Remembering Rome Earl Jones

May 25th, 2018

Memorial Day weekend 2017 witnessed the loss of a kind and dear family member, my uncle, Rome Earl Jones. Earl was the happy groom of Wilma Bleynat, father of Sam, and grandfather to Faye and Lyla. He was an Army veteran and career social worker, committed to the welfare of these the least of our brethren.

Earl’s commitment to others and his understanding of how such commitments are rooted in God’s relationship with people led to him join the Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese in God’s and in Earl’s own good time, having satisfied himself of the authenticity and integrity of that choice. At Earl’s memorial service last year, Sam quoted his father’s mature and profound understanding of how he was called to live as a child of God. “As I get older, my goal is to love more fully, more completely and without judgment.”

Last weekend, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached the sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His message to the royal couple, to the gathered congregation, and to those who watched in other parts of the world, was that “love is the way.”

Until now, I had not realized how kindred these two spirits are. Bishop Curry, like Earl, understood that God’s way is the way of unconditional love.

May we mark well what they have taught.

The Stone Cutter

May 25th, 2017

Graduation weeks can hold many pleasant surprises. A recent one for me included making friends with a 92 year old World War II Veteran named Alex. Alex was at Sewanee to watch his granddaughter walk across the stage and receive her diploma from The University of the South. I was there to watch my own daughter. But at Sewanee, graduation is more than an event; it is an extended party filled by socializing with other parents, students, faculty, and whoever happens to see you looking thirsty and offers a bit of refreshment.

The day before the graduation ceremony, Alex and I sat in a poolside clubhouse. We talked about how he had grown up attending Catholic school, where one of the priests thought he might have a vocation in the Church. Then, World War II came along and Alex, valedictorian of his High School class, was off to the European theater carrying arms. Alex came to think of war as a tremendous waste, and wondered at our inability to work out differences by other means.

When Alex returned from the war, no doubt appreciating the importance of honoring the fallen more poignantly than before, he entered into his lifetime craft. Alex was a cutter and carver of stones. He placed the names and memories of the deceased on slabs of granite for remembrance by the living.

We talked about scripture, or perhaps in this case, about a book contained within the covers of the Anglican Bible that might be read for example of life and instruction, but not for doctrine. In Chapter 44 of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we find the following text, often read in worship service on All Saint’s Day:

Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning . . .
8 Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
9 But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
10 But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten

Is this not a fitting passage to honor Alex’s work, the work of a man who assures that not only famous men, but also that other godly and righteous men and women, are not forgotten?

Alex retired from his work a quarter century ago. Through the years, he had befriended many members of the clergy, not only from the Roman Catholic tradition of his youth, but also those in other churches which bear his craft. He provided carvings on church altars to the Glory of God without charge, leaving his work for others to enjoy.

When he moved from Connecticut to Virginia, Alex began attending Protestant services held in his new retirement community. Rose, who serves his parish as a priest, recently encouraged Alex with his nimble mind and good conversation to study the Bible. He demurred. Alex told her that his life’s work was to serve as God’s hands, even though Rose’s work might be to read and to study and to preach.

A calling is a remarkable thing. It carries one through life, and if we are fortunate and do work we love, we might leave a legacy for others. Where would we be without people like Alex, who do work of the hands offered to the glory of God? Where would we be without people like Rose, to proclaim in words the story of God’s relationship with his people?

As Alex and I prepared to part, an image came to mind. Joseph of Arimathea was a man of words, a respected member of the Sanhedrin who was expectantly waiting for the Kingdom of God. A skilled craftsman had once prepared a rock-hewn tomb with loving care for Joseph’s family to use. When a judicial murder occurred during Passover season, Joseph, the man of words, persuaded Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to release the body of Jesus of Nazareth to him. Joseph offered his own tomb to inter the remains of Jesus, rather than leaving a corpse to rot on a cross. The tomb, fashioned with such loving care, became a place where the mourners could prepare the body for a respectful burial. The man of words who called for the body, and the loving care of the skilled stone carver, met in the rock hewn tomb.

