All Posts By

Rick Morley

beloved

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

These incredible words boom from heaven while Jesus is being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. But, they make more sense if you keep reading on in the Gospel of Luke.

For no sooner is Jesus proclaimed to be God’s Son than Luke launches into his genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy which is a list of “begats,” Luke’s is a telling of who is who’s “son,” who is whose “child.” Luke begins with “Jesus, the son of Joseph” and then he just keeps going back further and further into history until he gets to “Adam.” The whole Lukan genealogy begins with Jesus and ends with Adam.

Luke’s genealogy grounds the story of Jesus into the ancient story of God’s people—the saints and the sinners of Israel all the way back to the very beginning. Luke’s genealogy is a microcosm of ALL of human history—at least up until Jesus.

It’s important to remember that the story of God’s love for us—the story of God’s intimate involvement with His Children—goes back deep, so deep, into the molten center of cosmic history. From that moment God spoke “light” and it was so. From that moment when we were drawn out of the primordial mud and formed into the Divine Image. From the moment when we were freed from Pharaoh’s grip. From the moments when patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets were called forth to do God’s work.

Right up to the moment when God became flesh, and dwelt among us. Living as one of us. Living for us. And dying for us.

And right up to this moment. Now.

In Baptism we are counted as God’s sons and daughters too. That long list of fathers and children in Luke’s Gospel is not just a dead family tree, but a living one, that stretches not only backward but forward. To us.

We are part of the story of Redemption, and we are recipients of it.

As they were Beloved of God, so are we.

go anyway

Karen and I love James Bond movies—in fact one of our first “dates” was watching a Bond marathon.

The villain in the Bond movie, Skyfall, is quite a man to behold. He’s not after world domination or riches. One might say that he’s after revenge. But, really it’s not that. He just wants to exert his dominance over someone from his past, and hurt that person very much. He doesn’t even care if he goes down in the pursuit of this goal.

He’s mad, in the “insane” sense of the word.

And, it’s clear that underneath his facade of rage and thirst to inflict pain is really just fear. Fear gone wrong.

With that in the background, it’s hard not to see Herod in that same light. And, it’s quite amazing that with all the merry-making, rosy-cheeked Santas, and whimsical snowflakes hanging from every department store and mall food court—that the first Christmas was lived out on the backdrop of such fear and the plotting of such evil.

Herod so desperately feared losing his power that he sought to hunt down the infant Christ. And, when he couldn’t find him he killed male children indiscriminately in the hopes that Jesus would end up being one of that number.

Ah, we are so quick to forget that, aren’t we?—and that link to the story of Moses that Matthew wants us all to see so clearly.

Fear and the thirst for power is a mix that is volatile. How many innocent lives and beautiful dreams have been lost in that concoction?

And there it is, right there, while Jesus is still in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. No crying he makes, and yet a bounty is on his head. Holy infant, tender and mild, and yet he is a threat to the great Herod.

And, with all of that in the background…people don’t stay away. They come.

They come from great distances. From the east.

And they don’t come because the great learned scholars and holy folk of the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew of his coming. On no. They knew nothing of it until it had been told to them.

No, the professionally religious in and around Jerusalem were a bunch of no-nothings when it came to the Word becoming flesh.

But, no matter, for the cosmos cried out in exultation. A star shone, and it moved till it was over the spot where the Prince of Peace lie.

And those wise men—how many? Who knows. Matthew doesn’t tell us. For all we know it was the grandest parade the world had ever seen.

They knew that Herod was evil. They had been to his lair. They had looked into his power-hungry eyes and fear-laden glare.

They knew.

But, they came anyway. The parade went on, with the star in the front and the camels in the rear.

Nothing would stop them. Nothing could.

And they must be the icon of the Church today, mustn’t they? Isn’t our world soaked in fear? Isn’t our world overwhelmed with those who seek to hoard power? Isn’t our world crying out with the blood of the innocent, caught in the crossfire?

