Weekly Reflection and News: March 5, 2020

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:1-17

How in the world is one born from above? The King James version is more familiar to most of us, using the term, “born again.” The Greek can mean both, and in this case, I believe that both meanings are intended: born again/from above as two ways of saying the same thing.

Of course, when you start talking like that you sound like some guru saying contradictory things, trying to push you to the edge of a new and greater way of seeing the world. I believe that is exactly what Jesus intends here. Nicodemus has all the right answers—except for one. He could not square Jesus’ teaching with Jesus’ actions. Jesus’ actions to a 1st century Jew were proof positive that Jesus was from God. As a teacher, however, Jesus wasn’t one of the Temple authorities. So, who is this Jesus, anyway? I think all of that was behind his simple, complementary opening line.

And Jesus answers with, “You must be born again/from above.” This does not refer to praying the Sinner’s Prayer with a pastor and knowing yourself to be one possessed of a ticket to heaven. This is exactly the precipice of faith—a new and greater way of understanding the world. The end is the clincher: God sent Jesus to love, not condemn. The kingdom is not earned, it is granted. During this season of Lent, one of the hardest things to give up is the desire to earn God’s forgiveness by our disciplines rather than use our disciplines to open ourselves to the gift of acceptance already given.

the Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)

Continue reading

Weekly Reflection and News: February 26, 2020

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:1-11

In 2016 Morgan Freeman produced a National Geographic series on The Story of God. It’s not really a history of the divine, but a compendium of the ways people have understood and talked about God over the millennia, and how that has developed. Like all reference to the divine, he comes at it obliquely, for that is finally all we can do. I had a couple of seminary professors who were going to do something similar with the devil. What’s the devil’s story? How has humanity understood evil, related to evil, courted, resisted, or given in to evil that seems somehow greater than they are?

The writer of this story seems to understand the devil in similar terms. Does Jesus need to avail himself of a greater authority in Scripture to overcome the devil? That idea flies in the face of the Resurrection, Christianity’s great story of the vindication of self-giving love over evil. The same is true here. Jesus could just stand up to the devil and say, “bead it, bad guy!” but he does not, because this story is not about Jesus beating the devil. It is about how we overcome evil. If we go at it thinking we can do it all alone we’re bound to lose. In that sense, the evil we face within and in society is greater than we are. But when we approach evil from the spirit, from that place in us that has surrendered to the love of God, evil retreats—it must retreat, for it cannot continue in such contexts.

I think of the movie, Moana, a fabulous epic tale. As Moana approaches the blazing volcano that has tried to destroy her in a kind of love willing to sacrifice her own life for her people, she is able to place the stone on the heart of the “devil,” and resurrect the world.

The Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)

Continue reading

Weekly Reflection and News: February 20, 2020

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Matthew 17:1-9

The season of Epiphany is nearly over. We have journeyed with the Magi, lo these seven weeks since the end of the Christmas season. We have traveled from Persia to Bethlehem; we have journeyed from Central America to the Skagit Valley; we have trudged the road of happy destiny from the First to the Twenty-First Century. Are you tired yet?

Moses spent forty days on the holy mountain before he was given the gift of Torah. Elijah spent forty days on the mountain hiding from those who would do him harm before he heard the voice of God in the still small voice. Jesus fasted in the wilderness forty days battling a variety of temptations – the greatest of which would be to stand in God’s shoes – before he returned home to Galilee to proclaim the Good News of salvation to a sin-sick and weary world. Are you tired? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?

Jesus climbed the mountain with his friends. When he was baptized, the voice of God came to him: You are my beloved; you are One in whom I am well-pleased. Up on the mountain, the voice of God speaks up: This is my beloved. Listen to him!

Listen. There is so much noise in the world. There is so much static in the air. I am tempted to close my eyes, cover my ears, and bleat forth with a hearty la-la-la-la-la – hoping and praying the bleary, dreary drone of this world’s metal on metal screeching will stop. But Jesus taps the shoulder – yours and mine – and says, “Follow me.” And so we leave the din of battle behind and we follow him up and up until we find our head in the clouds. Uncovering our ears we hear it: Silence in the presence of the Almighty. Jesus glistens; we listen.

