Plumbing Our Depths - Joseph Wood

  If this week's first lesson leaves you scratching your head, let me begin by clarifying that a "plumb line" is a line with a weight attached (from the Latin for lead, plumbum) used to measure the depth of a body of water or check that vertical structures are true. So now Amos 7:7-15 makes perfect sense, right?

  Continuing on the various iterations of the theme of measurement, of taking account of the beloved community, that the lectionary has offered us over the last few weeks, these verses challenge us to re-examine how God upends our expectations. Last week, the Rev. Daynes spoke beautifully to the dichotomy between hometown (temporal, geographical) and home (emotional, relational) when it comes to reading Mark 6:1-13. In the same way, Amos' prophesying draws a distinction between how we name ourselves and our surroundings and how the Divine enters into our lives and names us. Pushed aside are all of the ways that we try to fit God into our own contexts, because--let's be honest--the majority of us have more than a little Amaziah in us. We hear the Word of the Lord and we paraphrase it, we echo back a version that conforms more to our own perceptions and preconceptions. When Amos speaks, all that Amaziah can focus on is the last handful of words from the prophet's lips. All he can hear is how destruction will come to Israel, how the king who has given him so much power will face "the sword" (Amos 7:9-10). In his dismay, "the priest of Bethel" cannot bear to actually take in very much at all of what Amos says (Amos 7:10), and so he accuses him before the king of plotting against sovereign and state. (He even inserts the whole idea of exile into the prophet's mouth.) Notice how he then turns and counsels Amos to flee from the land and never again "prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom" (Amos 7:12). Perhaps the most telling part of his response are how he identifies Bethel and its affiliations--not as the Lord's sanctuary, as a temple of the God of their holy and righteous ancestors, but as the king's sanctuary, as a temple of the kingdom. In his fear, he cuts off himself, his temple, and his people from anything but the present and its immediate bounty.

  Who among us hasn't done something similar? Who among us hasn't clung to what we know--even, sometimes, when it is painful--rather than face the anxiety of what lurks beyond our expectations? It is an utterly human response to such situations. But the Divine words that Amos shares with us are not all calamity, now matter how our most primitive instincts might begin to distort them in our ears. Yes, there is talk of "desolation," "waste," and "the sword" (Amos 7:9), but such grimness is outlined by relationship. These are the difficult words that God commands Amos to declare to "[God's] people Israel" (Amos 7:15), so that the crux of even the most tumultuous upheaval is how the covenantal relationship between Israel and her Lord continues to unfold. A plumb line isn't a tool of obliteration, it's a tool of exploration and building up. Thus, the lesson we'll hear is bounded by the nature of salvation history, and it's message is clear: we cannot allow ourselves to be cut off from the past or the future, we cannot make the present into a false sanctuary. It is only by continuing to name all that we have been and all of the (often unexpected and even a little scary) ways that our Savior is calling us into deeper relationship that we truly claim our nature as believers and a believing community. It is only in the fullness of both of those relationships that we can properly be named as beloved. After all, God can take the most unexpected elements and fashion something glorious and new out of them. In God's hands, even "a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees" (Amos 7:14) can transform a people. Who knows what our Lord and Savior might call forth from us?

Through Heaven's Eyes* - Joseph Wood

 At first glance, the psalm we’ll say together on Sunday seems, well, problematic (Psalm 123):

To you I lift up my eyes, 
  to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, 
  and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, 
  until he show us his mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, 
  for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, 
  and of the derision of the proud.

The opening lines begin traditionally enough, reminding us of our covenantal and salvific relationship with the Divine. We metaphorically “lift up our eyes” to our Lord because God sits “enthroned in the heavens”-an image that captures both authority and majesty, particularly in comparison to human proportions, in a single phrase. (It also parallels Ezekiel, though from the opposite direction of Ezekiel 2:1-5 and God’s sending a prophet to rather than drawing our eyes up from.) Even as we are in relationship, the Almighty remains far beyond the community of believers, forcing our perception of the world into a higher register simply by being in said relationship, simply by the dynamics of our faith.