We know. But, we’re to make our way there despite it all. We’re to make our pilgrimage to the Christ. And we’re to give him our gifts.

And our lives.

aha moment

I have been so influenced on Elaine Pagels’ work on the prologue to John, that it’s hard for me to look at John without seeing it through that lens. Dr. Pagels identifies a feature she calls “the three negations” deeply embedded in the fabric of the Prologue. And it’s these negations which set up who Jesus is, and what his Incarnation means for John, and perhaps for us.

In John 1:5 the “Light shines in the darkness” but the darkness did not “understand” it. This is sometimes translated as “overcome,” but while lovely, it’s not as good a translation as “understand.”

The darkness did not understand Jesus.

In 1:10, when the Light comes into the world (cosmos) the people of the world failed to “know” or “recognize” it.

The nations did not recognize Jesus.

And, in 1:11, the Light came to his “own,” and his own people failed to receive it. God’s People.

God’s own People did not receive Jesus.

Thus, the three negations. The Light came but was subsequently neither “understood,” “recognized,” nor “received.”

But, when the “Word became flesh” everything changes. It’s in the Incarnation that “we have seen his glory.”

For John the Incarnation is the “aha” moment for the whole creation, and for God’s “own.”

Us.

It’s the time when God is finally understood, recognized, received, and given glory.

Jesus becoming flesh is the turning point upon which all of history pivots. And, it’s when our relationship with God fundamentally shifts.

I think that will all the busy-ness of the season, and the subsequent exhaustion which comes from midnight services and Sunday School pageants… that preaches.

Christmas – The Incarnation changes everything.

The key article from which I’ve based this short entry on is here (the three negations is on the 5th page of the article): Pagels, Elaine H. Journal of Biblical Literature, 118 no 3 Fall 1999, p 477-496.

with haste

…Mary set out and went with haste…

But, why?

Dr. Raymond Brown in his enormously important book The Birth of the Messiah, says “Mary’s haste is a reflection of her obedience to the plan revealed to her by the angel, a plan which included the pregnancy of Elizabeth.”

I typically defer to Fr. Brown in almost every case…but I do disagree with him on this one.

Mary is a young girl, perhaps 12 or 13 years of age, and she is pregnant. She is not yet married, and so there was no legitimate reason for her to be with child.

Well, at least no legitimate reason that anyone else would buy.

In our day this might be a small scandal. In her day it would have been earth shattering.
Two-thousand years of reading this story has set it in lead-bound stained-glass. We forget that these characters aren’t running around in luxurious patterned silks sporting halos. Mary is a real girl—a real little girl.

And her pregnancy would be a disappointment to everyone in her hometown. Most of all, her parents, her betrothed, her rabbi…everyone.

So, if I were her…I’d want to get out of dodge too.

I’d probably even want to do it with haste.

And where might she go? To her cool cousin Elizabeth.

When she enters Elizabeth’s house she doesn’t find judgment or doom-and-gloom.

She is met with joy.

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

What it must have meant for Mary to have heard those words! Like cool water on a hot day. Like a soft chair after being on your feet for hours.

After feeling shame—after feeling like a disappointment to all who were around her…she was declared to be a blessing. As was the child in her.

There’s a lot going on here, but what strikes me is that we need more Elizabeths in the world. We need more people willing to move past judgement and shaming, and offer God’s blessing.

We need people who look upon the world and see God’s redeeming hand at work, not just see the worst in other people and ourselves.

And we need to feel that call to bless deep within ourselves, like a child leaping within us.
For, if there were more Elizabeths in the world doing that holy work, there just might be more people breaking out into holy song like little Mary.

The peace that passes understanding

The Peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his son Jesus Christ Our Lord—and the blessing of God Almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you always.

As a priest, I say these words at the close of almost every worship service I lead. The first part of it is a paraphrase of Philippians 4:7. The second part is a priestly blessing in the name of the Triune God.

