Rev. George C. Wong's Sermon for the 10th of January, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord
A feast day that falls on January 10 is at peril of getting lost in the afterglow of Advent, Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. Yet, it would be short sighted to gloss over this day. It is a significant feast day inextricably linked with those preceding celebrations as a day on which we remember the Baptism of Jesus.
The baptism of Jesus transports us to the banks of the river Jordan. The river is more than an incidental backdrop for the Baptism of Jesus; that smallish river barely weighs in above a creek in status, yet was chosen to be the site of the pinnacle of John’s ministry and the place of initiation for the ministry of Jesus. In many ways the river connects with and highlights the larger mission of Jesus.
Rivers have always fascinated me, perhaps because I only knew a man-made version for many years. I grew up about 200 yards from a stretch of the Los Angeles River, which is nothing like a bona fide natural river. Fearful of its power to sweep away anything in its way during rainy season, the residents of Los Angeles lobbied the government to tame the river. The LA River long ago ceased to be a river; instead it is flood channel and an enormous engineering endeavor which literally shaped nature to fit the requirements of a sprawling metropolis. Built by the Army Corp of Engineers, the riverbed and its banks are an immense concrete channel which snakes fifty miles through the heart of downtown, the inner city and on into the sprawling outer suburbs. Occasionally a patch of weeds or shrubs will break through the concrete. Tires and shopping carts form part of the landscape down in the channel. In short, it is a bleak, industrialized picture of a river.
The naturalist and poet named Lewis Mac Adams starting off his loving elegy for the much maligned river with the words: “Where did it go?”
Even concrete rivers draw people. I went to school with a kid name Ron (not his actual name) who lived in a nearby neighborhood, also by the river.
A friend since first grade, Ron changed over time. Perhaps to compensate for his shyness, he began looking for ways to get attention. If I heard the occasional explosion in the riverbed, I guessed it was likely Ron throwing an M-80, essentially a super-sized firecracker, off the bridge into the channel. Ron loved that the boom of the initial explosion as it echoed off the massive concrete walls of the river. He never got in trouble, probably because he could pass for a choir boy maybe even a human cherub with ruddy cheeks, freckles and green eyes. I think being one of seven children with two working parents, he got lost in the shuffle of his large family. The choir boy and cherub on the outside was lost.
I will come back the desire to be noticed later, but I want to speak a few words about other aspects of rivers.
Most here know that the rectory sits less than 200 yards off the banks of the Rockaway River. I am glad that even though the Rockaway River has at times flowed over banks as it did during Sandy, that it hasn’t been paved over—which would be a huge loss to me and many I see walking along it and fishing in it.
It recently dawned on me that the Rockaway River and the Jordan River bear a surprising resemblance to each other. The Jordan is deeper and also murkier, but if rivers could be such cousins, they are. One particular thing about the Jordan river is that it runs along the border of Israel and Jordan. A checkpoint restricts access on the Israeli side; we had to wait about three hours on our bus during which time security boarded and scrutinized our passports and confirmed that we were on a religious pilgrimage.
Additionally, our amazing, seasoned guide from St. George’s College reminded us to not to make sudden movements on the banks and not to venture into the river too far. That could have been taken as trespassing into Jordan and we could be arrested or possibly shot by a jumpy border guard.
And, it is severely polluted, its natural flow mostly replaced by partially treated sewage water generated by all the occupants of the region. Like almost everything else in the Holy land, the River Jordan is both a source of life and also subject to complications and messiness borne of regional rivalries, geopolitics and the struggle for water and resources. In short, it is a thin watery thread of life that is perfect by virtue of being so ordinary and flawed.
2,000 years ago some of these political, and environmental challenges were not the same; but it was still a small, brackish, non-descript river. Remember the story of Naaman, the leper, who had initially refused to wash in the Jordan because it was not pristine like the great rivers of his homeland.
So, given that the Jordan river has such shortcomings, why did Jesus choose to be baptized in the Jordan?
Perhaps, by jumping into that murky river—the baptism of Jesus stands as a prime example of the willingness of Jesus to get into the muck alongside each of us.
We might like Ron feel down in the muck and lost in the shuffle especially these days in the midst of pandemic, social and political unrest. I think Ron was desperate for an Epiphany; no amount of misguided acting out or needy antics could substitute for a spiritual breakthrough—one that let him know he was loved and worthy of love. It has been many years since our days in grade school and I long ago lost touch, so I don’t know if Ron ever found the comfort and peace. I don’t know if he ever had an Epiphany.
But we are fortunate today, because today we celebrate of the Baptism of our Lord, one of the three Epiphanies of Christ. Perhaps it is something we have been hungering for as well. At the Jordan river, Jesus shows that he will plunge in with us; from the banks of the Jordan on that day, he showed that we are not alone even if it feels like it sometimes.
The Son of God descended from the heavens on high and stood in that murky, undersized river.
In process, as the fisher of men and women, he casts a net that is wide enough to catch all of humanity:
The poor and the rich
the black, the white, the brown, the yellow,
the able bodied, the disabled,
the sick, the healthy,
the wise, the uniformed,
the hurting, the successful,
the educated, the uneducated,
the young, the wizened
the ones who are ignored, the ones who are the center of attention,
the hopeful, and the discouraged, that is to say, all of us with all our better and more challenged dimensions.
God never fails to be there for us smack dab in the river of life—Jesus showed that back then, and it remains true today for all those who follow in his footsteps and for those who are led by the power of the Spirit Jesus left behind to guide us.
Let us then you and I go down to the river and wade in the water with Jesus, the one who came to gather up, console and make whole each and every one of us.
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany
The 3rd of January 3, 2021
We recently experienced a conjunction junction. No, I am not talking about the catchy School House Rock “conjunction junction what’s your function. Hooking up phrases and clauses”.