  For me, issues start to arise as we continue into the next several couplets, especially the next verse. By using the language of “servants,” “maids,” and subservience to their “masters” or “mistress,” the psalmist would seem to be confusing their rhetorical arc. Instead of elevating our awareness, these lines appear to too actively seek for a parallel within human society. In the relationship between those who serve and those being served, our covenant would be reduced to something transactional and mundane. Rather than God offering a new way of being, our worship would become something that reflects the same patterns as the world around us, become something business-like and stratified. The next verse even affirms this possibility, emphasizing that we “look to the Lord our God” to “show us his mercy.” We look to the heavens, in other words, for the same kind of reward or punishment that we find in the systems here on earth. We look to “the Lord our God” the way that we would look to authorities here on earth. The problem is that those systems and the fulcrums of class and race that they all too often turn upon are a far cry from the heavens.

  The Bible, however, is almost always more complicated than we allow it to be, more complicated than it first appears, and the psalm upends our expectations just as they are reaching their pitch in our disquiet. When the psalmist pleads with the Lord to “have mercy” “for we have had more than enough contempt,” it sounds like a servant or maid begging a callous employer for more lenience. It sounds like we are asking God to lessen Divine contempt. Yet the final couplet confounds this simplistic reading. Rather than seeing God as the ultimately iteration of human expectations, the last verse makes clear that it is “the indolent rich” and the derisive “proud” that are the source of the psalmist’s suffering. Instead of reaffirming society’s roles, the psalm ultimately illustrates how far they can be from our Savior’s hope for us. So, we have to ask ourselves: are we ready to lay down those expectations? Are we ready to admit to ourselves when we might be indolent or proud despite our best intentions? Are we ready to lift our eyes from our habitual patterns of behavior and seek to live mercy instead? In short, how will we treat the prophets among us when they begin to say, “Thus says the Lord God...” (Ezekiel 2:4)?

 

*Yes, this title is definitely a reference to one of my all-time favorite movies, The Prince of Egypt--this song, in particular.

We Were Not Made for Death - Joseph Wood

  Over the last few weeks, I've had Langston Hughes' poem "Let America Be America Again" stuck in my head. In particular, I've been caught by a line from relatively early on in the poem, when Hughes writes achingly about allowing our country to live into its potential: "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed." He will go on to recognize that "the dream" so profoundly birthed and held has often been just as profoundly unrealized--at least, beyond a select subset of the population. Many of the hands that have toiled to cultivate the dream have been denied its fruits. It's a painful admission, especially as we prepare to celebrate July 4th and remember when those early dreamers, our founding fathers and mothers, began to share their hope as more than just talk. In naming that juxtaposition, Hughes draws from a wellspring of religious imagery, carrying forward images that have passed from generation to generation through spirituals and other reflections of our shared Biblical traditions. In particular, I hear an echo of the psalm we read together a few weeks ago, but which has come up again in the alternative track that the Revised Common Lectionary offers: "I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;/ in his word is my hope./ My soul waits for the Lord,/ more than watchmen for the morning,/ more than watchmen for the morning./ O Israel, wait for the Lord,/ for with the Lord there is mercy" (Psalm 130:4-6).* Just as surely as the life of faith is one of disruption, like I talked about last week, it is also one of longing for something more. It is one of living resurrection, of knowing and naming how surely God will reach down to draw us out of our graves even when we can catch only the barest glimmer of that light.

  In the readings on Sunday, you would normally have heard a slightly different articulation of the same theme in the words of the Wisdom of Solomon (Wisd. of Sol. 1:13-15; 2:23-24):

God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.

God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.

Now I'm always a little hesitant about the Deuterocanonical books,** but I'm also not one to argue with the movement of the Spirit when our assigned reading is so utterly, painfully timely. (In fact, we'll use with yet another alternative in our services: Lamentations 3:21-33.) In the wake of yesterday's news from Annapolis about the horrific violence at the Capital Gazette offices, it is more important than ever to affirm that God "does not delight in the death of the living." Whether for our own assurance or that of our larger society, we must remember that God "created all things so that they might exist," and we are made in the likeness and image of the Divine--including our Lord's "own eternity." Only a few hours after the shooting occurred, I saw another priest post something about how the front desk of that building is left largely unmanned, and that this event should force management to rethink that decision in case of another such incident. Have we really lost so much sight of the dawn, of how gloriously we are made, that we talk more about next time than the unconscionability (even ungodliness) of this kind of "destructive poison"? I'm not sure it's even a matter of the righteousness described by the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, as much as it is holy necessity. How can we possibly recognize new life if we allow ourselves to become callous towards suffering and death? How can we share in the fruits of the dream if we cannot quite remember what they look like?