I’ve been pronouncing this blessing for almost twenty years now. I’ve heard these words, or similar words, pronounced for far longer.

The peace of God which passes all understanding…

What kind of peace is that?

For most of my life I’ve thought that this kind of peace is the peace where all conflict would stop. Where all wars would cease, all political fights would end, all family drama would fade away, and everything would be super-duper chill.

But, I’m beginning to see this blessing, this verse from Paul, as something far different.

If the peace that passes all understanding is merely the absence of outward conflict, what does that do with all the injustices and evil in the world except anesthetize any resistance? What does that do except ensure that those who live under the cloud of injustice remain there in their suffering?

We’ve all lived through moments at home, work, school, etc, that resemble hostage situations more than anything else. Where one person, or one faction of people are the sort where you have to walk around on eggshells—where every second of every day is a game of don’t rock the boat—where the least little thing that goes wrong ends up being an emotional explosion of anger and rage. If you end up making it through a day with no outbreak of anger, that might seem like a victory of peace to an outsider. But, to everyone living in the system who has had clenched jaws, raised blood pressure, and has tipped-toed around every subject brought up, it has absolutely NOT been peaceful in the least. Under the surface it’s a rip current of fear and trembling.

We do not need this kind of peace that masquerades as appeasement and kindliness but which enables all manner of sordidness and affliction to visit themselves on the vulnerable and the despondent.

No. And, I don’t think God needs this kind of peace either. This isn’t the kind of peace that passes understanding—no, this is the kind of “peace” that the poor and downtrodden are all too familiar with. This is the kind of peace that merely wallpapers over evil. This is the kind of peace that makes deals with the devil which allows for some short-term ceasefire, but enables a long-term misery upon those who have known far too much misery already.

No. This is no peace.

The peace which passes understanding, if it’s truly God’s peace has to be a peace which upends injustice and oppression.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

These words of Jesus have vexed preachers for centuries. We’ve sung too many Christmas carols extolling Jesus as the “prince of peace” to then turn around and claim that Jesus isn’t bringing peace after all. (Usually sermons end up being something like, “This thing that Jesus said… he didn’t actually mean that…)

But, what if the problem here isn’t Jesus? What if the problem is our understanding of peace?

What if peace IS the sword – the sword which pierces everything which needs to be overturned in order for real peace to actually come?

turning

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3:3

When the cat jumps on me at 1AM and wakes me up, I sometimes have a hard time falling back to sleep again. Not because I had too much coffee the day before, but because all of a sudden my brain wants to attend to the list of things that I did that I shouldn’t have done. Or the list of things that I should have done, but didn’t do. Or the things that I said that came out all wrong.

Sometimes those things are from the day before, but other times the list appears from my decades gone by.

I lay there in some semi-conscious dream state and wallow in feelings of guilt, shame, and anger with myself.

It’s not a particularly popular thing to admit that you’re wrong, or have done something wrong. The all-too-typical responses are to minimize (“I’m sorry you feel that way.”), to deflect (“Well, what about when you did the same thing?”), or to lie (“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I never did that.”)

And then there’s the ways we try and hide our faults and problems from ourselves. But, the problem is that we can’t hide from ourselves. The truth will end up surfacing on some restless night long before the sun rises.

The baptism that John the Baptist proclaimed was a baptism of repentance. That word has gotten an ugly reputation, as if we think that feeling shame and guilt is a prerequisite. But, that’s not what repentance is. Repentance has nothing to do with lying in bed obsessing over things done and gone.

Repentance is about changing how we live in response to how we’ve lived. It’s a turning away from things that keep us from God, or that keep us from being the kind of people who God wants us to be (and, quite frankly, how WE want us to be), and a turning towards a new way of living that is more honest, kind, loving, and present.

Repentance is about turning toward the things that are beautiful—the things that show up in our daydreams, not our nightmares.

This is the baptism that John proclaims. And it’s the kind of living—the kind of turning—that makes for a life that is well lived with God by our side.