School House rock holds a special place in my memory but I am talking about an even more impressive conjunction, a celestial conjunction.
This Christmas, astronomers said Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. That happens when the two planets orbit so closely together that they appear in the skies to be a shining star. It has been over 800 years since the conjunction has shown as brightly. The amazing thing is that it could be detected even with all the light noise present in our skies.
Apart from a few far flung, remote locations around the globe, we do not have access to the nightscape free of light pollution. So, even if you can detect something like a conjunction, no one can really know what the star of Christmas like 2,000 years ago in the pristine pitch black skies free from any man made lights to distort or distract.
We don’t have access to those kinds of skies but we can easily imagine that the Wise Men’s attention must have been captured by an exceptionally radiant star--its shimmering visible to eyes turned towards heaven. We have learned much about stars even within the last few years. Only recently able to do so with the help of new technology, astronomers, including some working locally at the American Natural History Museum, were able to calculate and confirm that there are billions of stars in the universe. But on that night, out of the billions of stars, one in particular illuminated the skies and the town of Bethlehem.
William Wordsworth described just such a divinely illuminated nightscape in the first lines of his poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
As learned scholars, the Wise Men would have been trained in the reqisite disciplines of the day, including astronomy. So, they would not have followed just any star but only a star which dressed the earth in celestial light. When they detect this impossibly brilliant star, they packed up some very precious gifts and supplies for a journey and began to follow its movement. They arrived at Jerusalem, at the center of power and prestige—quite the fitting place for things of great magnitude to occur. They make inquiries of the powers that be: “Where is the child? We have observed his star at his rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
The Wise men must have been surprised that there was not a gathering around the child in Jerusalem. Why did they not see the child anywhere in the city? Why was there no talk of the child on the streets? Christopher Smart poses a similar question in his famous poem about the whereabouts of baby Jesus:
Where is this Stupendous Stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise!
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
Alerted by these three foreign scholars, word of the birth of the child sends the chief priests and the scribes into a frenzy because they know the prophet Micah had long ago written that Bethlehem would give rise to the King of the Jews, the King of all Kings.
Herod knows he cannot possibly hold a candle to this Messiah. So he seeks to extinguish the life of that baby boy, by trickery and lies and by any means necessary. Only by virtue of a dream, are the wise men led away and thus avoid leading Herod to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The light and the baby that the light pointed towards stirred up much action even commotion. The Wise Men left Jerusalem, having understood what they were looking for was elsewhere. They recalibrate and move towards Bethlehem to find the promised One.
For his part, Herod seeks the baby to eliminate a potential rival and to suppress any and all competition.
The contrasting reactions of the Wise Men and Herod demonstrate something very important about the birth of Jesus.
In a way, the birth of Jesus and Epiphany is a time of decision. Which way do we turn?
We can like as did the Wise Men scan the horizon and take notice of the signs of wonder pointing towards Jesus.
We can follow the star of Wonder, the star of night.
We can bring and offer Jesus the best of what we have in paying him homage.
All of these would be to recognize that Jesus has come to be our star, to be our light. A light which lifts us out of the abyss that surrounds us.
Or we can do the opposite like Herod and react in fear.
Or, perhaps liking neither of those options, we can do nothing.
The grammatical conjunction helps illuminate what is possible and not possible because the one thing we cannot do is to turn both towards Jesus AND turn away from Jesus—that conjunction does not work in life, at least not at the same time.
On the matter of this kind of choice, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote in an essay called the “The Two Ways” that we are invited to decide if Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or not.
And Williams writes further, just as God was free to send his Son to be with us in the guise of a baby boy, we are free to choose Jesus. During the season of Epiphany and at many other junctures, we are given signs to help point the way to Jesus whose life began in the most humble, unassuming way possible in that manger. What might we decide?
The decision changes everything because it impacts the entire arc of our journey from that point on. It is important to remember that the Wise Men started with Bethlehem, but it was just a start.
Epiphany continues that celebration started at Christmas and draws us towards Jesus. Arriving, we find the light that has shone from the beginning of creation, but which was revealed to us in Jesus.
May we in the words of the refrain of our sequence hymn, We Three Kings, find ourselves moving towards Bethlehem always:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light
And this season may each of you bask in the warming, illuminating, transforming, energizing, life-affirming light of Christ!
The Church of the Savior
The Reverend George C. Wong
June 10, 2018
“A Seat at God’s Table”
Mid-week, I attended a preaching conference held at the Episcopal Claggett Center just outside Frederick Maryland. Google maps guided me across Central Pennsylvania through a sea of crops, content dairy cows and soon to be open and expectant produce stands.
As I was driving home, I was shocked and saddened to hear on the radio about the death of Anthony Bourdain’s in Paris. Almost immediately, I pictured his lanky 6’ft 4” inch frame bounding across Pennsylvania farm country walking into diners sampling the best rhubarb pie or BBQ pork or the local specialty. Raised in suburban New Jersey, he would eventually explore over 100 countries, basically eating around the globe. He seemingly traveled everywhere in his ongoing quest, so I could imagine him in rural PA as much as any other place around the world he traveled.
If you have not heard of Anthony Bourdain, he was the author of a number best-selling books on the restaurant industry as well as the host of several long-running travel food shows including No Reservationsand Parts Unknown. If he wasn’t in Buenos Aires, then he was in Burma. If he wasn’t in Paris, he was in Phuket, or Pamplona. He was intrepid when it came to sampling all manner of foods, he seemed to authentically appreciate and embrace foods that nourished and fed others often with great joy.
People responded to his openness and curiosity about their cuisine and lives by treating him like a visiting ambassador. In many ways, the world was his oyster.