  I apologize if my words seem grim, because I don't mean to chastise or otherwise imply that there is only one kind of action required from members of this community, let alone believers more generally. We are all made for wholeness, and one of the most wonderful facts of the wholeness of creation is just how countlessly it reveals the love of God in all of its eternal reality among us. If that love invites you to protest against gun violence, may Emmanuel Church be a fount of solace and strength for your prophetic deeds. If that love invites you to seek and serve Christ in the refugees along our border, may Emmanuel Church be a fount of solace and strength for your prophetic deeds. If that love invites you to hold your family a little tighter or treasure your friends a little more dearly, may Emmanuel Church be a fount of solace and strength for your prophetic deeds. There are ways beyond any ability I have to name to live into what it means for us to be Christian. So, however you are resurrected in the midst of our struggles to let America be the dream it has always been, know that God is with you. Know that you are loved beyond measure. And know that life is short, that we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those that travel the way with us--so be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. Don't worry, you were made for this.

 

*It could also be argued, perhaps more convincingly, that Hughes echoes my favorite psalm, Psalm 126.  

**From the Greek meaning "secondary canon," the books are a series of Second Temple writings and supplements to other Biblical texts that passed to us through the Septuagint. While they are not part of the Jewish canon--partially because we do not have access to the presumably Hebrew originals--they were eventually accepted by large portions of the Church. At least, they were until the Protestant Reformation, when Luther and other leaders argued that they were later additions outside of the proper Biblical witness. (The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches still generally include them.) Naturally, the Anglican Church hedges its bets, and the deuterocanonical books are described in the Thirty-Nine Articles as: "the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine" (BCP, 868).

Spending Our Lives - Joseph Wood

There are weeks when it’s harder to write a meditation, harder to catch more than a single glimpse of Divine meaning within the Biblical texts assigned for the week—and God forbid using the same interpretation that I’m planning to preach on. So, here I sit in my office on a rainy Friday afternoon, pondering what else I could possibly have to share with the parish this week. As I mull over my options, my mind returns again and again to one of the collects secreted away within our Book of Common Prayer, this one “For the Oppressed” (826):

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this
land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as
their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to
eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those
who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law
and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of
us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now, this prayer isn’t our collect for Sunday, but it seems especially timely nonetheless. As we close out June and what we have come to call “Pride Month” here in the United States, as we continue to struggle through a national discussion about what it means to be a refugee, a family, a Christian citizen, I cannot help but stumble over the second sentence: “Have mercy upon us.”

The majority of Christian prayer—at least, liturgical, Christian prayer—follows a ritualized form that can be found across cultures and religious traditions. It begins with invocation, emphasizing who one is speaking to and how one recognizes that deity. Here, we petition our “heavenly Father,” immediately setting the prayer within certain eschatological and theological (read: New Testament) contexts. The echoes of the Lord’s Prayer; of “Our Father, who art in heaven;” should ring in your ears as the words resound within your mind or from your lips. It is a reminder of how much greater God can be from us, entering into the moment of supplication by drawing tight the dichotomy between the Kingdom of God as we so often live it on earth and the heavenly Kingdom we strive again and again to midwife as a Church. Yet, at the same time, it comforts us, reminding us that the Almighty in all of God’s eternal goodness has sought out relationship with us, and that the history of our Faith is one of continued, intimate relationship. Even as the Divine is entirely other from our human experience, God is also as entangled in our lives as a loving parent anxious to see their child grow into the fullness of themselves. Even as we fall short, we are loved beyond measure.

As we continue the prayer, we admit to the realities of “injustice, terror, disease, and death” in the lives of so many individuals and communities around us, begging God to take pity on people burdened by so much that would seem to invalidate the fact of that holy love. Even as we name our own closeness to our Lord and Savior, we acknowledge the barriers erected for so many and their ability to live into their own fullness. And we immediately confess our own complicity in those barriers. Whatever difference there might be between the world as it is and the world as it should be directly corresponds to how little difference there is between pity for those struggles and mercy for our willingness to live into the systems that sustain them. Our wholeness (or lack thereof) and their wholeness are inseparable.