On the third day, certain women who had accompanied Jesus went to the tomb to administer with loving care the spices they had prepared to anoint his body. When they arrived, the tomb had already done its most essential work, shielding the remains of the beloved from theft and abuse and scavengers. The rock hewn tomb crafted to hold the dead was empty; the stone against the entrance had been rolled away for the living.

Both crafts and words, both craftsmen and wordsmiths, preserved the body of Jesus from yet more dishonor. Their deeds and the words both proclaimed the resurrection of the dead. Two thousand years later, both Alex and Rose are called to proclaim the resurrection, whether in deed or in word. We will not remember everyone’s names, but the righteous deeds and holy words of God’s people offered in his service are not to be forgotten.

Rotten Saturday

April 4th, 2015

Some people call today Holy Saturday. I call it Rotten Saturday. You see, that is what my late Uncle, John Bleynat, called it. When you planted a vegetable garden, you did not plant anything today. The day was rotten, the body of Jesus lying in the grave. Why would you plant anything then?

You should plant peas or beans (I don’t recall which) on Good Friday. Sure, it is a holiday commemorating a judicial murder, grounded in betrayal. But at least it is redemptive, with the veil of the Temple separating the Holy of Holies from the profane getting ripped in two, top to bottom, an invitation of God beckoning our entry.

Rotten Saturday? The only redemption in that day is to keep enough hope to wait out the despair. Because if you keep faith you will see that, with the next day, Resurrection comes.

Rotten Saturday, 2015, also marks the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of his memory, and while awaiting the Resurrection of the one he served, I thought about a song. The link below goes to U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love). The song is a powerful remembrance of how a man God sent to help heal America was murdered. Of course, we did it first to the man who God sent to heal all nations, and even the creation itself.

Why don’t we learn?

But the Good News is this: Rotten Saturday, and all it represents, is nothing but a loser which seemed to hold a lead, if only for a day, while the greater power gathered itself to prevail.

Love and Life win.


July 27th, 2013

As some of you know, in my second volume, The Synoptic Gospels: A Journey Into the Kingdom; Volume II: From the Desert to the Mount, I used the Enneagram as a personality tool through which to explore the Beatitudes. For those of you whole enjoy such exercises AND are fans of the short-lived but much loved television series, Firefly, you might want to try to enneatype the regular characters for kicks. Here in our house, we got the seats around the table pretty well filled.

Thanks for the feedback!

July 25th, 2013

Many of you have been kind enough to offer support, affirmation, and constructive criticism in response to my recent blog on Christian Universalism, typically by email and occasionally on Facebook. Some of you have also taken the step of sharing personal stories. If the spirit moves you, please feel free to offer replies or comments on the blog. I will be glad to post those that you share in that fashion.

Who is God and Who am I?

July 20th, 2013

Who is God and Who am I?

In the spring of my twenty-second year, I found myself in a darkling wood. I held no expectation that the time was at hand to grapple most intensely with the great questions about life and the afterlife—and hence, to grapple also with the nature and destiny of God and Man. Rather, I had expected that spring, and in the summer that followed, to be sorting out my own personal future.

Then, it changed. Spring warmed into summer and the end of my junior year at Clemson allowed more space in my mind for big questions—the ones that were always there, but not always active—to rear up to full height and demand attention. Thoughts of a personal future gave way to bigger topics about how and where God might be calling me. My encounter with God, at its most intense, was not the easily fluid conversation of an upbeat young evangelical, confident in the will of God being displayed clearly in response to prayer. Nor was my encounter like the petition of a Roman Catholic communicant whose friendly parish priest represented the Church, and thus the Divine, and who could therefore provide authoritative comfort or guidance.

