As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever

Dear friends,

The following words are quoted from my first annual report at St. Luke’s, January 11, 2004 and might be filed under “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”  

There is much more thanks to give before my final Sunday at St. Luke’s on November 10, 2019, but this 16 year old letter is a start.  If you read it, you will find my first and most persistent prayer as rector of St. Luke’s – God preserve me from messing up this parish!  The fact that St. Luke’s continues to be an extraordinary parish of dedicated, talented, faithful, creative, and loving souls is a tribute to the mercy and faithfulness of our Lord and Savior, to whom be all thanks and praise.   

“THANKS”

“My service at St. Luke’s began September 14, 2003, Holy Cross Day.  However my year with St. Luke’s began shortly after a conference in January where I met Tony Pompa, then canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of Virginia.  Tony and I corresponded about parishes in Virginia, and after reviewing the profile for St. Luke’s I checked in with Tony who said, `Great parish.’

Of mountains and mulberrys: mustard seed faith can do what?

Ancient_mulberry_tree_at_Loseley_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_881299.jpg

Earlier this week one of my clergy friends asked this question in relation to this week’s Gospel: “Why did Luke choose a mulberry tree instead of a mountain?” She was referring to the fact that in this week’s Gospel, Luke has Jesus responding to the apostles when they ask “Lord, increase our faith!” with “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17: 5,6) This saying appears in Matthew as Jesus’ response when the disciples ask him why they could not heal a boy who was epileptic. Jesus says to them: “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) In the passage from Matthew, Jesus’ teaching is clearer and directly connected to something the disciples did, which is typical of how Matthew presents Jesus, as a Rabbi giving object lessons. Luke is typically more open-ended about what it is that Jesus is trying to teach the disciples. These differences aside, it isn’t really clear why Luke would choose a different example of a difficult thing for Jesus to use to illustrate his point about faith.

As I reflected on this question, my thoughts naturally turned to the differences between Matthew and Luke, and to the differences between mountains and mulberry trees. I can’t say for certain, but I think there is something instructive in the choices the different Evangelists made. Aside from being more didactic, Matthew is concerned with connecting the ministry of Jesus with the legacy of Moses and the prophets of Israel. He quotes heavily from the Psalms, where God is regularly described as “a strong rock” and the miracles Jesus performs in his Gospel often have to do with demonstrating God’s power over the natural world. Mountains being mighty, and mountains being places where prophets like Moses encountered God, it makes sense that Matthew would portray the faith of a true follower of Jesus as being capable of moving mountains. The God of Moses threw the horses and chariots of Egypt into the sea. The God of Moses gave the law on stone tablets on the top of a mighty mountain. The God of Moses gave power that could split rocks open and produce water out of a desert environment. The God of Moses and the Psalms can cause “the mountains to skip like rams” (Psalm 114:6) and the faith of God’s people gives them access to that power. Matthew would connect the faith that the disciples needed to this kind of power. It is the power of the creator God who can remake the world, for whom nothing is impossible. And yet, moving a mountain from one place to the other is demonstrating the power of God in a way that we have seen before.

Luke focuses on a different aspect of God’s power. It’s the same creative power, but instead of working on the big, obvious things, it works on the roots underneath the ground, completely changing how the tree lives in the environment around it. It may be that Luke thought a strong tree like the Mulberry tree best reflected this kind of transformation. Luke’s Jesus does not point to the biggest, most immovable object, but to a tree that surprises in its strength. The strength of the mulberry tree is in its roots and in its vigorous growth. Many gardeners discourage planting the Mulberry near homes or sidewalks, because its roots are so strong that they can break up pavement and grow into the foundations of structures. The challenge the Mulberry tree represents is more than bulk. It is the kind of tree that would be very difficult to remove once growing in a place. The kind of transformation necessary to take a tree like that out and cause it to grow in the sea (not a logical place for growing trees) is a total transformation. Faith, for Luke, is the kind of thing that destabilizes the most stable system, making a creative change that is much more radical than moving a rock, even one so large as a mountain. The Mulberry tree that obeys this faithful person is going to become an entirely different plant. The tree that is so firmly rooted in the ground will be placed in a new environment and expected to grow and become “rooted” there. I think this may be what Luke wants us to hear about the nature of faith: that it both transforms us radically, and makes it possible for us to live in uncertain and difficult environments. Matthew wants to teach us that God is so strong and so faithful that with faith, we can do anything. Luke wants to teach us that faith gives us the strength to change things even as firmly rooted as a Mulberry tree, and to adapt to environments as shifting as the sea.

