Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Jesus Wept - Thoughts in Preparation for All Saints Day, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

The two words that form the title of this article also comprise the shortest verse in the entire Bible (John 11:35). Jesus wept.

It is not my purpose today to get into the deeper theological conundrums of the incarnation, the idea that in Jesus the divine and the human come together finally and forever. It is, however, worth pausing over these two words: Jesus wept. In this moment is Jesus being more human or more divine? Are the tears those of a grieving friend or those of a Creator who cries at the death of anything God has made? I believe that the only conceivable answer to that question is Yes.

I suspect that this picture is what the compilers of our lectionary had in mind when they chose John 11:32-44 as the Gospel reading for All Saints Day in Year B of the cycle. As we gather on November 1 to remember saints great and insignificant as well as “all those who have gone before” we are reminded that grief is both human and holy.

If you are wondering how God can grieve, read on.

St. Paul uses the word wrath a number of times in his letters to describe God’s reaction to sin and evil. For Paul, sin is “missing the mark,” trying to do what is right (usually) and being incapable of hitting the mark, the bullseye, with any consistency. For Paul, that is what it means to be human: to be imperfect no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. So, when we miss the mark the result in the divine realms is cosmic wrath.

That is a terrible thought, especially so if you believe in divine retribution for all that you have done wrong—the consequences of all the marks you have missed. In contemporary English we use the word wrath as a synonym for righteous, unrestrained anger, fury, rage…wrath. Paul, on the other hand, having experienced the boundlessness of God’s love in Christ does not conjure up that kind of divine response. For Paul, the reaction of God to sin and evil is best described as the cosmic, reactive scream of pain and anguish of the God who loves us. It is as if for Paul God’s response to the encounter with sin is grief. God weeps.

In saying these things I do not mean to anthropomorphize God. Rather, I am using poetic language to speak to a deep theological reality. God cares. God cares for the universe. God cares for individuals. Incomprehensible, yes, but a core belief of Christians. This is why we so often turn to the image of the Good Shepherd to attempt to get at how God cares for us. Jesus himself said that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and calls them each by name.

Lazarus. Come out. There it is. Jesus, Messiah, the Good Shepherd, calls his friend Lazarus by name.

In part, at least, our celebration of the feast of All Saints witnesses to our belief in a loving, caring, accessible God, who became human that we might get a better idea of what it means to live a Godly life. On All Saints Day we pray that God would empower us to follow the “blessed saints in all virtuous and Godly living.” To the extent that those in the faith who have gone before us can provide us that kind of example, as human as they were, then we might follow their example.

So, when Jesus wept before the tomb of his friend Lazarus was he being more human or more divine? Yes.


The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Diocesan Convention — the Episcopal Diocese of Utah’s Annual Meeting, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

If you are sick and tired of organized religion then you should try The Episcopal Church: we’re the most disorganized religion on the planet!

This bit of whimsy is both silly and true: the exaggeration makes clear the silliness; the observation reveals the truth that lies within. This is a church made up of human beings, at its best led by the Spirit of God. A strength of The Episcopal Church is its members’ ability to look critically at their institution…and then both appreciate and laugh at what they see.

The Episcopal Church is both hierarchical and democratic. Its governance is modeled in many ways on the government of the United States. The church has bishops—fewer than two hundred of them—and conventions, committees, commissions, and councils—lots of them. The primary component of The Episcopal Church is the diocese (Greek for district), a geographical entity encompassing congregations, institutions, schools, and programs. And, we are not the national Episcopal Church because there are dioceses of this church not part of the United States, e.g., the Diocese of Haiti. The Episcopal Diocese of Utah consists of most of the state of Utah except for the southeast corner that is part of the Diocese of Navajoland, and includes St. David’s Church, Page, Arizona.

To be a diocese of The Episcopal Church you must have three things: a bishop, a standing committee, and a convention. You can have lots of other entities in a diocese, but you must have those three. And the primary element of those three is the convention, because it is the convention that elects the bishop(s) and the members of the standing committee. And the convention is a collection of congregations and clergy.

