I briefly encountered the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in London. Sadly, we are not on a first name basis. Now that I have your attention, I’ll tell you what actually happened. One evening her motorcade drove by as Susan and I walked from our London hotel to a nearby restaurant. You may feel I misled you. Many Christians face a similar credibility challenge. Christianity promises people to help them develop a first name relationship with God and then too often fails to deliver. Today’s gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13) offers several constructive suggestions about how to assist people connect with God.
Clergy are icons of God. Believe me, these icons all have clay feet. Nevertheless, one reason the Church sets aside clergy is to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. Good clergy aim to achieve this purpose through being transparent, appropriately sharing personal foibles and struggles while hoping that people will simultaneously discern God’s presence. Incidentally, being an icon is difficult when parishioners are accustomed to seeing one as a carpenter (think of Jesus) or a PR executive (think of Mark Haworth recently ordained deacon out of this parish). Consequently, our canons follow Jesus’ example by requiring clergy to serve a congregation other than their home congregation.
More broadly, every Christian is called to be an icon of Christ in the world. As God’s icons, we hopefully hear and answer God’s call – whether for ordination, or more frequently to sing in the choir, serve at the altar, join an outreach ministry, or embrace a stranger with God’s love.
Controversially, the gospel reading names Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The Greek is frustratingly ambiguous and can mean either siblings or cousins. On the one hand, Mary was a Jewish young woman married to Joseph in an era before artificial birth control. They had multiple motives for desiring a large family. On the other hand, Christians understandably venerated Mary for being worthy of bearing the one traditionally seen as God’s son. Concurrently, Christian theology frequently emphasized God’s transcendence at the cost of distancing humans from God, making a relationship with God more problematic. These factors coalesced in many Christians depicting Mary as an eternally blessed virgin, immaculately conceived without original sin so she would be worthy of being Jesus’ mother, having been bodily assumed to heaven without dying because she lived a sinless existence, and recent efforts, prominently spearheaded by Pope John Paul II, to declare Mary co-redemptrix with Jesus. Although lacking explicit scriptural warrant, these ideas do have Scriptural roots. Today, these conflicting views of Mary frequently coexist in the same congregation.
This past week, the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention met in Austin, Texas. One hotly debated topic was the merit of using only masculine pronouns and nouns to name the persons of the Trinity. Individuals who have suffered abuse from a male – whether father, other relative, friend, co-worker, or stranger – often find male terms for the deity painful. General Convention authorized non-gender specific language for the introduction to our Eucharistic prayers and a few other places in the liturgy. Heather and I, like a majority of Episcopal clergy, sometimes refer to the Trinity with a variety of gender neutral or mixture of feminine and masculine terms. And Scripture, in fact, uses feminine and non-gender specific terms for God. Furthermore, most biblical images of the Holy Spirit are feminine nouns in the original language. I predict that future generations will find this fight silly. What you call God is unimportant. What is important is that you know the love or light, by whatever name, that brings life, healing, and meaning. Welcoming everyone and helping them to recognize God’s loving presence in their life requires embracing multiple terms and paths for describing the spiritual life.
Jesus’ inability to perform deeds of power in Nazareth poignantly reminds us that God alone, by any name, is not the answer. Promising that God can solve all problems is wrong. Instead, God acts in conjunction with people. And even then, not everything is possible. For example, God rarely heals, as the Apostle Paul knew, chronic, incurable disease but daily empowers one to live with the disease.
Laying on of hands and anointing with oil are symbolic, liturgical means by which God’s people incarnate and communicate God’s presence and love. We witness this in ordinations, anointing of persons in our mid-week healing Eucharist, hospital visits and other times, blessings during Holy Communion for those not receiving the consecrated bread and wine, and perhaps most especially in the passing of the peace, a time to bless one another rather than gossip.
One Sunday afternoon during our recent stay in Venice, Susan and I while crossing a bridge were startled to observe dozens and dozens of small boats, all rowed or paddled. We saw Viking longboats, pirate ships, kayaks, a Chinese dragon boat, and lots more. We discovered that over four thousand participants in two thousand plus boats were racing along an eighteen-mile course. They were all amateurs, which was glaringly apparent from multiple boats crashing into buildings, bridge abutments, and other boats. Surprisingly, nobody ever loses in this annual race. Every finisher receives the same medal and equal acclaim.
That boat race is a great metaphor for the Christian life. The boat represents the ark of one’s salvation, living Jesus’ lifestyle of loving God and neighbor. The variety of boats connotes our individual spiritualities. Paddling symbolizes our effort – unbelievably amateurish, exceptionally competent, or most often somewhere in between – to partner with God and thereby experience God’s loving presence personally as well as becoming an icon or vehicle that enables other persons to experience God’s love. Everybody wins; there are no losers. May all of us participate in this race. Amen.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI