Sunday, February 28, 2010

Go tell that fox for me ...

THOUGHTS DELIVERED ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 28th, 2010. The Second Sunday in Lent.

Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.

An interesting opening gambit for this morning’s gospel! A clear and present danger to Jesus and his disciples – from the puppet-King, Herod Antipas.

One could expect the threatening tone of the reading to improve after that, but it does not. It continues, and then ends with a lament – a cry of despair over Jerusalem.

What makes this Gospel passage one of the most appealing sections of Luke’s Gospel is its honesty and earthiness. It also dispels many of the falsehoods that surround what was actually an often positive relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees.

And in today's scene Jesus is not aloof and apart from these people– but in and among them, and not afraid to publicly cuss and insult the unpopular provincial King.

The Pharisees were not always opponents of Jesus. It seems that many were his friends and supporters – even though they often found his ideas worrying. As, sometimes, do we!

Consider the evidence: On several occasions Jesus was the guest in the homes of Pharisees. There was Nicodemus, the secret disciple, who came to Jesus by night. He was a Pharisee. Also Joseph of Arimathea (who gave his family tomb that Jesus might be buried) – he was a senior Pharisee.

In the early days of the Church there were many Pharisees among the early Christians. Gamaliel, a Pharisee, defended the apostles – because of the possibility that their work might be from God.

He issued that spectacular defense of Simon Peter and others before the Sanhedrin, the clerical High Court in Jerusalem:

Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." His speech persuaded them.

And we end up with the apostle Paul who, as a convert to Christianity, addressed some Pharisees, saying: “I am (note the present tense) a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.”

So let’s put away this black and white picture of the religious scene in those days. It simply didn’t exist as many imagined it to have existed – and the importance of this Gospel story is that it blurs the religious boundaries we assume were clear, but actually were far from clearly defined, if they were defined at all.

Jesus responds to the warning: Go and tell that fox for me......

This is one of the unadulterated unique sayings of Jesus! How do we know this? Because it is too rude a saying to be the work of Early Church writers!

The image of a fox implies untrustworthiness and cunning. It is also a violent metaphor. The fox is a destructive predator. A killing machine. Ask me how I know. (Growing up my family farmed chickens.) The fox is one of the few animals that kill for pleasure. As Herod Antipas did on many an occasion.

Also under Torah, Jewish Law, the fox was an unclean animal. Again, given the Jews’ hatred of the king placed over them by the Romans this is a most appropriate comparison.

Jesus treated Herod’s threat with contempt and with the clear statement that he still had work to do. He had to go to Jerusalem – the city that would eventually crucify him.

We have to ask the question: Is there anything in this particular Gospel reading that is helpful to us? Not an easy question to answer. There is no real teaching here. Neither is there any great statement of faith or theology. There is a hint of prophecy, but that is all.

One thing this story does is redefine Jerusalem for many. Redefine the image of holy Zion set on a hill top shining in the sun’s rays.

It is a necessary re-definition. Perhaps for some of us. The modern pilgrim is too busy treading the Via Dolorosa, buying souvenirs and reading the New Testament on street corners to see the real Jerusalem – with its 3000 year old divisions, corruptions, love of power and violence.

Jerusalem was and always has been a tragic, violent and repressive city. Depending who was in power, Jerusalem has always killed prophets whatever their faith, Jew, Christian and Moslem. Those who told the truth, those who took the side of the poor and the oppressed and those who challenged the status quo or brought new vision and teaching. It continues to kill them to this day.

But the gospel is not about Jerusalem alone – it is primarily about Jesus, his humanity and his intent.

Just a few weeks ago we heard the gospel story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain top before three of his disciples. It was a glorious image, filled with the presence of God. But now we have left the mountain top and are walking the all-too-human streets with Jesus. Mixing it up, as it were, with all manner of people, and not being afraid to criticize not only the secular rulers of the day, but also the city over which they ruled.

We need this image, this story to balance out our understanding of Jesus, and to remind us that Lent, this and every Lent, is about intention - making that journey to Jerusalem.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Judas, son of Simon Iscariot" (John 6:71)

If I am allowed to feel awarded during Lent I certainly felt so this evening when, in the middle of atrocious weather, a goodly number of people attended Evening Prayer, after which I delivered the first of my weekly Lent Lectures. The title? Characters of Holy Week. #1 Judas Iscariot.

I had forgotten how strenuous it is to prepare for such a delivery. In essence there are two days of thought, planning, research and checking, noting , writing and editing that condense into a short lecture. Exhausting though this may be, I always rediscover my love of this work, and am able to channel so much energy into the final product and delivery. I believe that the first "talk" was well received, and some gracious comments were undeserved. You can judge for yourself. This and every Lenten title can be heard on the parish website,

Four of us lingered afterward to think about Judas' suicide (accepting Matthew's gospel account as being more realistic than the Luke/Acts story.) That awful question came: What do you think of suicide?