No, my encounter was that of a Protestant’s Protestant, someone who claimed—demanded even—that God in his unmediated presence make his ways accessible to me in a rational, systematic, ethically comprehensible, and yes, as much as I hated to acknowledge such needs, in an emotionally sustainable manner. My encounter presupposed these answers not only to prayers, but to the question and even objections of someone who wanted God to justify his ways to a young man who quite seriously wanted some answers. My side of the conversation (I did not always pay attention to God’s side of it) looked a little like this:

What is your nature, God? We are told you love us. But do you really love us — all of us? There is suffering in the world, including the suffering of innocents. Why does that happen? Perhaps I can accept a bit of mystery in that area. Sometimes the suffering of innocent people is about how poorly we discharge our responsibilities to our neighbor.

But I also have other questions, beyond what we do, and closer to the ground of what only you do—questions about suffering at the hands of an arbitrary environment, where an earthquake can make buildings collapse and flood waters rage and people die. I suppose there are workable answers to even that sort of question; after all, the creation is dynamic, ongoing, the product of billions of years of divine work, or perhaps some random action, or maybe even both in their seasons.

But God; what about those things exclusively in your control? In short, what about the eternal fate of those who die in the floods and earthquakes and wars or due to illness or age or violence or happenstance? What about the souls of those who, for whatever reason, were not ready, willing, and able to take a leap of faith into your saving will and power; who equated religious commitment with being able to believe forty impossible things before breakfast; and who could thus not regard themselves as faithful in the way that the Christian way had been explained to them? And what about those who are faithful though with a different understanding of you, perhaps derived from a great and ancient source or religious tradition, and who thus are not likely to be saved through hearing, believing, accepting your message as embodied by an itinerant Jewish preacher 2000 years ago, whose followers proclaimed him as being you, incarnate, the Word become Flesh?

In short, I asked: What is the nature of your relationship with us? Are you about saving the lives you created, or allowing them to perish? At core, are you about our reconciliation to you, or about our alienation from you? What are the destinies of all people, this question entirely within your jurisdiction?

And, if believing the right things about you, or doing the right things for you, are the requirements of being in right relationship with you, then isn’t whether one is ultimately lost or saved a product of arbitrary factors such as birth, social connection, temperament, and whether at a given time the field might be fertile for response to you, one sometimes based as much on the messenger as on the message?

What, then, will be our fate? We are being told by many doctrinally oriented religious leaders that our fates are actually in our own hands, whether to believe the Good News and accept the free gift of salvation; or to reject it and die in our sins.

But I was not buying that last line from those religious leaders, Protestant of Protestants that I was. I believed that a sense of divine election was a much more reliable means of the reconciliation of all to God than human response could ever be. That is, if in fact God loved us. All of us.

I thought that unless God was the author and finisher of salvation, then our eternal destination, our final dwelling place, was a complete crap shoot. And therefore it seemed that a god who was the author of creation, but who would watch or perhaps even foreordain the destruction of many of those whom he claimed to love, who allowed them to fall into eternal darkness, or even condemned them to that fate by divine will, was not a god to be loved; only feared, in his arbitrary will, and not even really respected. That god would be no loving father, but a tyrant.

And I did not like that notion one damned bit. In fact, it was a despairing picture of God and Humankind. I felt that God’s saving action should, could, must be at work among us all. But I did not know it to a certainty, and I wanted some answers.

At first, I wanted clear and certain answers. Specially packaged for me would be nice, but that sort of response was outside even my own expectations. Later, though, I believed I would able to accept the answers that I could at least live with, however provisional. Such was my encounter with God.

And I was eventually ready to use the tools at hand to flesh out the meaning of that encounter. So, I studied. The Bible, commentaries, theology, you name it. Group study. Individual study. I talked. With pastors, family, friends. I was so caught up in this encounter, this need for clarity, that it was worrisome to me and to those closely connected to me.

And, eventually, I emerged from the darkling wood, a better student of the Bible, a better Christian, and, perhaps after finally shutting up long enough to let God have his say uninterrupted, a humbler follower of Jesus.