Finding myself through Bible Study

I have come to really enjoy the Bible studies programs that St. Luke’s has undertaken in the last few years.  Many who know me have heard my celebrations of the Psalms of Lament, which I use to soothe my anger as I navigate my way through rush hour traffic. One surprising and more peaceful discovery that I have made was through Tuesday Mornings Irregulars at Table Talk Restaurant and listing to the Sunday morning scripture at Church has served to add context to my search for the history of my ancestors in this country. This has been one example of how I have found myself through the Bible.

Image: Hagiography, fresco, of Saint Tabitha in Greek Orthodox Church (Wikipedia)

J2A Pilgrimage to Banff

This Sunday I am so excited to hear about the J2A Pilgrimage to Banff, British Columbia at the Adult Forum this Sunday.  This is our seventh J2A Pilgrimage group.  And while each group is unique, and each one has had their challenges, each of them has filled me with joy as they have shared the wonder they experienced in God and all God’s works.

Welcome back!

Welcome back to church this week, those who have been away. To those who have been here most of the summer, welcome back to intentional practice and prioritizing your worship and prayer life. Jesus tells us plainly this week that we must reflect on the costs of our discipleship, counting our resources and planning to live our commitments to God and others. As we celebrate our homecoming Sunday, we are celebrating our joyful and loving community, but we must also remember to look beyond our friends and family to welcome the new person in our midst, and to respond with hospitality and love to those outside our community at St. Luke’s. This week, we will be presented with opportunities to prioritize those outside our families, and to recommit to our lives following Jesus.

How will you recommit to the Way of Love? How will you enjoy our community while looking out for those who are not yet a part of it?

Do something worthy of a Beloved Child of God

This week we celebrate the work of lay people in the congregation and the wider society takes a pause to celebrate labor and its beneficial effects on our lives. Work is not always meaningful, the tasks we do are sometimes onerous and sometimes our motivation for working is more to care for our families and others than it is for our own benefit. Sometimes the relationship between what we do for work and our spiritual lives is unclear to us. I would suggest that this is one area where most of us need to reflect and to pray, because our work is likely to become a metaphor for our identity if we are not careful, and sometimes our calling from Jesus has little to do with what we are doing for paid work. Like the disciples Jesus called from their nets, Christians have been thinking about the relationship of their work to their spiritual lives and making choices since the beginning of our faith tradition.

The Good News

This Sunday our readings confront us with the uncomfortable reality that the good news causes division and conflict (Luke 12). Of course the good news brings reconciliation, healing, peace and joy to the whole world. But the love of God made known and incarnate in Jesus also compels us to seek reconciliation, healing, peace and joy in the name of Christ for every human being and indeed for every creature.

Be ready for His return

This Sunday the Gospel warns us to be ready at unexpected times for the return of our Master (Luke 12). If we are reaching for some example of what this readiness looks like we might turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah.

“Cease to do evil. Learn to do good.  Seek Justice.  Rescue the oppressed.  Defend the orphan.  Plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1)  But if we are expecting these actions to have some predictable effect upon our lives, we are likely to be confused and disappointed.  This is because while we must try to live in readiness for the master’s return, we have to be prepared to persevere in his absence. The absence of the master leaves open the possibility that our efforts to live in obedience to the master will not receive the immediate reward we should expect.  Sometimes those who do evil will prosper. 

Bands of Love

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,
the more they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms; 
but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love. (Hosea 11:1-5)

The message of Hosea is even more striking than that of the other prophets when it comes to family and bodily metaphors. God's message to Hosea is that God's people have betrayed the familial relationship in choosing to follow other gods. We too follow other gods, sometimes harming others with our greed and misuse of others, and sometimes only harming ourselves. Regardless of how we get into sin and separation from God, getting out is always as easy as turning toward God's mercy. The God who led Israel with "cords of human kindness" will lead us back as well.