From here we return to the valley of the shadow. Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem – his Exodus. He drapes his arms around the shoulders of his friends and says, “Let’s get going.” Those arms draped ‘round us will soon be stretched out for us, nailed to and old, rugged, ugly cross – fashioned from a Christmas tree we so recently gathered beneath with good cheer and joy; you’ll see.

Life is a journey. We have traveled with the Magi. Now let’s walk with our Lord. We need not fear, for He is with us and promises to be our food and drink every step of the way.

The Rev. Keith Axberg

Continue reading

Weekly Reflection and News: February 13, 2020

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:21-37

A friend told me many years ago that Jesus’ teaching drove people inward. The understanding of proper religious practice of the day was pretty external. It had to do with what you did, not what you thought or desired. Jesus, on the other hand, says stuff like what is written above. It goes inward, to thoughts and attitudes and the “why” behind choices we make. In this vein Jesus follows in the footsteps of John the Baptist before him and so many of the Old Testament prophets. Ultimately Torah, the Law of Moses, is summarized by an internal command: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

What is harder to say, and Jesus works in on it from a hundred angles in his teaching, is that the root of spiritual vitality and health is not just paying attention to one’s inner life, but cultivating a certain kind of internal life. It’s all about loving God and neighbor, and love requires that we set our egos where they ought to be and not where they want to be, and dive deeper, surrendering first to the love of God we have come to know, and then the disciplines of self-giving love for others. Surrender is scary—unless it is done for love.

The Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)

Continue reading

Weekly Reflection and News: February 6, 2020

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:13-20

My father told me once that when he was a boy he had figured out that if you could rotate a coil of wire wrapped around a shaft inside magnets spaced at the right places, and alternate the magnetic fields of the coil at the right time, the magnets would pull the shaft around. He had stumbled on the basic principle that makes an electric motor work. Unfortunately, someone else had thought of it first. Electromagnetics was not to be his field of influence. Words would. He went on in life to study a previously unwritten language of a people of western Ecuador, create a writing system for it, and translate the Bible into the language. At his funeral hundreds of people gathered to pay him tribute.

When Jesus gave the above instruction, he set the living of our spiritual lives in the context of fields of influence. Faith is not just for one’s own personal comfort or enlightenment. It must be lived as a sphere of influence. Spirituality cannot be separated from community.

How far should one’s sphere of influence extend? We’ve all run into “religious” people who believe it is their God-given duty and right to influence us in ways that are not welcome. In the passage above Jesus points out that the purpose of our good works is that others should give glory to God. Unwelcome influence hardly accomplishes that. On the other hand, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”[1] If a butterfly’s wing on this side of the ocean can cause a storm on the other, we never quite know how far our influence goes. Perhaps it is best to cast the net of our community as wide as we possibly can, and do our good works, trusting that goodness in itself is worth spreading around.

The Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)

[1] Wallace, William Ross. “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Poet’s Corner (1865).

Continue reading

Weekly Reflection and News: January 30, 2020

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Luke 2:22-40

When we gathered to baptize our new grandson last fall, no strange old guy burst forth on rapturous and prophetic poetry, and gave no dire predictions about the trajectory of his life, and no wizened old women slipped into extasy at his presence. We did not leave the Church, as to be sure Joseph and Mary did, with ominous questions rattling in their souls about just who this little kid might be. The image of the sword must have been especially unsettling. It must have been reassuring that the next days and years were relatively uneventful (that is, if we set aside the delightful legends and traditions that fill in the 12 silent years until Jesus surfaces again on the pages of Scripture.)

But the sword did come, and Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—and the actions of those who followed him, have upended the world. The influence of the Christians played a hand in the fall of the Roman Empire, and shaped Western history for two millennia. In a sense, the relative normalcy of Joseph’s household was only the calm before the storm.

Simeon and Anna remind us that a domesticated faith is a pointless faith. If a sword does not from time to time pierce our own hearts the radical truths of the Gospel of Love fail to challenge us. If we shrink from passing a sword through the heart of the comfortable ways society justifies its injustices, we have forgotten the meaning of this child.

The Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)

Continue reading