And where we sleep soundly all though the night.

the after party: Advent 1C

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Luke 21:25

In the year 64AD, Rome burned to the ground. This is the famous fire that we’ve all heard that Emperor Nero “fiddled” through. The Christians were blamed for the fire, and a most awful persecution broke out because of that.

In the year 70AD The Army of the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem. It was so brutal and complete that the scars can still be seen in the city to this very day. Besides the destruction of buildings, they ended up crucifying so many people that it is said that they ran out of wood.

For someone living through those horrific events—especially someone who was Jewish or Christian—it must have felt like the whole world was ending.

Now, Luke is writing a good 15-20 years later. The fires had cooled. The horrors were nothing but memories. People had moved on with their lives. In fact, from what we can gather, Luke was writing for a community of Jesus-Followers who were in a good place.

Of course, this didn’t mean that the memories had faded all that much. How many times have we said to ourselves, “I can’t believe it’s only be 10 years since…”

The images would still be burned into their minds. The sounds. The smells. The sensation of fear that emanated from every cell in their bodies. They had moved on, but how much can you really ever move on from something like that?

These are the events that Jesus is referencing in the 21st chapter of Luke. Of course, when Jesus was speaking, it was decades before those events had occurred. Luke was writing these words down decades after the events.

One would be forgiven if they thought of such horrific things as evidence that God had forgotten them, or was absent. But Luke’s Jesus tells us: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…When you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”

That almost sounds ridiculous. It’s practically crazy-talk.

When our whole world is going topsy-turvy how can we ever find evidence of redemption? How can we ever find the Kingdom in the ashes of destruction?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Though it must be in the same way that the first are last and the last are first. The same way that the greatest among us are the servants. The same way that a death on a cross can culminate in the victory of an empty tomb.

It doesn’t make sense. Unless we have eyes of faith.

Christ the King

Pope Pius XI inaugurated Christ the King Sunday in 1925, when the authority of the church was evidently waning in the world. Of course nearly ninety years later, the “authority” of the church—or even just the “place” of the church—in the world is almost laughable. We are all but irrelevant in the power structures of the community of nations.

Whatever the original intent and motive of Christ the King Sunday, one can easily see “Christendom” making one last effort—only last death-throw gasp—to stem the tide, and regain a position of power and influence in the world.

But, it does do one well to consider the kind of kingship that Jesus represents.Jesus of Nazareth didn’t reign from a position of political and military strength.

I don’t like to get to Christmas until…you know…it’s actually Christmas. But, for several weeks now the lectionary has already begun it’s move to the coming of Christ (second coming, then first coming), and it’s useful to look in the direction that we’re going. And, Jesus, when he came in Bethlehem, came as a vulnerable infant. Not a conquering warrior. No throne. No crown. No sword. No scepter.

His trappings were swaddling cloths.

In fact, the incarnational movement of God—especially in the Gospel of John—is in the giving of Christ to the world. (For God so loved the world that he have His only son…) God handed His only son over to us. An act of great vulnerability.

And, of course, the culmination of this giving of Jesus to us, was us crucifying him. Naked. Beaten. Broken. Laughed at. Spit upon. Nailed. Hastily laid in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus was given in an act of vulnerability, he came vulnerable in manger-mild, and he was killed in the great act of willing vulnerability.

This is important, and inextricably bound to his Kingship. This is the kind of king that Jesus was, and is.

We especially see it in this week’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus responds to Pilate:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.

He doesn’t say it explicitly, but implicitly he’s saying:

My kingdom is not from this world, and therefore no one is fighting for me. Because in my kingdom we don’t do that.

And, even in the consummate vision of John in Revelation—even in victory over the forces of darkness and evil, Christ is still the lamb at the center of the throne. Still the sacrificial lamb.

What does this mean for us, the followers of this vulnerable king? It means that we’re to follow in His footsteps, embracing rather than denying, our position of vulnerability.