He made his name in great part by allowing millions to tour the world of food. But, he was much more than a passing tourist or gawking visitor. Bourdain exhibited a deep curiosity, respect and fascination for the places and about the daily lives of the people he visited. When he visited Burma, he spoke with a local chef about both food and the softening of the brutal decades old Burmese regime. He insightfully commented upon how the Burmese share a meal but allow each person to tailor their meal with an abundance of side dishes, sauces and toppings. Everyone at the table starts with the same dish, typically noodles, then made very much to their own taste.
That made sense to me because the perfect meal may be the kind of meal you tailor to your own liking while in the company of ones you care for, who also get to eat the meal they enjoy. Whether it is Burmese soup noodles or a burger cooked just the way you like it with all the fixings you like, there is a joy in having it your own way all in the company of others who are similarly fulfilled by their own culinary creations.
Even though I was not a frequent viewer of his shows or a reader of his books, there was a strange comfort in seeing him amble around as a kind and gentle ambassador of food and culture. I have found myself thinking a lot about his death since I heard the news. I can’t know for sure, because I only knew of him from afar, but I believe that he hungered for something that could not be served up on a plate.
In a telling 2016 interview, he confessed that while his job involved communicating that he felt isolated and alone when not working. His fame, fortune and success mean that some were bewildered by the fact that he seems to have taken his own life. I have noticed comments on social media to the effect that Bourdain was selfish, weak and one who led a privileged life and who therefore does not deserve any compassion in the aftermath of his passing.
Those kinds of comments are callous because they do not attempt to understand what might have actually led to this man’s depression and death. From what I have read, I don’t think his despair and hopelessness was so much the result of a personality defect, or character flaw or weakness; rather, his desperation pointed to a deep hunger. The irony may be that Bourdain was literally surrounded by food yet he died from starvation. He was surrounded by people yet was desperately alone. His long-suffering and depression suggest that he was not getting all that he needed to thrive in life, in spite of his talent, fame, money and success.
Bourdain’s experience shows that even if one could travel the whole world sampling of all the most interesting, most savory, most exquisite cuisines…even if one could mix in ample portions of fame, monetary gain and an audience of millions, one might still experience the pain and isolation of spiritual malnourishment. In the end, his soul starved for something more than the experience of great food, interesting people and places and acclaim. He searched the world for that which would satisfy his hunger.
This is not a new challenge or quest for humanity. Our Old Testament reading today reminds us that looking for food to make us complete can result in disastrous consequences. Adam and Eve ate the apple believing that there was an earthly meal that could feed them eternally—separate and apart from God.
We can no more find a meal (or anything else) that completely fills us than did Adam and Eve. We might search the ends of the earth and still come up empty. But there is good news. That is that God offers us the sustenance we need when we gather for the Eucharistic meal. At each service of Holy Eucharist, we gather together to be fed spiritually by the Body of Christ.
Jesus offers us the gift of the bread of life which we take together in the community as the Body of Christ.
We need not search the world for the meal that fills us, because it is here in the bread.
Whoever eats this bread is transformed by the real presence of Christ.
Whoever eats this bread is fed not just in the moment, but for eternity.
Whoever eats this bread is given both a taste of and a hunger for justice, mercy and compassion.
Whoever eats this bread is filled with a peace that overflows from us into the world.
Let us break bread together today and become the sacrament that we eat.
May God bless us and those who are no longer with us at this meal whom we pray are gathered at the eternal banquet table.
The Church of the Saviour
The Feast of Christ The King
November 26, 2017
The Reverend George C. Wong
“The King of Hearts”
The soaring cathedral, finely tailored robes and gowns, a full choir accompanied by exquisite brass and stately pipe organ and the crown and scepter. The pomp and circumstance of a royal procession grab my eye and my imagination.
Like me, many on this side of the pond are also drawn to the splendor of official royal proceedings. At the same time, we remain suspicious of royal trappings, so our national ceremonial life reflects a much simpler and less exalted way of installing our leaders. Our presidential inauguration ceremonies are intentionally drab by comparison, presided over by participants dressed in black suits and a justice in black robes. Maybe because we lack public rituals filled with pomp and circumstance or maybe because the royal festivities are almost fairy tale like, most Americans who normally don’t care follow international goings on cannot resist the dignity and majesty of royal pageantry—especially when it comes to a royal wedding or coronation of the British monarch.
Many of you may know that the Church of England is the state church of England and plays an integral role in the coronation ceremony of a British monarch. As Episcopalians, we would find much familiar in the coronation service which is held in Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. The words of the last coronation which was the service for Queen Elizabeth resembled something we would hear during one of our own ordination or installment services.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Commonwealth according to their respective laws and customs?
The Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you to the utmost of your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?
The Queen: "I will."
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?
The questions posed by the Archbishop ask the monarch to be enthroned to affirm that he or she will govern with mercy and rule with the gospel in mind. The words express the hope that monarch will govern in a wise and benevolent manner-- in a Godly way.
Though the role of the British monarch is largely ceremonial, the coronation ceremony remains important as a way to enthrone Britain’s monarch with great pomp and circumstance, while also asking the monarch to live up to the highest of secular and religious values.
Historically, royals in Great Britain and in many countries have not always acted in ways which reflect the best of religious and secular values. Coronations have more often initiated the reign of one whose power is absolute and unchecked. Subjects have often found their fates hanging on the whim of the King or Queen. Kings and Queens have not always been leaders who care for and protect their subjects.
If royalty has so often fallen short of expectations and hopes, why do we call this day the feast of “Christ the King”? A helpful hint comes from the complete title of the feast day, which is “Christ the King of the Universe.” This suggests that we need to think bigger. This King is the ruler of all space and time, not of one kingdom or even an earthly empire. Even the very best and most caring of human kings do not fully capture the reign of Jesus.
