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."

April is the busiest month

In addition to being the month of Holy Week and Easter, April is also National Poetry Month. With that in mind, I wanted to share a poem by Audre Lorde, “Father Son and Holy Ghost.” It is a slow, heavy poem—alternately hazy and clear, like the father’s memory. The imagery and language have a ceremonial quality that reminds me of how deeply entwined are our personal experiences of loss with the corporeal loss we remember during this season.

Here it is in full (courtesy of poetryfoundation.org):

Father Son and Holy Ghost
by Audre Lorde

I have not ever seen my father’s grave.

Not that his judgment eyes
have been forgotten
nor his great hands’ print
on our evening doorknobs
            one half turn each night
            and he would come
            drabbled with the world’s business
            massive and silent
            as the whole day’s wish
            ready to redefine
            each of our shapes
but now the evening doorknobs
wait    and do not recognize us
as we pass.

Each week a different woman
regular as his one quick glass
each evening
pulls up the grass his stillness grows
calling it weed.
Each week    a different woman
has my mother’s face
and he
who time has    changeless
must be amazed
who knew and loved
but one.

My father died in silence
loving creation
and well-defined response
he lived    still judgments
on familiar things
and died    knowing
a January 15th that year me.

Lest I go into dust
I have not ever seen my father’s grave.

Two Years of Lent - Jack Carroll

I moved to Baltimore in late 2012, and I felt like my new city and new church were on the verge of great things.  Baltimore had unique neighborhoods, grand plans, wonderful people, and successful sports teams.  Emmanuel had a dynamic priest whose sermons and liturgies challenged me to think in ways I had never imagined.  Worship services were profound experiences.  It seemed like everyone was full of energy and excited about what our church could do.

 Within a few years, the riots happened, the Red Line was canceled, violence began increasing, buildings I loved were demolished, and candidates who seemed most able to address these challenges did not win.  The presidential election did not help my pessimism.  At Emmanuel, the priest who had meant so much to me was gone, and the future that had seemed so promising was uncertain.  In both my city and my church, I had wanted to be along for the ride as great things happened, but I was afraid that we were headed in the opposite direction.

I still have these concerns about Baltimore and America.  However, what I’ve experienced at Emmanuel over the last two years has not been decline, but Lent.  It has been a time of reflection, reconciliation, and renewal.  I realized that great things were not going to happen on their own—I had to do something.  As a church, we realized that we couldn’t wait for a great leader to show us the way.  Through efforts such as the urbanites, sponsoring the Syrian family, and the anti-racism group, we have become a stronger community and are making an impact beyond our walls.  Lent is about preparing for Easter, and I feel that Emmanuel is prepared for our new rector.  These two years of Lent have made us ready to do even greater things than I originally imagined, and I don’t think we could have been here without going through these challenging times.

On a related note, I wonder how to transition from Lent to Easter.  This year, the abrupt change from somber to joyous will be difficult for me.  I will be attending my aunt’s funeral in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Easter Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the massacre at my alma mater.  The timing of these events serves perhaps as a tragic reminder that the struggles of Lent do not end on Easter and that we can’t expect to return to our pre-Lent naivety once Easter arrives.

Easter Message - Pete Powell

I admit that I have difficulty understanding the Lenten/Easter theology that maintains “Jesus died for our sins.”

As I remain open to a clear explanation of what that means, I find more relevance in a viewpoint expressed by a former Rector of Emmanuel.

As I recall, the meaning of the crucifixion is to reveal that secular laws and secular rule are not the final word.  There is something greater.  Jesus was put to death by the secular rulers (the Roman Empire) and yet his spirit and teachings live on 2,000 years later with millions of world-wide followers.  Jesus represents a higher law that supersedes and outlasts secular rulers.  To me, that’s the Easter message.

Christian Commitment - Franklin White

When dealing with inevitable disagreements and differences, Christian married couples would do well to put themselves in God's presence and reflect on the need to face issues with honesty. When a Christian couple sees that their marriage commitment centers on Christ, they can more easily address issues more wisely and on a much deeper level. This always involves a more mutual give and take and requires honest reflection and discussion. As each one of us searches within our selves for the understanding of God's grace in our marriage, it is characterized by selflessness, kindness, and commitment to seek the good of the beloved before oneself. It is true that all Christians can do the same. When we see Jesus as the center of our lives and recognize all people as our neighbors, we look to Jesus as the source of wisdom in addressing differences among colleagues, family, or friends. In doing this, we grow in an appreciation of our gifts and weaknesses.