The prayer continues and concludes by focusing on the doing, how the fulfillment of pity for those “who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death” demands action on our part. It demands love for “our neighbors,” “equal protection of the law,” “equal opportunities,” and “a fair portion of the riches of this land” for one and all. It sounds almost impossible, sounds almost like a quixotic ideal. How would we even know what a fair portion looks like, let alone equal protection or opportunities? How could we ever love our neighbors like God does? It’s an oddly challenging, almost disruptive, prayer. But I think that’s what the life of faith ultimately is: disruptive. Our understanding of what God’s Kingdom should be will never be perfect, but the simple fact that we have been offered it demands that we turn again and again and enter into the world—offering a closer and closer approximation of that same love to our Divine siblings so desperate for it.

Thanks and the Future - Hentzi Elek

Dear Saints of Emmanuel,

I write to thank the following people:

            Thank you to the Wardens: Martha Montgomery, Senior Warden; Lindsay Herbert, Junior Warden; Jesse Craig, Secretary; and Demetreus Gregg, Treasurer. The Wardens have been wise, dedicated, and appropriately attentive to the micro and macro issues of leadership at Emmanuel.

            Thank you to the Vestry: Rebecca Atwater, Matthew Crenson, Saidah Grimes, Doty Jackson, David Kettler, Tiffany Lundquist, Jonathan Mester, Vickie Miller, Ashley Newtown, and Gregory Weidman. These servant-leaders have met regularly together with the Wardens, prayerfully discerning what is best for Emmanuel and how to most faithfully lead the parish. It is a graceful dance to balance all the interests, passions, and constituencies that comprise Emmanuel.

            Thank you to the Reverend Joseph Wood, Associate Rector, for his liturgical creativity and insight; for his Biblical and theological preaching and teaching; for his tireless logistical dedication; and for his presence with the Urbanites and Children’s Ministry. Joe has taught me a great deal, and I know he will continue to serve you faithfully.

            Thank you to Walter Ridgeway, for your excellence in overseeing the financial and building management at Emmanuel.

            Thank you to Kim Harris, for your positive attitude; administrative and pastoral skills; and for the 40 years of service to Emmanuel that continues to bring perspective and untold blessings to the community.

            Thank you to Antoin Quarles and Sheila Miller, for the diverse Sexton duties of setting up, cleaning up, and other miscellaneous tasks that provide us both a functional building and a beautiful worship space.

            Thank you to Jordan Prescott, for being a tremendous blessing to Emmanuel. Your ability to translate the notes, the intentions of the composers, and the current pastoral/liturgical situation at Emmanuel into beautiful organ music is nothing less than inspiring.

            Thank you to John Repulski, for bringing a comprehensive vision, an experienced track record, and a pastoral sensitivity to his role as Director of Music & the Arts. Not only is John an excellent musician, but he is also wise and intuitive in drawing on the wide and diverse pieces of music available to church musicians. (You should know that few musicians have the capability or will to integrate the Classical Repertoire with Jazz, Rock and Roll, Gospel, African and African-American Spirituals, Contemporary praise music, Taize, and numerous other musical genres.) John’s music; his leadership of the choir and Jordan; and his commitment to ministry—all form a liturgical mosaic each Sunday that is an incredible gift for Emmanuel and visitors to the parish.

            Thank you to the Outreach Committee, the Anti-Racism Project, the Brown Bag Discussion, the Adult Forum, the Lenten Series, and all of the other groups who have welcomed me into your midst. Your thirst for knowledge, wisdom, and justice is unique, inspiring, and an enormous future potential for Emmanuel, for Baltimore, and for the world.

            Thank you to all of you, Emmanuel. I have prayed for you each every day, and I shall continue that discipline. Thank you for welcoming me into your midst. Thank you for your wisdom, compassion, support, and prayers. It has been a much shorter season of mutual ministry than any of us expected, and yet I fervently hope that our ministry together has been a blessing.  

            I know God is calling me back to my wife, Sara; to our old basset hound and lively puppy; and to my ancestral home in the Philadelphian suburbs full-time. Regardless of my departure, you will never, ever be alone. The Vestry, Staff, and the Rev. Wood will continue to faithfully serve and lead you, and the Bishop and the Diocese will continue to support you in this transition.