I emerged, essentially as I began, a Christian with strong universalist leanings but as with T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding, knowing the place for the first time. A certain spiritual sense stepped forth, reasonable and kind, holding forth with resonance between an ideal of God’s universal saving action, and my own values and beliefs. Response to the Biblical witness played perhaps the biggest part in my arrival on the other shore, where I would have faithful confidence (most days, at least!) in God’s universal saving action. That response was based on interpretive discipline, studying scripture through the lenses of history, literature, theology, and community. In fact, that encounter, and the commitment to principled study of the Biblical witness, is the father of my own multi-volume Journey series on the Synoptic Gospels, my effort to share meaning from the story of Jesus with others. I came to believe (and now to express) in a more principled way that the God who would save all people, and who would refresh, redeem, and reconcile his whole creation, was the God found in the Bible, who dwelled also in the hearts and in the minds of his people.

After the 1980s were left in my rear-view mirror, people who had been quiet, or maybe just less visible then, began to write books. Marcus Borg told of struggles in his own life not dissimilar to my own. Some works contained an implicit suggestion of God’s universal saving action. Other writers made it more explicit. Their books included If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland; and God Does Not Foreclose: The Universal Promise of Salvation, by David Lowes Watson. Bishop William Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? was a later addition to these works, drawing heavily on that Protestant of Protestants, Karl Barth. And then, with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, an evangelical voice joined the conversation, offering up his own ideas about God’s disposition toward universal salvation, even if not fully proclaimed as a doctrine or creed.

The world was now moving along the same path I had begun to discover in the darkling wood of my twenty-second summer.

Then, on 22 May, 2013, something remarkable happened. Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, proclaimed that the redemptive work of Christ extended even to atheists. Consider that for a moment. Was the Pope proclaiming a gospel of universal salvation, even to unbelievers rejecting the very idea of God? I believe he was going almost up to that very point, perhaps even reaching it; but no doubt pondering it, embracing it, if not as a doctrine delivered infallibly to his flock, ex cathedra, then at least as an offer of insight into his core understanding and guiding theological principles.

His statement abroad quite literally came home to my own place. On Sunday, 26 May 2013, the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Asheville, marked what Francis had to say in a sermon. It was the first time in his life that that the Rector, standing in his own pulpit, had quoted a sermon by a Pope. And it was the first time in my own life that I heard the word “universalism” come out of the mouth of a pastor in a church where I was worshiping. It was not a word written on a page of a book. It was not a discussion in a Bible study group among laity. And while neither the Pope’s sermon, nor the Episcopal Rector’s sermon, declared doctrine binding his flock—something a Protestant’s Protestant would dismiss anyway!—both men treated the notion that God’s saving action extended to all people not as a heresy to be debunked or as a straw man to be knocked down, but as a real possibility. Almost, it seems, as the reality we will eventually experience.

Now, I am no longer the young Protestant’s Protestant, arguing alone with God about how he should treat his beloved creation. Instead, the conversation is a public discourse that has come to where I have long been.

That does not mean the conversation is over. Pope Francis will no doubt receive reactionary words, however indirect, for preaching about the redemption of atheists rather than about their need to follow a requirements system which includes their discernible conversion. The pastors of many other churches who expressed comparable sentiments will experience blow back as well. After all, Rob Bell lost his pulpit following the publication of Love Wins.

But the conversation has fundamentally changed, and I do not believe it will ever revert completely to the point in time when Christian universalists whispered only to each other for fear that the guardians of a rigid orthodoxy would exact some sort of retribution for upsetting the requirements systems, carefully expounded, which formed the core of a dogmatic and exclusivist theology.

And so, on Trinity Sunday, as I worshiped I quietly celebrated the ground shift beneath my feet. I set aside my usual practice of receiving the bread and wine from a kneeling position, taking instead while standing as at Easter when the Resurrection is proclaimed most purposefully. This was an occasion worth marking out differently, even if my meaning in accepting the sacrament at the time was known only to my wife and me, a celebration of Christ conquering death, and hell, and bringing about a universal reconciliation between God and his children.