In the Episcopal Diocese of Utah (EDU) lay delegates are elected by each congregation proportionally by size, but all congregations are also represented by the two Wardens. All clergy, priest and deacon, canonically resident (that is, answering to this bishop and registered as such), have seat, voice, and vote in the Diocesan Convention. The Bishop presides at meetings of the Convention. The usual things that come before the Convention are reports (lots of them), elections (a few of them), and fellowship (a significant and essential part of the meeting).

When the office of bishop is vacant, by resignation, retirement, or death, the convention is called together to elect a bishop. (It’s a long, complicated process, not to be expounded upon here.) Bishops are elected for life, but they must retire (as do all clergy in TEC) at age 72.

The Standing Committee in the Episcopal Diocese of Utah consists of six members, three lay and three clergy, elected by the Convention for staggered three-year terms. In Utah the Standing Committee serves as the corporate Board of Directors and as the Council of Advice to the Bishop. There are a few things bishops cannot do without the consent of the Standing Committee (ordinations are one).

In this diocese there is also a body called Diocesan Council, elected by the Convention, which is responsible for managing the budgets and programs, and establishing policy. Also, every three years the Convention elects four clergy and four lay persons to serve as Deputies to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church.

Episcopal dioceses, and all the entities therein, are governed by a body of rules called canon law. In effect, the canons (as they are known) are the bylaws of the corporation, and are adopted and amended by votes of the members of the Convention, just as parishes have bylaws that are amended and adopted at annual meetings.

The Episcopal Diocese of Utah holds its annual convention this weekend at the Episcopal Church Center of Utah in Salt Lake City. There will be plenty of silliness, and there will be moments of solemnity. The fact that there is both indicates an institution that, like most human institutions, is pretty healthy.

"All but the 100 degree General Convention weather will be back for our diocesn convention. Delegates and visitors are asked to wear their moose pins, moose hats and red volunteer aprons as we remember our “once every 150 year” hosting of the General Convention."
(read more on The Episcopal Diocese of Utah's website)

All gatherings of the Convention in Utah are open to any interested person. This year there will be workshops (go to the Convention Website for details, at, a roomful of displays provided by vendors, programs, as well as congregations, and all of the other usual business. A special event each year is the Convention Eucharist, which is held at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark on Saturday morning at 9:00 AM. This is a great opportunity to see much of the pageantry that is The Episcopal Church, and I strongly encourage you to attend.

Perhaps now that you have read through all of this you will understand the truth of the bit of whimsy at the beginning of this article. Because, in the long run, it is not the institution and its rules and structures that matter most. What matters most is the Church’s faithful members gathering together in Jesus’ name to continue the human work of being the Body of Christ in the world.

The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

1. The official name of this part of the Anglican Communion is The Episcopal Church, with the initial “T” capitalized, and abbreviated TEC. Its corporate name is The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, also known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA). The church is episcopal (having bishops). Its members are Episcopalians.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Then Come and Follow Me, by The Rev. Deacon Sandra Jones

This particular story from Mark is found in three of the Gospels, there are slight variations—the “wealthy man” in Mark (although we don’t know he is wealthy when the story begins), is identified as a “young man” in Matthew and later as a “ certain ruler” in Luke. This character, this “wealthy, young ruler”, represents the upper crust of society, he is part of the ruling elite, and whether he is an actual ruler or not, he benefits from the way the social system is set up.

The people living in Judea, in the time of Jesus, lived under a two-tiered domination system; one was local and centered in the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was subjugated by the other, Imperial Rome.

According to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the “domination system” “is shorthand for the most common form of social system—a way of organizing a society—in ancient and premodern times, that is, in preindustrial agrarian societies.”1 Three major features--political oppression, economic exploitation and religious legitimation, mark these systems.