            Emmanuel, you are all God’s saints, made in God’s likeness and image, and hence you have enormous hope and potential for the future. Never forget that God is with you and that with God’s love and power in your midst, everything and anything good is possible.           

            Please take the opportunity to say goodbye to me if you feel so inclined. I will be at Emmanuel full-time through June 17th.  After June 17, 2018, I will no longer be your Priest/Pastor and Rector and, therefore, all pastoral and liturgical concerns will be in the hands of your Vestry and the Rev. Wood. While I would love to be able to stay in contact with you, it would be inappropriate to do so.

All Shall Be Well, Emmanuel. And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. Be Still and Know that God is Good, Faithful and Loving to You.

With My Prayers,
The Rev. Hentzi Elek

Spirited - Joseph Wood

  In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus is accused by the unnamed crowds of having “an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:21).* Thus, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible neatens—even elides—the Biblical account, emphasizing the parallel with Jesus’ later reference to those who blaspheme “against the Holy Spirit” by claiming that it’s an “unclean spirit” (3:29-30). In fact, the Greek of Verse 21 is ἐξέστη (exeste), which is a unique variation of the word ἐξίστημι (existemi) and means something along the lines of astonished, amazed, or otherwise out of sorts. (Verse 29 is a much more straightforward Πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον [pneuma akatharton] reference to a spirit unclean or impure.**) It literally means that one is removed from a standing position, so I suppose that bowled over could be an authentic, similarly idiomatic translation. Whatever the case may be, the situation is unsettling enough that his family immediately sets out to restrain him when they hear about it. Given that the scene is set by the people crowding in so close that they were unable to eat, perhaps our Lord and Savior is just a little hangry.

  But I digress. The real challenge of the periscope is figuring out quite what Christ means when he is talking about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit and why it’s the one unforgivable sin, set apart from “the sins and the blasphemes” that will be forgiven of us (3:28). What is this misspeaking that’s so egregious that Jesus declares it beyond God’s gracious mercy? The NRSV translation choices seem to suggest that he’s naming a relatively common occurrence: the inability of people to recognize something new going on around them. Well, recognize such revelations truly. Because the crowds, and even Christ’s family, are able to recognize that something is different about what’s going on in his ministry, but they respond to it with rejection and fear. They are convinced that he is astonishing, even supernaturally so—and not in a good way. They hear his parables, they observe the community that he is forming around himself, and they are unable to name it as anything but dangerous.

  They’re not wrong. As I’ve referenced before, the Late Classical world had a different understanding of possession from the modern one—at least, it usually did. Whether daemon or otherwise, the experience was morally neutral. A person could just as easily be possessed by the Divine as by the demonic. (It isn’t all Reagan spitting up split-pea soup.) So, the fact that the scribes of the Gospel of Mark are only able to see Beelzebub, only able to name one possibility in the danger posed by and to Jesus, is fraught with unexpected assumptions on their part. They see a power beyond their understanding, and all they can do is condemn it. In short, it seems to be the case that they’ve confused wellness with comfort. They know that whatever is going on will upset the authority they've consolidated, the rules that they’ve learned to play by, and it bowls them over. I think we can safely join with Jesus here and paraphrase Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (Luke 4:23): “Physician, heal thy self.”

  After all, the adjective used to describe the Holy Spirit in Greek is ἅγιον (hagion, Mark 3:29), which is an alpha-privative form just like the akatharon of the unclean spirit a verse later. Whereas the latter means impure, the former means unearthly. The Spirit is holy because it is set apart, because it is literally not-of-this-world. The difference from the norm is still there in both terms, and the question is more of direction than kind. The Holy Spirit is dangerous too. Our God is a great and terrible God—a jealous God, even. But the danger of the Holy Spirit is that it will lift us out of all of our petty preconceptions, all of the ways that we keep ourselves comfortably isolated. It will throw us into new configurations, forcing us to name all those around us as our brother, our sister, and our mother. The adverse, on the other hand, will only bring us low, trapping us within the boundaries that we try to stay safe behind. It is no accident that the two metaphors that Jesus uses for the demonic of “a kingdom” (3:24) and “a house” (3:25, 27) are ones of earthly stability and status quo. As we think about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as we enter into Pride month, I challenge each of us and all of us to live into that difference. To care for our brothers, sisters, and mothers, whatever their demons, but to also be able to recognize that not all that is dangerous is anathema. Sometimes the danger is to our preconceptions, and we need to be ready to live into something holy and wholly different, something brilliant and new. Otherwise, we might just miss the Holy Spirit, and God only knows where that would leave us.

