News & Reflections

Saturday Meditation: Questioning religious authority

Questioning man photo

Saturday in the First Week of Lent

By Jane Emery

11 March

O God, by your Word you marvelously carry out the work of reconciliation: Grant that in our Lenten fast we may be devoted to you with all our hearts, and united with one another in prayer and holy love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

PSALM 119:1-8 ▪ DEUTERONOMY 26:16-19 ▪ MATTHEW 5:43-48

This year Passover and Easter overlap, which encouraged me to ponder one of the most interesting differences between these two major religions—one’s relationship to God. Jews are encouraged to confront, to question, to challenge and to even argue with God. This practice would seem to create a powerful scholarly discourse. Contrast this with the traditional and historical Christian relationship with God which is to obey and not question God’s commandments or God’s will.

As Christians we are like sheep—following our God—and in turn we will be protected. As a child I was always confused by the notion of being a sheep, which symbolized a blind following of a leader or becoming a coward! The notion that one could argue or question religious authority and church doctrine promotes understanding and encourages diverse and unique perspectives. Note how some churches (until recently Roman Catholicism) forbid members to attend services of other denominations even for weddings or funerals.

Today, there are still conservative Christian leaders who instruct their parishioners not to question religious authority or the church’s doctrines. Religious cults are characterized by their insistence upon isolating their members from others which reinforces obedience to the religious authorities. I would assert that one factor in the declining church membership in the U.S. is this practice of requiring obedience. We have numerous friends who now reject Christianity—remembering the ridicule or punishment they received as children because they argued with or disobeyed religious leaders.

Fortunately, the Episcopal Church increasingly has priests (like ours) who encourage questioning, skepticism, even argumentation. Now, mainstream Protestantism appears similar to Judaism—we can both argue with God. During Holy Week we can reflect upon Jesus arguing with God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jane Emery and her husband Dick Healy have enjoyed St. Michael’s since 2003 when they moved here from California. They have one daughter in NYC and three daughters in California—where they live in the summer. Jane is an emerita sociology professor at California State University, Northridge.

On Christmas Eve, a healing prayer was heard

St. Michael's Healing Prayer Team photo

You’ve seen our Healing Prayer Team members at the rail in the Chapel or by the St. Jude’s Altar during the communion, receiving supplicants one-by-one, hearing their concerns, praying together and offering the Laying on of Hands.

The prayer team, founded in 2008 by the Rev. Deacon Frank “Pete” Peterson and the Rev. Deacon Lawrence Schacht, now numbers 28 lay ministers under the direction of the Rev. Leigh Mackintosh.

“As Christ’s disciples today we are charged to continue to tell and to do the mighty works God had done in Jesus,” Leigh says. “The blind don’t recover their sight but people feel a deep healing and strength” in moments of prayer.

Testimony to that power came from a supplicant, who reached out to St. Michael’s after a visit to the Christmas Eve service:

“My children and I drove into NYC tonight … and found St. Michael’s.”

“One of my adult daughters has made some difficult, tragic decisions and choices and she has broken our hearts. I made a decision to go into the Chapel during communion and ask for a prayer for her. A dear Sister in Christ held me, prayed and interceded on my behalf. I just wanted to say thank you.”

The “Sister in Christ” prefers to remain anonymous, in keeping with the confidentiality of the healing-prayer exchanges.

Another minister says, “Healing prayer was so helpful to me when my mother died. I’m grateful to be able to help others in the same way.”

“This ministry blesses those who serve and is a blessing to those who come,” Leigh says.

Photo: (front) the Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, Kris Ishibashi, Andrea Dedmon; (middle) Anne Stribling, Denisha Williams, Juanita Pratt, Deborah Houston, Marianne Jensen, Michael Taylor; (back) Pauline Brookfield, Rick Hamlin, Nicole Thomas, Arlene Bullard and Linda Van Ness.

Saturday Meditation: Welcoming the outcast

Refugees in the wilderness photo

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

By a St. Michael’s parishioner

4 March

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth your right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

PSALM 86:1-11 ▪ ISAIAH 58:9b-14 ▪ LUKE 5:27-32

Today’s readings point to our imperative to welcome and help the outcast, the detested, the troubled. As Isaiah sang:

‘If you take away from you the midst of the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.’ (Isaiah 58:9b-10)

Physical attacks against Muslims, Jews, people of color and LGBTQ people are rising. Threats of forced registration of Muslims hover like a miasma. Millions of people may lose their (frayed, ragged) economic safety net.

It’s time to assess: How will I react when I witness affliction? Will I hunker down . . . or will I pour myself out? Will I help the kid being beaten on the subway for wearing a kippah? Will I join an “I Am Spartacus”-like movement and register as a Muslim, should such registration become the law of the land?

That’s a lot. But God expects even more.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus does not despise the evil-doers (tax collectors in his story, bullies in ours). He respects their innate dignity, meets with them, eats with them, and tries to draw them toward repentance.

We are called to follow Jesus’ example: to protect the afflicted— while still loving the afflicters and gently calling them to turn themselves around.

Somehow.

It’s time to ask: Am I ready? Can I do this? How, specifically, will I?

From the Rector: A Lenten Discipline for All the Right Reasons

Kate Flexer headshot

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So begins our 40 days of Lent, with a smudge of ash on our foreheads, in the same sign of the cross we received at our baptism. We are mortal and yet we are God’s, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. A true reminder of our identity, starting over from the beginning.

How will you keep Lent this year? Traditionally, we talk about the disciplines we follow as almsgiving, prayer and fasting. We might try to give to others in need, to pray more, to fast and abstain from certain foods or activities. As Jesus reminds us, we can do them for all the wrong reasons — usually for self-improvement, in our own eyes and the eyes of others.   

But the point of this season — the point of all religion, all ritual and discipline — is authentic relationship with God. We do these things because we are in relationship with God and because we want to deepen that relationship, because our love of the God who loves us grows as we do these things. 

So may we keep a holy Lent this year, beloved dust that we are.

Note: You can get ideas for observing the season on our Lenten Resources Pinterest Board.