As a conquered nation, the people of Judea were ruled by a few wealthy elites put into place by their Roman overlords. The economic exploitation was in the form of the “high percentage of the society’s wealth, which came primarily from agricultural production [in preindustrial societies,] went into the coffers of the wealthy and powerful.”2 This accumulation of wealth was enabled by the laws concerning land ownership, taxation, and the indentured labor of the lower classes due to incurred debt.

This system was fostered through religious legitimation, rule over the populace was justified through their religious language, the social order reflected the will of God, which gives support to the idea that those who are godly are blessed and those who suffer and do not appear to be blessed are ungodly as noted in the language of Deuteronomy where obeying God’s covenant leads to blessings of wealth and success in one’s undertakings (a concept which was a distortion, much as we see with the Prosperity Gospel)—but to sum it up, those who were in power, were there because God ordained it.

This is the elite caste system the “wealthy, young ruler” is a member of. In the gospel of Mark, when the man approaches Jesus, he kneels down—whenever someone approaches Jesus and kneels he or she is seeking healing, either for himself or herself or for someone they love, so what healing is this man seeking? With his question it seems this man wants to know and reconcile with, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” For us as Christians we hear him asking about heaven, but the “Greek phrase used by Mark renders the Jewish notion of ‘the life of the age to come’—a transformed earth, or the kingdom of God. Not heaven, but God’s kingdom on earth.”3 This is a deep question because it not only presents the idea of action, “what must I do”, but also considers relationship because to inherit means there is a belonging, what is received is bequeathed not earned.

Jesus’ response is to query the man about his practices, his adherence to the commandments. The specific commandments Jesus seeks response to, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud”, come from the 2nd table of the commandments, the last six of the ten that deal with how we are to conduct our human interactions, our relationships.

Along with the wealth the man possesses and the power that comes with it, there was status, social standing, sought through association with those of similar or higher rank and privilege, who do you know and who do you engage with? This man’s established sense of societal order, how it works and its expectations is going to be turned upside down. As Andrew Warren notes, “The kind of materialism Jesus calls us to requires not the accumulation of goods, but an engagement with people, particularly people in need.” There is not a lot of social status in “engaging” with society’s marginalized and this man is being invited to not only engage the marginalized but to become one.

Jesus listens to him as the man says “I have been faithful” and then as Mark writes, Jesus, looking at him, loved him—Jesus wants him to follow, to become a disciple. Jesus is seeing this man not only as he truly is, “but in a way that the young man is not yet capable of seeing himself.”4 So to consider the question asked in a previous paragraph, what healing is this man seeking—an answer could be spiritual healing, he feels, he senses there is something deeper, something more that will bring him closer to God and to God’s kingdom and it isn’t what he has studied or he practices, he is asking Jesus for directions on how to give his life meaning and create relationship.

Jesus says to him “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”, he is to distribute his wealth to the poor, not given as charity, it goes beyond giving a percentage or a portion which might soothe the conscience of the giver, and also does little to change the system that creates the poor and marginalized. Jesus is inviting him “to join the inner circle of his family and as a challenge to do the difficult thing that will restore his relationship with those on the margins of his life, those most in need of justice and generosity.”5 It is not only recognizing the marginalized in his society it is being in relationship with them.

So was it just the wealth, the social status, or was it the giving up of living in a system of hierarchies that he is a part of that stops him from becoming a disciple? When Peter begins to say, “Look, we have left everything and followed you”, Jesus tells his disciples what their new life will look like, he says that those who have left their “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers, children and fields, with persecutions…” sometimes the responsibilities of being a Christian can be a tribulation, “and in the age to come eternal life”, again not “heaven”, but God’s kingdom on earth.

And we will belong to a new family, one in which you will note that Jesus leaves out the word “fathers”, not because there will be no fathers but because the father image reinforces the patriarchal/ hierarchical system and there will be no hierarchy of any sort, except for God. The kingdom of God that will be inherited is inclusive and as we heard in the gospel lesson a couple of weeks ago, and again today those “who are first will be last, and the last will be first”, and we shall all be “servants of all”.