All his children. None of whom are to be stuck in Dante’s Inferno, or even to be lost in the darkling wood, without help. They were intended for Paradiso, and God is calling them there. In the meantime, they are free to live their lives in thanksgiving for his great love and grace, to serve those who do not yet know that they are the beloved children of the God who cares for their every need, and who has utterly no intention of letting them go.


The Big Bang and the Word

June 4th, 2011

The Big Bang and the Word

Thirteen and a half billion years ago.

All was light and energy and matter and all were interchangeable.

Then, after a second, a mere moment in time, uncontainable energy burst forward. It filled the inchoate and rapidly expanding universe. It filled the cosmos.

But it did not remain alone. Over time, even as it expanded, its waves settled and congealed and some of it became matter.

Across this primeval span of hundreds of millions of years, the energy and the matter collided and changed form and combined.

Elements and atoms discovered that they needed each other. They formed new molecules and compounds. Stars were formed between volatile and inert gasses. Heat compounded their work. Galaxies organized.

And those stars with all their heat and violence offered up the things of which planets are made.

The things had no consciousness then, of course. Or even life. But as these forces and the energy and matter they offered combined and recombined, strange things happened. Complexity increased. And with it, so did fragility and interdependence.

It is not clear what happened so that some of this matter and energy transformed from non-life to life. But it happened.

First, prokaryotes come into existence. Of these most primitive life forms, some may even have combined in a beautiful symbiosis. Then, eukaryotes arose, and with them, multicellular organisms. Differentiation and adaptation did their work, making new life forms.

These new life forms became complex. Then, something still more curious happened. Among the life forms were those who began to “love” each other — perhaps in a self-interested way, in the sense that I am better off with you than without you. Not exactly agape, but still, a beginning.

Higher forms of life and of love appeared. The community of plants and animals interacted, both cooperatively and competitively. Types of animals came together in groups. Some learned to feed and protect each other – particularly, their young – and would sacrifice themselves, one for another.

Finally, the image of God was embodied in an erect species called homo sapiens. They were a place where God’s love could become incarnate.

We are tethered, then, not only to the life giving Spirit, but also to the matter and energy that make us up.

What shall we call the animating and creating force? How shall we describe its work? Who is the ground of being, bringing a universe into existence from a flash of light and energy and sustaining it, ever creating it, ever loving it?

Across this vast expanse of space and time, consider, then, the following:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Consider also this:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

Happy Ascension Sunday!

Sermon at Saint Luke’s, Asheville, August 8, 2010

August 10th, 2010

Sermon at
Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church
8 August 2010
Luke 12:32-40

Let me first thank all of you for inviting me to come to Saint Luke’s on this warm August morning. We have a happy memory here of a much different occasion. It was the celebration of a new ministry. The Reverend Patty Mouer was being installed as Rector on a beautiful December night. When we emerged from the standing room only service we saw that the snow had begun falling from the sky. The charm of Saint Luke’s parish is apparent in all seasons.

The Mouers are among our oldest friends in Asheville. The Bleynat family started attending Trinity Church in the mid 1990’s when Patty was its Director of Christian Education and was working toward her ordination. Our eldest child, Web, was not even in school. Now, he is a 6’6″ rising high school senior. Jim Mouer and our daughter, Elizabeth, were both toddlers. Wade Mouer and Luke Bleynat had not yet appeared in all of our lives to introduce their own particular brands of chaos.

I think it is my daughter Elizabeth who gave your Rector what has become her official name, at least around the Bleynat house: Our Dear Miss Patty. You might envision it in capital letters, like a title.

Now, unlike Our Dear Miss Patty, even though I am giving a sermon this morning, preaching isn’t my day job. Lawyering is. So, when I look into my closet to pick out something to wear, I have plenty of gray suits, and plenty of blue suits; but no vestments. So I asked whether Saint Luke’s had any 48 extra long athletic cut robes. No luck. I then checked the closet at Trinity Friday. Still no luck. So I hope you will forgive this variation from typical preacher dress. I did try, after all!