 

*Updated 06/10/18: In my gusto, I apparently misread the lectionary. The NRSV text of Mark 3:21 actually reads: “He has gone out of his mind.” (Which is, admittedly, a much less interpretative translation.) I apologize for the error, though I believe my overall perspective on this passage still works.

**akatharon is an alpha-privative form of katharos, meaning clean or purged. The latter definition is largely ignored because there is no easy English parallel to a prefixed negation of purged, unlike impure and unclean.

A Message from the Rev. Hentzi Elek

Dear Saints of Emmanuel Church,

For personal and family reasons, I regret to inform you that I have come to the difficult decision to resign as your rector. My final day with you will be Sunday June 17, 2018. The Vestry has graciously accepted my resignation with regret, and they and I are working together to effect an orderly transition.

the Right Rev. Eugene Sutton and the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland staff will partner with the Vestry in shedding light on the path ahead while guiding you with grace through this transition. 

My friends, you are truly made in God’s likeness and image, and you are good! With God in your midst, anything and everything that is creative, just and loving is possible.

May your glorious music, your inquisitive minds, and your thirst for justice and reconciliation not only comfort you in your daily lives but also serve as a beacon of God’s transforming love in Baltimore. 

Thank you for sharing ministry with me! As I return to live full-time with my wife Sara in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I wish you all the health, peace, and love so abundantly available in God. 

Praying for You Always,
Hentzi
The Rev. Hentzi Elek
Rector, Emmanuel Episcopal Church

What Difference Does the Trinity Make? - Joseph Wood

"It is odd that we cannot define these things without making them obscure; 
we talk about them all the time." --Blaise Pascal, Pensées

  There are moments in every clergyperson's life, whether preacher or otherwise, when we are brought up short. Usually, these abrupt pauses are brought on by the topography of human existence, by those moments in our individual and collective lives when words fail us--Memorial Day, for instance, or weddings. Joyous or somber, the sudden silence can still be overwhelming. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle named us long, long ago, we are social animals, and to find ourselves at such a loss can be hard for many of us

  Well, I found myself coming up against just such a moment again and again in trying to write this week's meditation; however, it's doctrine, not emotion, that has brought me up short this time. The Trinity can be very difficult to speak about. Paradoxically, our liturgies and related language are rife with references to it. We only consider baptisms valid if they've been done "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." We bless in the name of the Triune God, and we invoke the three persons of the Trinity again and again throughout our services--including our most commonly used opening acclamation and the conclusion of our Eucharistic prayers. The creeds are fundamentally Trinitarian documents, separated into our communal and/or dogmatic elucidation of each of its members. It would not be a stretch, in short, to describe the Christian life as one that is Trinity-shaped. So, as we prepare once more for Trinity Sunday: why do we find this doctrine, one we talk about all the time, so obscure? Why are all of us, clergy included, at such a loss to explain what it actually means?

  Perhaps the heart of the problem is that we know it's incomprehensible, ultimately. During the first Urbanites discussion I led, we were talking about different ways that we name God, and I eventually pointed out to the group that no one had offered up the names "Jesus" or "Christ" yet. Someone immediately responded: "Well, Jesus is like God--but different." While I was a little chagrined at the time, perhaps there was more wisdom in that observation than I gave it credit. After all, that person recognized that there is some kind of Divine diversity in our experience, not to mention the Biblical witness that grounds it. Yet they were also aware enough to admit the paucity of their language before that diversity. Thus we would be offering the Trinity as a signifier for a much greater whole, revealing that even our understandings of unity pale in comparison to the fullness of God's glory. And we could insert in any number of different attributes for "unity" in that understanding! The Trinity would be shorthand for the dimness of our mirror in this world of parts, for refractions of said glory that are beyond our measure.

