inviting a friend to church, or serving as a mentor or guide to one of the 40 people who has attended Emmanuel as a newcomer since April 25th of last year; taking up a new ministry like exploring a new way for us to do “hands on” outreach.

There is no shortage of suggestions. The only limit is our imagination. Jesus was raised for new life not simply to show God’s forgiving and reconciling love to his friends, but to all the world then and now. Our mission as a resurrected people is to do the same.

Good Friday - Mary Sulerud

On this holy day, I have often prayed these words from a communion hymn of the fifth century:

“Because for our sake you tasted gall, may the Enemy’s bitterness be killed in us.
Because for our sake you drank sour wine, may what is week in us be strengthened.
Because for our sake you were spat upon, may we be bathed in the dew of immortality.
Because for our sake you were struck with a rod, may receive shelter in the last.
Because for our sake you accepted a crown of thorns, may we that love you be crowned with garlands that never can fade.
Because for our sake you were wrapped in a shroud, may we be clothed in your all-enfolding strength.
Because you were laid in the new grave and the tomb, may we receive renewal of soul and body.
Because you rose, and returned to life, may we be brought to life again.”

The greatest temptation on this day is to try and explain why the crucifixion happened to Jesus. Our invitation in this day of awe and sadness is to let “because” be part of the mystery of God’s love. The grave will be our home too. Because for our sake Jesus died, “life is changed, not ended."