Some of you are aware that I have published a couple books in a multi-volume series on the synoptic Gospels. Not sure when I will ever get to the next volume, but I do love the project!

Hmmm. As I look around, I wonder if some of you might be asking “What are the ‘synoptic’ Gospels?” Well, the word “gospel” means “good news of God’s saving action.” The word “synoptic ” means “to see together.”

So, when we talk about the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are talking about good news of God’s saving action that can be seen together as we read these three books in relationship to each other.

There are academic questions about those relationships. For instance: which came first? And how is it that they came to be so similar, yet also to have such remarkable differences? The leading scholarly position is that Mark is the oldest of these three Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke incorporate Mark’s story of Jesus as the core narrative of their own Gospels.

But you will notice that Matthew and Luke are much longer than Mark. So, you might ask, “Where does the rest come from?”

When we look at them closely, we find Matthew and Luke have a lot in common with each other that Mark doesn’t share. These materials include many sayings of Jesus, such as what we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Because the shared sayings do not come down to us in a single document today, scholars have tried to determine how they might once have been grouped. They have reconstructed a hypothetical book containing sayings of Jesus that they call “Q” — the first letter in the German word “quelle,” which means “source.”

Matthew and Luke have unique materials as well, shared with no one. In Matthew, we might think of the parable of the sheep and the goats. We might also think of Luke’s parable of the prodigal son. The sources that provided these separate materials are called “M” for Matthew and “L” for Luke, respectively. They may have been oral or written. We simply don’t know, as they, like Q, are lost to us.

With all this talk about who’s on first and what’s on second, I think it is fair to say that I have been wearing a teacher hat for the last few minutes. Now, it is time to take off that hat and put on another one. But don’t worry—it’s not the lawyer hat. There will be no cross examinations today. It’s the preacher hat I need to put on.

So to make the transition from teaching to preaching in a most familiar way, I will ask you to join in.
“May the Lord be with you”
“And also with you”
Let us pray:
May the words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in thy sight,
oh Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.


The gospel before us today is taken from Luke 12. Jesus has already “set his face toward Jerusalem” in the words of the evangelist Luke. We are not in the beauty of the Galilean lakeside, but on the way to a crowded and tense Passover week in Jerusalem.

As Jesus gets physically closer to his destination – and to his destiny – friction increases. We are told that the Scribes and Pharisees have been lying in wait for him, ready to cross examine Jesus. It seems that I am not the only lawyer in the house this morning!

If we were to peruse Luke before coming to our text for the day, we would see that Jesus has just been speaking to the crowds. Then, something happens that is a little more personal. Jesus turns away from the crowd, and toward his disciples. “Do not be afraid, little flock” he says. “Do not be afraid.”

In this remarkable moment, Jesus shifts from preacher to pastor, from proclaiming a message to seeing how important it is to reassure the people closest to him. The life with him that they have chosen has taken them out of the home waters around the Sea of Galilee and into the hustle and bustle of travel and encounters with many people, not all of them pleasant. In fact, some are downright unpleasant – like the Scribes and Pharisees.

What is it that these classes of people represent? Might it be order? That is required for any civilization. But might it be something more? Hierarchy? Legalism and doctrine? The placement of burdens on the people?

Those who follow Jesus and lay these burdens down are then left without the strong ties of property and place that define so many of our lives. To cast them off is to receive a blessing. Jesus has set them free.

But free from what? And free for what?

Let’s think about that a little. Jesus has been counseling “the people” – a term Luke often uses to describe a fairly large, but usually friendly group – not to worry about tomorrow.