In today’s readings, we are offered a more expansive and dynamic vision of the Christ the King.
First, the reading from Ezekiel presents us with the image of the King as a shepherd. The people of the ancient near east frequently spoke of a type of shepherd King who would not stay safely on the throne in comfort, apart from his flock. Instead, the Shepherd King goes out into the world. When any of the flock is lost, the King is not afraid to search for his them. He brings them home, he feeds them, he binds up the injured and nurtures the weak. Concerned about justice for those who are vulnerable, the king will punish the fat and the strong who have taken advantage of others. The Shepherd King knows, cares for and protects each of his flock even when that puts the King in danger, even to the point of risking his own life for his flock.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 25 is a perfect counterpart to the OT reading extending the beautiful imagery of the Shepherd King in Ezekiel.
First, we read that Jesus will come again in glory. Jesus will sit with all the angels of heaven around him while he sits on his throne. At first glance, the setting described reminds us of the glorious setting of coronation service.
But, then the gospel text shifts away from Jesus’ glorious kingship turning towards the pastoral image of Jesus. As the Shepherd King, Jesus is not focused on the palace or throne, but on the well-being of the members of his flock. Jesus has a particular concern for certain members of the flock. They are: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
Jesus invites us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, the take care of the sick and to visit the imprisoned.
In the fullness of time, Jesus on will sit on the throne and ask us to examine our hearts for times when we helped the most vulnerable among us, the fellow members of the flock, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The loving Jesus will ask us how we have loved in His name.
Jesus links his reign in heaven to the very least of these. This is a big jump for us to make because the Christ the King of Glory is telling us that his most prized subjects are certainly each of us, but especially, the least of among us. The message is simple, but hard to follow because we resist those Jesus directs us towards. If you are like me, these are the people we scurry past, or, as a society, we put away out of sight. If you are like me, on most days, I am just so focused on getting the next thing on my “to do” list that it is sometimes easy to avoid the faces of those in need around me.
But Jesus knows this and reminds us that we will find his glory in the faces:
Of those in soup kitchens.
Of those pushing shopping carts on the streets
Of those in homeless shelters.
Of those in drug rehab meetings.
Of those in nursing homes and hospice care.
Of those who have lost hope and are suffer from depression
Of those in maximum security prisons.
As the new church year starts, we will begin it by waiting in the season of Advent for the birth of the infant in whom love shines completely. Even if Black Friday alerts and ubiquitous ads tell us this is the time to cast our eyes upon irresistible, bright shiny bargains, the Advent season is an ideal time to look inward at our lives. It is an ideal time to quietly ask ourselves where we have found the face of Christ? And, the good news is that Jesus told us exactly where to look. Christ is all around us, and if we look, we will see in each other the unexcelled Glory of God.
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
November 19, 2017
Accounting in the Kingdom
-Over the years, I have heard many informed people say with certainty that the Parable of the talents is one of the most straightforward parables.
-Over the years, I have also heard many other informed people say with certainty the Parable of the talents is one of the hardest to understand of the parables.
What might explain the difference in the “accounting” of the Parable of the talents? The reason likely stems from the way parables incorporate customs and situations from everyday life in ways that catch the attention of the listener. In the case of the parable of the talents and its cast of characters, people in Jesus time were familiar with stewards who watched over the land and property of rich people. Because parables tell stories using real life situations and people they can appear simple at first glance. But while the familiarity gives us sort of certainty and a feeling that we have got the parable “right”, we need to be alert, because there is almost always something deeper going on beyond the obvious surface. There is usually a surprise lurking when you scratch beneath the exterior of parables. We might seek the comfort and resolution of one interpretation, but there is often much more to be considered.
Parables are like one of those pictures made up of geometric patterns. Viewed one way, we clearly see a recognizable object. But then we view the picture from a different angle, then other images mysteriously pop out of the 3d space. I found out there that people even study how we view these pictures with different optical references, which produce different recognizable forms.
As we revisit the parable, I wonder what might emerge. The first two slaves took the money entrusted to them by the Master and by their trading doubled the money. When they each accounted their investment returns to the Master, they praised by the Master and then put in charge of more things. The two successful slaves were then allowed to enter into the joy of the Master, meaning they moved up higher in the Master’s organization. This is a vision of a three-tiered world: the Master, his domain and the good and bad slaves, and his subjects.
The apparent simplicity of the parable has lent itself to an initial glimpse and resulting interpretation which goes something like this: The talents those ancient units of currency, are interpreted as the gifts that the Master, that is that God gives to all of us. The parable is then held up as an example of an individual who did not make good and faithful use of their gifts. You might have heard that the parable means that “you need to use what God has given you or that you will lose the money and perhaps much more.” In this scheme, all the players are assessed by a strict and unforgiving measurement system. At the heart of the measurement system is fear of one kind or another.
Like the slaves, if we have been an employee or a subordinate, we understand how fear is a part of working in any organization—the fear of demotion, the fear of having the high profile assignment taken away, the fear of being berated by superiors, the fear of a reduced or no bonus, and finally, the fear of being let go. We tend to want to read the parable in a way which makes sense to us, so we might tend to want see this parable through the lens of organizations we have been a part of in our own lives. One of the main problems with that kind of reading of the parable is that it casts God as manager who will abandon us and cast us out onto the street if we fall down. In fact, some would say that is God’s job. I am challenged by this take on the parable because a God who kicks us when we fall down doesn’t sound very much like our God.