   We could also say that the doctrine is ultimately about relationship. Not only does our tradition speak to the Lord's repeated attempts to come into "impossibly intimate relationship" with Creation--and, particularly, humanity--but it also speaks to the very foundation of God's own life being somehow relational, even communal. Such a perspective would mean that our own attempts at relationship, our own attempts to live in community, would be the crux of holiness. Whatever the life hereafter may hold, the bonds that we establish in this life would be fundamentally Divine. We would accordingly have to add a gloss to the Gospel of Luke (Lk 17:21): the Kingdom of God is not only within us, it is between us. We participate in salvation through the bonds we form with all those around us, including God. We might even go so far as to agree with the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig that love is the only attribute of God that we can achieve.

  Now, neither of the above explanations clarify quite why our Trinitarian doctrine relies upon Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the definitive names--and, perhaps, that's for the best. We should never, ever do away with tradition without a great deal of intention, but we should also always be mindful of the dynamic quality of our faith. Does our Triune language still adequately express the wholeness of God? Can we again recognize our neighbor, our enemy, and even ourselves in the creedal persons? May those questions bring you up short too, and may we eventually (and with love) live into the answers together.

Holy Fire - Joseph Wood

  Be honest, how many of you thought of something along the lines of "fiery judgement" or "hellfire" when you first read the title of this meditation? (I won't ask how many people didn't read the title at all.) I find it fascinating just how fraught our associations with fire have become in contemporary culture, especially contemporary religious culture, given that it's a symbol found almost universally in faiths around the world and throughout history--usually, with neutral or even positive connotations. It has offered light to guide our way; warmth to sustain life; movement and hunger that suggest something so familiar and so foreign at once; and innumerable other images to the human mind across our existence. It is hard to envision what our worship would look like without it, given its continued, indelible role in our shared liturgical lives. For instances, Jews light candles to delineate time, marking off the sacred moments of holidays from ordinary time and the return to the week at the end of Sabbath. In Christianity, we light altar candles, office candles, votive handles, and even the Paschal candle, all as ways to enter into historical memory and hint at the presence of God in our midst.

  So, what do we do--weighted down with such skewed cultural baggage--when we come to a holiday that's all about fire? How do we reclaim such a potent image when we hear the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles discuss the descent of "divided tongues, as of fire" appearing among the disciples and resting upon them (Acts 2:3), the Holy Spirit making its oh-so-familiar and oh-so-foreign presence known in the midst of the community of believers? I think we have to begin by unpacking quite what is going on in that upper room and the Jerusalem around it. The experience certainly sounds terrifying, what with the "rush of a violent wind" and previously mentioned tongues "of fire" (Acts 2:2-3), not to mention the xenolalia* that pours forth from the apostolic mouths in their wake. However frightening it may have been for those involved, notice that the fulcrum of the event is relationship. They may have been done in Divine style, but the miracles of Pentecost are all about God once more inundating the faithful and the community between them, entering into the minutia of human existence in a way that echoes and even compounds the scandal of the Incarnation. After all, the Spirit isn't confined to the mystery of Jesus' wholly human and wholly Godly nature: it's in each and everyone one of us. I am on fire with the Spirit. You are on fire with the Spirit. In naming this day as the birthday of the Church, we are implicitly stating that our shared identity is measured by that glorious, fiery potential among us.

  Yet the unpacking doesn't stop there, because Pentecost shares the same date as Shavuot. Shavuot is the festival of weeks, marking the 50th day after Passover and the commemoration of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai. (Remember, Sinai and Horeb--where Moses encounters the Burning Bush--are traditionally synonymous!) So, however overwhelming and new the descent of the Holy Spirit might have been, it also echoed the thunder and smoke, the burning without being consumed, that marked the Divine invitation for an impossibly intimate relationship between the Lord and the children of Israel. There is even a Midrashic account in early Jewish sources that claims that Isaiah 50:2 is about that moment and the people accidentally sleeping in on the day, causing God to lament: "Why have I come and no one is here to receive me?” Thus we should understand Pentecost as a repetition and refiguring of Shavuot, of Sinai, as part of the long Biblical saga of the Lord seeking out community with and between God's children. You could even argue that the Biblical message can be summed up in a slightly rephrased version of Genesis 2:18: It is not good for anyone, including God, to be alone.