This is sound advice. But his call to the “little flock” is qualitatively different. He has asked them to take a portion of the father’s kingdom. He has asked them to sell their possessions, give alms, and lay away unfailing treasure in Heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

There is such truth and beauty in what Jesus tells the little flock that it flows over us and holds us in a bit of wonder as we consider what we relinquish and what we gain. The words resist being cluttered with commentary and rationalization. And yet, if we are to respond to the call; if it is to remake our lives, then we MUST talk about it.

We must start where we are in order to see where we might go. But we are so tethered to this world, that a different way only breaks in around us when we let our defenses down and embrace the image of the new person we are being called to become.

Think of our own lives. We are shackled by business expenses, rent or mortgage payments, insurance payments, providing for utilities, clothes and food, recreation, education, retirement, and every conceivable thing. And that includes feeding teenagers! Our time is spent seeking ways to fund these lifestyle requirements. In acquiring the means to secure goods and services we have gained not freedom, nor even true security; but bondage.

The servitude is more visible at some stages of our lives than at others. Last year, for instance, I heard that the age at which the average man confronts his highest level of annual expenditure is 46. Now, I do not know the methodology that led to this conclusion, but would make the educated guess that it has a lot to do with costs I described a few moments ago ramping up or peaking in these years. Not to mention feeding teenagers. And, with that said, I will let you good people just take a wild guess about how old I am right now!

So, it is VERY difficult to see where we are to go when directed to sell all our possessions, give alms, and move on.

And even if we can’t take this passage literally, we must still take it seriously. And that fills us both with a hint of possibility, and with more than a touch of dread. There is a conflict between what our Lord tells us, and what our experience tells us, and so we are placed in that little box where God likes to put us so that we may become true men and women: Paradox.

Now paradox is not petty contradiction, but a tension between two great truths that seem to conflict. It is not like arguing who had the green light with a fender bender at an intersection. No, it is more like coming to grips both with God’s sovereignty and with our free will. And it is our obligation, if we are to live authentic lives, to sort out what all of that means.

For example, our experience tells us we must prepare for the future, lest we be victimized and marginalized and left without security or meaning and see not only ourselves, but also our loved ones, suffer from whatever the world has to offer, whether loss of job or health or relationships.

But our Lord tells us something different. He tells us to let go. Because, you see, we can’t hold on anyway. We see lives disrupted by oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico or by the earth heaving in Haiti or by power struggles in the mountains of Afghanistan. If destructive forces can sweep down on these people, they can sweep down on us as well. We can all be disrupted, dislocated, and destroyed.

Is there no security? Is there nothing upon which we can rely?

Jesus seems to suggest that we have been looking for security or perhaps even meaning in all the wrong places. So he challenges us. By selling possessions and giving alms, we let go of the shackles of the world. We also come into possession of an unfailing treasure that we receive when we reset our sights on God and where he is calling us to go. It is the treasure of the heart and soul in right relationship with God and each other.

If we take these steps, if we walk in faith into the place where God is calling us to go, what happens to us? What do we experience in the place left open when we lay our burdens down? Knowing the hearts of men, Jesus moves from talking about letting go, to talking about – of all things – PREPARATION!

Look out guys because we are once again put in the little box called Paradox. Isn’t preparation what he has just tried to get us to QUIT doing? Weren’t we just being asked to give up security, and contingency plans, and all sorts of “prudent” things? And here, the little flock is being told to be dressed for action and to keep their lamps lit.

And what is the nature of this new preparation? Is it trading one house for another, one job for another? But that would just alter the forms of our lives, leaving the substance intact, wouldn’t it? So the change must involve something else.

Maybe it requires a core change. When we set down all the clutter, and take hold of the heavenly treasure, we witness the image of the beloved master returning from the wedding banquet. It is a festive occasion. He has been away, but his servants are still dressed for action with their lamps lit. They are going about the daily work the master has assigned.

It is the servant who unburdens herself of her own daily anxieties and reorients herself to the values of the kingdom – who gives alms to the poor; who follows her master’s directions – that receives the kingdom of love and delight now being offered. And, to make it even stranger, when the beloved master comes home, it will be HE who is serving the servants. The world is turned upside down.