Does this reading of the parable and the corresponding image of God as a high-powered manager sound like Jesus as described in the gospels? Think about who Jesus associated with. He had fisherman as his inner circle, his posse. He ate dinner with tax collectors and other outcasts, not the successful and wealthy elite of Jerusalem. We might reflect on how Jesus interacted with those who had money. Remember he told the young rich man that he had to give up all that he had to be one of his followers. What did Jesus way of living say about the important of returns, and the accumulation of things material? Jesus lived hand to mouth as an itinerant preacher in the backwater of Galilee. For these reasons and many others, I find it hard to imagine Jesus thinking about quarterly fund returns versus comparable funds and benchmark indices. Jesus would not have had much interest in tracking “interest,” or the return on investment.
If Jesus is ill suited as the corporate manager type, it turns out this parable might not be so simple. Maybe another view emerges which is less obvious. Could Jesus be making the point that the world operates in a very different way from God’s kingdom? Our worth is almost always judged on the basis of clear metrics, returns, performance, connections, looks, pedigree and power. To those few is given more. By contrast, God’s gifts are given freely to all with no performance clauses and returns minimums attached. Still, there is some hope for those who like a bit of structure and order; fret not because Jesus does have expectations about how we are to use our gifts. Jesus reminds the rich that they must not neglect the poor and the marginalized. He reminds them that they can’t take it with them, so why not share what God has given them in the first place—not in order to earn a reward, not to get more love from God, but out of desire to be more like God, who is abundant in love.
Jesus reminds the poor that God has a big heart for the meek, the humble and the oppressed. He urges them to persevere and to know that they are not alone. He blesses those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Beatitudes suggest that Jesus never linked God’s blessing to possessions, achievements or investment returns. God’s special blessing falls on those, which the world would not expect to be blessed.
This leads me back to the idea of certainty and expectations. In the immediate years following Jesus death, some prominent Christian communities were certain that Jesus was coming back in their own lifetimes. Understandably, they wanted advice about how to be ready. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know with certainty that we cannot be so certain about exactly when Jesus is coming. We just know that he is coming and that we must prepare. The best way to prepare for Jesus coming is to be invested in participating in this world and in always using our “talents” make this world a better place. While we wait for the coming of Jesus, what is certain is that we do not need to operate either out of desire to earn God’s blessing by our worldly success or burying our gifts and treasure out of fear.
Instead, I pray that we let our lives be accounted for in units of love and measured in mutuality.
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
September 3, 2017
“A Mid(ian)- life crisis”
Moses had likely witnessed the overseer beat, torture and kill slaves before. This man was a lifer in the service of the Pharaoh and had friends with clout, so good sense screamed out to Moses to turn a blind eye. But Moses pitied the workers nonetheless. One day, Moses spoke with the overseer in order to try and understand the reason for his brutality. The man said: “it is simple, Moses, these people don’t understand anything but the whip and the rod. If a few disappear into the sands, so be it to keep the order. You have lived in the palace, so you cannot possibly understand how to deal with these people” Moses turned a blind eye to the man’s brutality as long as he could, but eventually, something inside of him could no longer bear it. When he saw that no Egyptians were looking, he beat the man so fiercely that the overseer disappeared into sands. Sand for sand. Poetic justice. However noble his intentions, Moses feared someone would start chattering about what he did.
Indeed, some of the Hebrew slaves started gossiping both in admiration of and out of fear of Moses. With ears everywhere, Pharaoh heard what Moses did and wanted him brought in. Like his ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, who wandered the desert long before, Moses fled into the wilderness seeking safe haven. Raised in the lap of luxury where every one of his needs was attended to by a veritable flock of servants, he now found himself tending his father-in-law’s flocks in some forsaken place.
In the quiet of night under stars in the middle of nowhere in remote Midian, Moses must have reflected on how his life had amounted to nothing. He had:
no place to call his own,
no people to call his own,
no god to call his own.
He was a man in crisis burdened by some of the deepest doubts that might weigh on a person.
Then out of nowhere, in a way that only the God of Israel could have imagined, a burning bush would illuminate the sky and shed light on his identity and purpose.
Moses could not help but be drawn to the mysterious bush that burned brightly without being consumed. Moses was entranced by the visual spectacle, but he was also drawn in by the voice which uttered his name. Hearing his name must have startled him because, he sought out the expanse of the desert to be unknown. Anonymity was a good thing when you found yourself on the Pharaoh’s most wanted list. But at the same time, he must have found it deeply comforting to hear his name being uttered, far more than we know in the West, a name carried immense significance to people of the ancient Near-East. If the divine force behind this bush knew his name, maybe it also knew that Moses, the one who was drawn off the water and saved, had a soft spot for those in trouble. Maybe it knew that is why Moses came to the rescue of the Hebrew slave who was being beaten by the Egyptian overseer. In the middle of nowhere where he is nobody, Moses is known.
Moved by hearing his name and the prospect that he is known by the divine, Moses responds: “here I am.”
God then commanded Moses to “remove his shoes.” Many have interpreted God’s command principally as a sign that God demanded respect for the holiness of that ground. But there was also a more personal dimension to God’s invitation. In Near Eastern culture, shoes and hospitality are connected. A host invites close family and friends to take off their shoes upon entering their home. One would only be invited to take off their shoes in a place where they were welcomed, felt safe enough to be without the protection of shoes—in short, the vulnerability, intimacy and welcome were tied closely to belonging in a place.
By asking Moses to remove his shoes, God had invited Moses into the household of God. From then on, Moses would know he was no stranger on God’s holy ground.
With an increased sense of belonging, God felt that Moses was sufficiently grounded to take on a challenge relating to the people of Israel. God had heard the cries of his people, who were being battered and broken by Pharaoh. God asked Moses to retrace his steps back to Egypt to try to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
Moses’s response to God showed his angst and uncertainty about his identity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses was saying he is a nobody in the eyes of both the Egyptians or the Israelites.