  So, I'm not going to tell you whether or not to fear fire. Even at its best, fire is a powerful force, and it can easily overwhelm us. But I will argue that our faith is not about hypothetical fire to come, not about a judgement divorced from the here and now of the world we live in. The question isn't: will I entire fire eventually? Rather, it's: how will I enter fire this time? How will I experience and share in the often overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Whatever answers you find, may your Pentecost be glorious and bright. May it be the start of something new, and may it transform your relational life--even if just a little bit. Towards all of those ends, I leave you with Mary Oliver's poem "Sunrise" once more:

You can
die for it-
an idea, 
or the world. People
have done so, 
brilliantly, 
letting
their small bodies be bound
to the stake, 
creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But
this morning, 
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
of China, 
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun
blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many! 
What is my name? 
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.

 

*Xenolalia is one of a few different technical words used to describe the miracle of speaking in tongues. It is usually distinguished from glossolalia, the other most common term, in that it is the ability to speak a natural language unknown to the speaker. (In short: they're speaking a language that already exists on earth, even as it's unknown to the person speaking it.) Glossolalia, on the other hand, can describe the speaking of a completely unknown language or simulacrum of language. The latter is the one most often found in Pentecostal and Charismatic practices.

Abiding Our Time - Joseph Wood

     This Sunday, you will hear the word "abide" repeated again and again throughout the epistle reading (1 John 4:7-21) and the Gospel (John 15:18). While most Episcopalians recognize in those repetitions the archaic use of "dwell, live," the more common definition in Modern English is "to accept or act in accordance with"--and the possible tension between those two understandings is something I think is fundamental to hearing the fullness of our Biblical witness.

    As this meditation's title hints at, abide comes to us from the same root as "bide," which is really only seen in American English through the phrase "bide one's time." They both stem from the Old English bīdan and Germanic roots beyond that mean "to wait." The difference grows from the suffix ā- and its connotations of onward or continually. (For completeness' sake, the original Greek here is μείνατε [meinate] from μένω [meno], which is generally defined as "remain" or "abide.") Now, the reason I offer that etymological swarm is not just so I can make low-key "root," "stem," and "grow" puns echoing John 15:1-8, even as it's a nice perk. Rather, I name them because they would seem to have real consequence when trying to distinguish between a "branch [...] that bears no fruit" and a branch that does (John 15:2). If I am to properly abide in Jesus and his extended allusion of himself as the true vine, I want to know whether I am suppose to be continually waiting or continually acting in accordance with that truth. The figurative fire only heightens my concern.

   The question between waiting (or dwelling) and acting only becomes more complicated when we recognize it as a variation on the Reformation debate between Sola Fide (faith alone) and Works Righteousness. A very truncated summary of which would be that Protestants argued that faith alone is necessary for us to experience salvation, while Roman Catholic doctrine stated that one experiences salvation through faith and particular, virtuous deeds. As you might imagine, Biblical allusions to bearing fruit played a prominent role in that debate as theologians tried to parse just how the New Testament was inviting the faithful to be fruitful. The Protestant logic was that the natural outgrowths of faith were actions that corresponded to that commitment--as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, "the just man justices."* The Roman Catholic reasoning was closer to that of psychologist Alfred Alder, asserting that "acting as if" one is the archetypal Christian brings one closer to being a more fully realized Christian. These days, the parallel would be something along the lines of Recovery thought and the aphoristic strategy of faking it until you make it. 

    Being a good Anglican, I ultimately find merit in both understandings. There are certainly times when I almost instinctively act out of my faith, but there are also times when I have to actively try to live into being a better person and believer. So I cannot ultimately tell you whether your abiding should be active or passive as it unfolds, whether you should live in or live into Jesus as the vine from which Christianity springs. I think both are true, and I think we must continually discern where and how we need to grow--both individually and communally. Sometimes we need to simply dwell, to allow ourselves to be still in the grace that is given to us to freely. Other times, we need to strive to accept that grace more dynamically, claiming our Christian identity moment by moment as we do what we are called to as followers of Christ. After all, we Episcopalians argue that we are both Protestant and Catholic, that we chart the via media (middle way) with our Anglican siblings around the work between the seeming binaries of historical Christianity. Ours is a faith of ambiguity, and perhaps the most authentic experience of salvation we can offer up to the eternal vine-grower sometimes is to live in and live into that complexity, whatever fruits the harvest may bring.

*From the poem "As kingfishers catch fire"