So when Jesus says to us, “Then come and follow me”—what preface has Jesus used in his invitation to each of us to “come and follow” that may cause us to go “away grieving”? What can cause us to miss out on becoming a disciple of a radical prophet who says, “for God all things are possible”? For the “wealthy young ruler”, was the thought “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?” too much? Wealth creates independence from others and the kingdom of God is relational, we are servants of each other and meaning for him came through those he was associated with, his new associates would be the marginalized of his society. Was the answer for his spiritual healing too scary, too intimidating to partake?

In the words of the hymn, “Will You Come and Follow Me?” when I am asked, “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same”, I find that is a bit intimidating, going where I don’t know, where I might not have the answer or even an idea of what is happening. While the thought of being able to “set the prisoner free”, of kissing “the leper clean”, of caring “for the cruel and kind” sounds doable and even meaningful, then I hear the scariest statement of all “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide”, and I realize that I must bring all of me, even the scared, uncertain and well, I won’t go into the other “hidden ‘me’s” at this time, but they are all invited into this discipleship—although from what I know of the original twelve I will be in great company—still …

So what do we need to let go of, sell, get rid of, accept before we are able to see the look of love Jesus gives as he sees the true us in ways we are incapable, thus allowing us to truly say “yes” to his invitation to “come and follow me!”

1. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, pg. 7.
2. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, pg. 7-8.
3. Marcus Borg, Conversations with Scripture: the Gospel of Mark, pg 82.
4. Paul Waddell, Heroic Ambition, The Christian Century, 10/6/2009
5. Kathryn Matthews

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Jesus and the Little Useless Burdens, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

13. People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10)

In my sermon last Sunday I made the point that the little scene from Mark in which Jesus blesses children is far more remarkable than our Western, modern minds comprehend. In the ancient world until a child matured to the point where they could begin to help with the ongoing work of the family they were considered an economic burden. Children were classed below slaves because they were use-less. For Jesus to literally embrace little children would have been, at the very least, surprising to his followers and neighbors.

Jesus is obviously making a point, and it is this: the Kingdom of God into which Jesus invites us is radically different from the ways of the world, so much so that the foundations of everything we know and believe are turned on their heads.

The word that Mark uses that we translate child is paidia [παιδια, “pie-dee-uh”], a fairly common term in the Greek of the day. Interestingly, it can be used as a synonym for terms like baby, little ones, tykes, inconsequential ones, servants and so on. That is, the term paidia could be used very much like we use the word child. So, what Jesus’ hearers would have inferred is that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a [little child, servant, inconsequential thing, baby, innocent one] will never enter it.” What they would have heard was “…like the least valuable and most useless thing you can imagine…”.

They who were gathering around Jesus and were trying to make themselves useful (that is, noticed) by him had just been told that they would not enter the kingdom, but their little useless burdens—children—would. If they didn’t see their world turning upside down then at least they felt something falling onto their heads.

This idea of little useless ones occurs throughout Jesus’ teaching. It is hinted at in Jesus’ encounter with Rabbi Nicodemus in John. Matthew reports the saying of Jesus that “inasmuch as you have done it to these, one of the little ones, you have done it do me.” “Little ones” there is the Greek word micron (pronounced mee-kron). It means very much what it does in English: the tiniest entity imaginable, something microscopic, a thing so insignificant you would never notice it. A child, for instance.

(Having just done the Blessing of the Animals I am reminded of the prayer, “…that we may not succumb to coldness of heart when we see the stray animals on our streets, that we may not turn away but bring them to a place of safety,…” Perhaps anything inconsequential that passes beneath our attention is a paidia or a micron.)

This is not one of those ideas that one can simply embrace intellectually. It is more an awareness, a comprehension of something that makes us stop and consider what is being said. The foundations of what we think we know and believe are turned on their heads. Ouch.

Peter +

*** The authors of the blog texts in the St. Mary's Church Blog welcome comments, reactions, and critiques. Feel free (and welcome) to leave a comment. ***