God does dispute the reservations of Moses. Instead, God answers him by saying: “I will be with you.”
Like a loving parent who knows not to deny the fears of a child, but who instead reassures the child that they will not be abandoned ever, God reassures Moses that he will not be abandoned. Moses remains unconvinced that he is the right man for the job. But God does not let Moses stay stuck in his fear, and further instructs him to tell both the Egyptians and the Israelites that I am having sent him.
“The Lord God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent you.” This served to remind Moses that he came from a long line of people who had dealt with Egypt in times good and bad. Moses will take up that mantle- after being changed by the encounter with the God in the burning bush.
After his encounter with the burning bush, Moses would no longer feel like he had nothing and he would no longer lack a purpose.
His place was with God and his purpose was to carry out God’s saving work with the people of Israel.
What might we expect out of our own encounters with God?
God finds us in the places we inhabit even if those are places where we are hiding from something, somebody, even our innermost selves. Those places become the ground for seeing, hearing and knowing that God is real and dwells with us. And we are called to extend this same holiness, not just in the spaces we consciously and confidently mark as holy. Holy places are hospital rooms, board rooms and living rooms and rooms with flood victims.
God calls us to act in the world; in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, to make the whole world the House of God. God also awakens the gifts and the desires that reside deep within each of us to carry out the work of realizing our freedom as God’s own.
Like Moses, we might be tempted to doubt that we are the right person for that kind of mission.
We might say that there are better choices for the job.
We might say that we do not have the right gifts or skills.
We might say we do not have the right look, or pedigree or cultural background.
Lord, can’t you find someone else besides me?
Despite our doubts and fears, when God shines a light illuminating our own deepest self meets the deepest needs of the world*, we are known in the deepest way, grounded by God’s holiness and sent out by God.
I pray that, like Moses, we say to the Great I am: “Here I am.”
*a paraphrase borrowing from the wisdom of Frederick Buechner
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
August 27, 2017
Exodus 1:8 -2:10
Call us Midwives
We read in the book of Exodus and perhaps also remember from Charlton Heston’s memorable performance in the “Ten Commandments” that Moses had a way with water.
-He commanded the waters of the Nile to carry several plagues to Egypt while attempting to free his enslaved people from the iron grip of Pharaoh.
-He parted the waters of the Red Sea on the way to bring his people to safety when trapped between the Pharaoh’s army and the sea.
-He tapped a rock in the desert to secure a flow of life giving water for his parched people.
Moses commanded water in miraculous ways through the power of God working through him.
But before Moses could become the towering figure of the Old Testament, the tiny infant Moses would experience some trouble on the water and need five women working behind the scenes to help him escape death.
Pharaoh wanted to nip the perceived threat in the bud from the ever-growing population of Hebrew slaves, whom he feared were breeding far faster than the native Egyptians and threatening to overrun the whole country. After other measures designed to exhaust the Hebrews through non-stop labor fail to lower the birthrate of the Israelites and their families continue to grow robustly, the Pharaoh issues an edict to kill all newborn Israelite males.
Knowing that if she were found to be pregnant that Moses would be killed upon his birth, his Mother hides the pregnancy.
But all her efforts would have been for naught but for two other women. His birth became possible because the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, disobey the orders to kill all male babies. When they are questioned by Pharaoh after he notices that the population seems to be still be growing, they claim that Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women, but were rough and sturdy and thus did not need the services of the midwives. “Sorry, Pharaoh, we can’t keep up with these ladies. There is nothing we can do.” Frustrated, the Pharaoh wants all male babies under the age of one thrown in the Nile.
His Mother ingeniously complies with the order to throw her baby in the river, but gives him a chance placing him in a basket first.
Pharaoh’s daughter spots the basket with Moses floating down the river. Instead of turning a blind eye and letting him drift by to a certain death she defies her Father’s wishes and she has a maid draw Moses out of the water to safety. The maid turns out to be Miriam his sister, who manages to convince Pharaoh’s daughter to give Moses to a nursing woman, who Miriam knows is Moses’ actual mother.
Shiphrah, Puah—the two midwives, Moses’ Mom and Sister, and the Daughter of Pharaoh chose to say no to the death decree of the Pharaoh. But they also act using the gifts and resources at their disposal to keep him alive and well.
-The midwives cleverly use their knowledge of ugly stereotypes about Hebrew women held by the Egyptians to deflect the criticism of the Pharaoh and to keep on delivering baby boys.
-Moses’ Mom hides Moses and constructs a river worthy basket that increases his chances. Then, his sister uses quick thinking to get Moses back into her Mother’s arms so she can nurse Moses.
-Pharaoh’s daughter chose to rescue Moses from the river and use her resources to support his care.
The women form a chain of compassion that is linked by their common refusal to give into the Pharaoh’s fear driven death sentence. The community of women, each who hold limited power, cleverly and effectively frustrating mighty Pharaoh’s crazed demand for the blood of innocents.
And as it turns out, by acting to resist the death edict of the Pharaoh, their actions have an impact far beyond their lives. If Moses did not lead the Israelites out of Egypt and if he did not receive the commandments, the history of the world would be very different.
At times, even the simple act of showing up and offering hope in the face of slim odds can make a difference.
While it is no longer the case, when I was born, survival rates for very low weight babies were almost zero. The technology was not widely available at the time to handle babies as small and frail as I was. The doctors at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles told my parents that there was zero chance of me living. Perhaps thinking that it would spare my parents further grief, they discouraged them from naming me given the inevitability of my death in the hospital. The priest on duty as chaplain agreed with the doctors.