And, let’s face it, we are powerless. Powerless to stop the surge of a hurricane. Powerless in the face of devastating fires which consume entire communities. Powerless to prop up failing economies. Powerless to raise perfect children, have the perfect home, attain the perfect job, and minister in the perfect church. Powerless to impress all the neighbors, and assuage our own guilt and shame. Powerless to change the past—things done to us, and things done by us. Powerless to stop death from taking us or our loved ones to the grave.

And boy does that tick us off.

Nothing makes us angrier than being powerless. Nothing makes us want to point the finger of blame like being found out to be powerless. Nothing makes us sink into a pool of despair and denial than powerlessness. Nothing makes us want to launch a missile and start a war like the reality of our vulnerability staring us in the face.

But, if we can follow our Great King, who embraced powerlessness in the manger and on the cross…great things can happen.

No army has ever defeated the power of darkness and evil. No bomb has ever staved the power of death.

But…a bloody, beaten, and naked Christ did.

And, he’s our King.

something wonderful comes yet

Remember that Mark’s Gospel was written during a time of great trial and misery. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Rome had burned, and the Christians had been blamed for it. Thousands upon thousands of Jews and Christians had been forced to leave their homes and flee as refugees to other places that were out of Rome’s grip—for now.

For them, it must have seemed as if the whole world was coming to an end. The whole foundation of their lives were shifting on the sands of persecution, murder, and fear.

So, in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus starts talking about the destruction of the Temple and “nation rising against nation,” this would have been no surprise for Mark’s first readers. These things that had been talked about 40 years ago by Jesus had come to fruition in their lifetimes.

Even after Jesus’ death, his resurrection, and his ascension into Heaven—even after the event of Pentecost—there was a sense in the earliest church that the story wasn’t yet over. There was more to come. And, like the resurrection had to be preceded by the crucifixion, this new thing that God was about to do would also be preceded by something terrible and awful.

I think this would have been some consolation to those Christians living in Mark’s day who were fleeing Rome’s reach as they watched their whole world burn. I think it would have reminded them that all these terrible things weren’t anyone’s fault—especially not their fault. They were being reminded that even in the face of horrible, horrendous things, God is still present with them.

They had a sense that something was on the horizon—and that this something was going to be wonderful. When we look east, we see the same horizon they saw. And, something wonderful still comes yet.

broken

Back in the opening chapters of the Bible there’s a rift. Abraham and his nephew lot have to go their separate ways. There was major tension between them and the families who supported each of them. The land wasn’t rich enough to support both sets of flocks and herds.

So, the family split up. Lot when on to Gomorrah (in the end, a “bad” decision…) and his uncle Abraham went on to the Oaks at Mamre.

Abraham is, obviously, the great patriarch of the nation of Israel. His nephew Lot became the patriarch of another nation: the nation of Moab. For the better part of a thousand years these two nations carried on the same rivalry that their patriarchs began centuries before.

And then… some 1,500 years after Abraham… an Israelite woman named Naomi fled to Moab to escape a famine in her land. She took her two sons with her, and they each found a Moabite woman to marry. Sadly, both of her sons ended up dying, and Naomi was left in a foreign land along with her two new daughters-in-law.

When the famine was over, Naomi decided to head back home. She told her two daughters-in-law that she wished them well, and that she hoped they met new men to marry, and that they had a great life. One of those daughters, Orpah, took her up on that and stayed in Moab. The other daughter turned to her and said,

Wither thou goest, I will go.

Her name was Ruth. And she returned to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi. There, Ruth met an Israelite man named Boaz. They fell in love. 

They got married.

With this marriage a 1,500 year rift between the family is healed. Two nations return and become one nation, one family again.

And, these two have a son, named Obed. Obed has a son, named Jesse. And Jesse has a son.

Named David. He becomes the first king of Israel, and hundreds of years later from this family tree comes a child born in Bethlehem.

See what happens when our lives are bent towards reconciliation and healing? See what happens when we come together and put away the silly fights of old?