As with so many of the things Jesus teaches us, we find ourselves struggling between meaning and practicality. The call to give all away, and yet to prepare, creates conflict. It is that paradox of two great truths in tension. It is up to us to sort out how to live them.

And with that in mind, I ask this of you, Our Dear Miss Patty’s little flock:

How can this be?

Can we come to know what Jesus means simply by thinking about it?

Or is it possible that we can only understand it by living it out, at least a little?

By giving something away, by unburdening ourselves, are we preparing our lives a little bit better for the master to come home?

And if we can take a first baby step, what might the second step look like? Or the third?

Might we find that, by trusting Jesus and following his words, we lose the half lives we have come to know?

Might we gain authentic lives, servants of the master, unburdened by the worries of the day, sitting down with our beloved companions at the feast he has provided?

So may it be with us.

The Feast of Epiphany

January 5th, 2009

Matthew 2:1-12 (RCL and BCP)

The Feast of the Epiphany offers an annual taste of one of the richest, most poignant stories in the New Testament. It celebrates the visitation to the Holy Family by wise men from the East. While they are not identified as royalty in the biblical story itself, they are nonetheless the Three Kings of the Orient celebrated in hymn and carol.

The term “epiphany” means spiritual revelation. On this occasion, the term commemorates the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Here, at the beginning of Matthew, we see the Hebrew Messiah draw unto himself those who, though far away, possess a profound insight that enables them to realize that something of singular importance is happening in faraway Bethlehem.

In the Journey text, we explore this story from wide and varying angles. We ask, “why Bethlehem?” “Why these men?” “Why this trip to see a baby?”

We also examine how the religious traditions of the wise men prior to the time of their trek to Bethlehem informed their understanding. Where are they from? In what or whom do they place their faith?

We look at the signs given to them, the strange gifts they bear, and the future they imagine.

Click here to view what Volume I of the Journey has to say about Matthew 2:1-12. The text is located at pages 116-127.

Click here to download the actual page excerpts from Volume I in PDF format.

First Sunday After Christmas

December 26th, 2008

As with some of our other seasonal readings, the lectionary for the First Sunday after Christmas is the same each year.

John 1:1-18
The gospel offering is John 1:1-18. Though John is not among the synoptic Gospels, it does occasionally receive some commentary in the Journey series. In fact, it was a subject of our blog entry of Monday, December 24, 2007, as Christmas selection III.

Click here to view what Volume I of the Journey has to say about John 1:1-18. The text is located at pages 208-212.

Click here to download the actual page excerpts from Volume I in PDF format.

Galatians 3:23-35; 5:4-7

The First Sunday after Christmas features an important reading from one of the letters of Paul. The Letter to the Galatians contains his most powerful declaration about how freedom in Christ liberates the people of the way from what Paul by now considers to be the shackles of Judaic law. Paul focuses on faith working through love, rather than obedience to ritual requirements, as the center of one’s relationship with God.

Paul’s view about the relationship of the Christian believer to the Hebrew law was far from unanimous. Other early Christian leaders, including James the brother of Jesus, adhered to the notion that the law was still operative, and that gentile converts to even this Christian expression of Judaism were required to accept all the burdens of the law, including circumcision and dietary restrictions.

In fact, the experience of the early church coming to grips with a mission that embraced gentile converts was among the most important developments in first-century Christianity. It opened the richness of life in relationship to the God if Israel to those who were previously outside that fellowship.

Among the Gospels, Matthew is the one most focused on connections between Jewish tradition and the growing church. For that reason, we considered the text from Galatians in light of statements that Matthew’s Jesus makes about the law in the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon itself receives the lion’s share of our attention in Volume II of the Journey.

Click here to view what Volume II of the Journey has to say about Galatians 3:23-25 and 5:4-7. The text is located at pages 255-264.

Click here to download the actual page excerpts from Volume II in a PDF format.