Nanna, my paternal grandmother arrived at the hospital. A diminutive, woman of few words, she insisted that my parents name me. Even if I lived only a few minutes, I would need a name to be baptized. My exhausted parents agreed naming me after my grandpa George. Within that same day, I slowly turned the corner. Nanna died while I was only six years old so I did not get to hear her tell this story. Perhaps, it was my grandmother’s faith and prayers in the power of life over death that made the difference. I was fast approaching death, but somehow I was snatched from the waters of death; a year later, I was baptized into the waters of life.
Moses was named so because he was drawn out of the water and saved. As an infant, he needed the saving help of the five women, each who acted quietly and without recognition.
Like Moses, I suspect that each of us can name a person in our lives who acted behind the scenes faithfully on our behalf sometimes in dire or even hopeless circumstances. We each likely know someone in our lives who refused to give up on us, even when it looked like there was no hope. My grandmother was just the first of many people to do this for me. It seems that my grandmother and others have acted in the role of midwife, that is as a person who got me past a critical and dangerous passage, and who in that way are responsible for my life.
While the role does not have its traditional prominence and is increasingly a thing of the past, midwives serve to bring life into the world.
Each of us can be midwives of hope by using our gifts and resources to in the face of slim odds, fear and even at times death itself.
May we each in our own ways help birth and nurture hope and compassion in a world hungry for a life giving alternative to hate, mistrust and fear. As today’s processional hymn reminds us, may we offer up a labor of love that defies the waters of death and that will usher in a “new creation by water and the word.”
August 20, 2017
The Church of The Saviour
The Reverend George C. Wong
“Wide enough for everyone”
In “The Sound of Music”, the Abbess and the nuns of the Nonnberg abbey find themselves deeply troubled by a postulant named Maria. The nuns are beside themselves over her sincere but free-spirited ways. They agonize over whether she would ever fit in and truly be one of them.
Singing, “How do you Solve a Problem like Maria” the nuns express how Maria had unnerved them:
She’s always late for everything except for every meal
From all of which I take it, you very firmly feel.
Maria’s not an asset to the Abbey
Maria challenges the nun’s deepest values, because she behaves outside of the boundaries of what they consider proper decorum for a nun. By being herself, she threatens to undermine their carefully constructed and maintained world of ordered service to God. The song is playful and seemingly good-natured—but when you strip away the lighthearted melody and clever lyrics, there is a powerful and not so hidden desire on the part the nuns to get rid of Maria.
Like the nuns of Nonnberg abbey, Jesus must figure out how to deal with the Canaanite woman who poses a serious challenge to his most deeply held beliefs, in this case his understanding of who deserves God’s mercy.
The Canaanite wasn’t considered an asset to society.
She was a despised foreigner, not one of theirs.
Nonetheless, there she was shouting at Jesus to show mercy upon her and her daughter. How do you solve a problem like the Canaanite woman?
The woman recites one of the most powerful and profound prayers ever spoken, an ancient version of the Kyrie Eleison: “Have Mercy on Me Lord, Son of David.” Not willing to entertain her, Jesus ignores her and likely hopes she will get the message, and leave.
For their part, the disciples know they are insiders, sons of Abraham and members of Jesus's team. So they are appalled by this foreigner who dares to call their master, Lord. “Jesus get rid of her!”
It seems that Jesus agrees with the disciples, because he tells her that he was sent to save the lost sheep of Israel, not people like her. Jesus then insults her by telling her that helping her would be like taking food away from children and giving it to the dogs.”
Up to this point, Jesus’ had treated the Canaanite woman with scorn, with no sign of concern or kindness for her or her daughter. Jesus seems interested in guarding the tradition, which clearly says that she is unworthy of his care. She is not a sheep of his flock, so she need not apply for help. This is far from the kind of compassionate response we would expect from Jesus.
Jesus had his human side too—was he just having an off day? As we might expect, there is more to the story of the Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
Ironically, the woman is slighted by Jesus when he chooses rules over compassion right after he had read the riot act to Pharisees for their restrictive views on religious codes. Jesus argues that what a person eats does not defile them, or make them unclean. Instead, he suggests that the Pharisees look at what comes out of a person, not what goes inside a person. Food preferences and dietary choices were closely related to one’s ethnic, social, religious and racial background. So, Jesus is really saying that a person is not defiled simply because their ethnic, social, religious, and racial background differs. It is the heart of a person that matters. It is as we say the character and content of a person that mattered then and matters now.
The Canaanite woman knows that people don’t really know anything about her heart but still judge her unworthy. “Is this how you really feel too Jesus?” It is as if the woman is calling upon Jesus to walk the talk: “if you believe what you just said to the Pharisees, do not sacrifice my daughter and me for the sake of following your rules and tradition about who is in and who is out. I do not deserve to be sacrificed on the altar of tradition, I deserve and claim mercy.
Despite her desperation, and impossibly low status, she knows God’s blessing are too big to be held back by tradition or rules or cultural norms.
Jesus recognizes the deep underlying truth of her claim to God’s blessing. Moved by her persistence and by her faithfulness, Jesus says: ‘Woman, great is your faith.’ At that moment, her daughter is healed. This is an incredible moment, because Jesus, the Son of God, has learned from a hurting, outcast, one who was below the mercy radar screen according to tradition. The miracle seems to depend upon a widened understanding of who deserves mercy—only when that happens does the physical healing of the daughter occur.
If Jesus was able to learn and change his understanding of mercy and tradition, we might take that as an important guide for our own learning and be more willing to expand our understanding of faith. The story of the Canaanite woman reminds us of the power of standing firmly on the ground of faith even when others try to shove you out of the picture. It also cautions us about holding too narrow a view of who deserves mercy and who doesn’t deserve mercy.