Privately, my mind went back some three years to SL, a parishioner and friend who took her own life in a lonely place in upstate New York. Preaching at such a memorial is a grim task without much light or hope. Yet I reminded people that the oft-quoted Anglican priest and poet John Donne was tempted at many times in his life to end his own temporal existance.

I have often such a sickly inclination. And whensoever my affliction assails me, me thinks I have the keys of my prison in my own hand, and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart, as mine own sword. [Biathanatos. Preface. 1647.]

These are words that people who gush at Donne's phrases such as, "No man is an island entire of itself..." find so foreign and extreme, yet they are from the same pen.

Driving home I wondered about Judas' suicide. What went through the mind of the man who betrayed the one who was to be proclaimed the Christ? His friend and teacher. Judas, son of Simon Iscariot (and what did his father think of all this, not to mention his good Jewish mother?) has been demonized in the Christian world, but I sometimes wonder if we should cut him more slack. After all he was a human being, and, God knows, we human beings fail and betray every single day.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A typical Saturday evening ...

... Usually finds me cooking and wondering about tomorrow's mass and worship. Tonight was no exception, as I stood over the pan of chicken and pancetta risotto and thought about how my thoughts and suggestions for daily spiritual life in Lent might be received. Well, I hoped (and hope.) I am framing the homily with sage quotations from George Herbert, my icon of a country priest, and we will see.

Today has been a quite remarkable and delightful day spent with my daughter Kate. With gift cards and allowance money to burn she was eager to visit a "real mall," so the two of us drove to Smithtown. Music in the car, chats, silences, laughing at silly texts and calls, and then two hours shopping. Well, not my shopping, but I am glad to see that Abercrombie and Finch continue to offer plush leather club chairs for those visiting, but not actually trying on clothes. As a company of their pedigree would surely do! Alas, they no longer (as I once experienced in one of their finer country clothing stores in Edinburgh) offer a "wee dram" for "Sir, as Ma'am is otherwise engaged." But who knows?

Lunch in the Cheesecake Factory, a crude title but an excellent restaurant, and then on to old Smithtown to one of my favorite model shops. And then home, both of us tired but happy. Such days are worth more than gold, and to be treasured even more than finest gold.

Now, full of that risotto, and sipping an average Cabernet, I will shortly read through my notes for the morning and then retire.

Oh, and my first devotional Lent book? Apologia pro vita sua, by (Cardinal) John Henry Newman.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fast Repast!

Before enjoining readers with deep and disturbing book titles, an evening moment to celebrate simple food. I don't have a name for this meal, but it was prepared and cooked in the spirit of Lent - without much fuss.

Brown some chicken pieces in a large pan. I halved some breast and threw in a few boneless thighs. Then add about ten new potatoes or fingerlings. Peel a couple of parsnips and cut into inch long chunks. Then peel ten cloves of garlic, but leave them whole. Throw them all into the pan with about two cups of good chicken stock, some fresh, chopped rosemary, salt and pepper, Cover, and cook over a low heat for an hour. Then remove the meat and vegetables to a platter (and keep it warm) and reduce the stock by half before pouring it over. Serve with a simple green salad.

Cooking time aside (time for study, thought, homework, chores, pleasures) this recipe is quick and easy. The greatest time is that spent browning the chicken and cutting the vegetables, about eight minutes.

As an observation: After dinner I saw a TV ad that commended browned chicken breast and chopped vegetables with a can of Campbells condensed soup poured over... C'mon! All that produces is high salt, highly processed pigswill! Don't even think about that suggestion. Remember - it's all about thinking about food and what goes into a meal. And an adjustment of kitchen style. Good food, simple food, healthy food doesn't take long to prepare and cook.

Maybe Lent is a good time to realize that!

And so Lent begins.

I am tempted to say “again” for there is always the danger of this season of “self-examination and repentance” (Book of Common Prayer) being repetitive. Just as it was last year, and the one before that. I know that I am strong enough in will to give up chocolate and sweets for Lent so I will do it again this year. I also know that my reading of the Daily Offices needs constant attention, so, again, this year I will make it my focus. Just as I did last year.

Lent in the parish began favorably yesterday, Ash Wednesday, with an encouraging number of people turning out (on a cold day with snow flurries) to both masses, and receiving ash on their foreheads. The numbers of people were slightly increased by the astonishing fact that a neighboring parish had no Ash Wednesday service. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words are poignant enough as it is, but made even the more so when they are administered to a child, and to one’s own daughter.

As part of my Lenten discipline this year I intend to read and study more. The study will go without saying as I have to prepare for the weekly parish program, but the reading will be more difficult. I have it in mind to re-visit one or more of the classics that once shaped my thinking. One title is at the front of my mind, but more about that later.