Mostly, Canaanite woman reminds us that God’s mercy washes over us. The wideness of God’s mercy is big enough for many, even those whom others want to get rid of:
Like Maria who was never accepted in the abbey
Like the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for and received mercy from Jesus for her and her daughter
Like Joseph who was dead man rescued from a pit
Like Joseph’s brothers who are rescued by the brother they had left for dead in a pit.
In the course of life, most of us experience being on both sides of the divide between who is in and who is out. As the highly praised rabbi followed by thousands and as the despised rabble rouser condemned to death, Jesus knew both sides of that divide.
When we feel like we are on the outside and are scorned, we might be well served to remember the truth that the Canaanite woman taught us: that there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
When we find ourselves on the inside, we are called to invite those on the margins of society into our circles and to sit side by side with them. Again, we need to remember that there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
May we like Jesus did continue to grow in our willingness to be merciful and compassionate. May those we meet around town in Denville, at work and in our neighborhoods say of us: there is a people who know that and live like there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2017
The Church of the Saviour
I want to walk a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.
The words of our sequence hymn express the desire of countless faithful over the ages. You can imagine us standing beside a long line of the faithful who have come before. First, in line were Peter, James and John who literally walked in Jesus’ footsteps. Glimpsing Jesus from their fishing boat, seeing that he was like no other man to walk the earth, they cast down their precious nets to follow Jesus and become fishers of men.
Their decision to follow Jesus catapulted three fishermen from a simple routine to a life of constant activity. Jesus sought out people in every nook and cranny: in the streets, at wedding banquets, at the temple and in their homes. Jesus met people where they were and as they were. He did not shy away from the hard and earthly lives of the people of villages and the countryside who struggled daily.
Jesus exhibited non-stop compassion to those who were in need; what gave him the strength to do this. There was something about this man that was different. The disciples had to have suspected there was more to Jesus that they had not seen yet—something that explained his ability to do so much for people. Jesus has just fed over 5,000 people with a couple of table scraps. They knew Jesus was not just a run of the mill rabbi; he was no ordinary holy man. Certainly, there was a transcendent side of him, a side far beyond the ordinary, the earthbound.
Hebrew scripture would have colored their view. The Torah paints a picture of God whose brightness is beyond all compare. As observant Jews, Peter, James and John would have known well the story of Moses. They would know that when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, that the mere reflection of Moses’ face was enough to strike fear in people. If Jesus was of the Father, would he ever share that powerfully illuminated side of himself.
They wanted to see not just the day-to-day Jesus, they wanted to see the Jesus who was shrouded in pure light: they wanted to see the brightness of God.
Maybe it was now time for Jesus to share a side he had never shown them before. Isn’t it the case that sometimes we wait to show the very deepest parts of ourselves with those we love—but only when the time and circumstances are right. Maybe the disciples needed encouragement at this point. We can’t know for sure why Jesus decided to reveal himself so on the day of the transfiguration.
Jesus takes Peter, John and James hiking up the mountain side. The crisp mountain can work wonders and offered them a needed respite from the din of constant requests from the growing crowds clamoring for attention and begging for help. They stop for a drink at a cistern holding crisp rainwater, and take it all in.
Jesus takes advantage of rare peace and quiet to pray. In a split second, Jesus’s face and clothes are a blinding flash of light. Guys, you wanted to see the brightness of God. And, here I am.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes Peter, James and John on that day as “eyewitnesses to the majesty of God”; yet, inexplicably, the three manage to nap right at this moment. When they do wake up, they run around rambling, while trying to make sense of the mind-blowing events that have just transpired. They want to build a house, a temple for him so Jesus can stay. Then, a cloud appears and a voice says: “This is my Son, my chosen one, Listen to him.”
One big-time mystery is solved: that is, did Jesus have a side of him that glimmered like the sun? But as sometimes is the case when we learn about someone deeply, that revelation begged new questions. Having seen the illuminated side of Jesus, the disciples must have wondered what was next? Would Jesus flip back and forth. Would he go be like a kind of divine Clarke Kent figure, who would be normal Jesus and then emerge as the illuminated Jesus in the blink of an eye?
Some things would remain questions about Jesus. We still wrestle with the idea of the incarnation today. God becoming man is a mind-bending concept. Some things like the transfiguration are best experienced, not picked apart and dissected.
Peter, James and John were first-hand witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountaintop. We won’t have a first-hand person experience of seeing Jesus transfigured in front of our eyes. But that does not mean that we do not have experiences that are powerful enough to jolt us awake from a slumber. For instance, sometimes, when we are with those we care about, we are able to see them light up brightly right before our eyes.
I remember this kind of experience from my second year of seminary. In seminary, you are with colleagues every day for class, chapel, meals, studying and service projects-- those demands of the seminary and the challenges of being ordained in life were heavy. I was bone tired and was not seeing a lot of light in myself or others. But on this day, a good friend preached for the first time at the chapel service. In her words and in her face, I saw a light and joy radiate from her in a way that was astounding. She was still completely herself but a bright side shone out from her that could only be the reflection of Jesus.
I remember this well because when we are doing what we are called to do, like my friend, then we often reflect the light of Jesus.
The light of Jesus infuses the world in so many ways. In:
The bright sun and cool rain mingled
A friend retelling a long-forgotten story
A Mozart sonata or a Dave Brubeck solo
The smell of a soufflé baking
A palette of poetry that amuses
The ruffle of a baptismal gown
In these things and so many ways that speak to each of us, we glimpse the shining God, the God who has blazed brightly since the beginning of time and creation.
It can sometimes hard to see illuminated side of ourselves, or of others, or in the world around us. Like the disciples, we wait, we hope, we want to walk with Jesus and look on his face.
Yes, we want to walk as children of the light, we want to follow Jesus.
And, yes, we can rest assured that Jesus will meet us where we are, and shine in our hearts.