Archives for April 2005

5 Easter (A) – 2005

Those who turn the world upside down

April 24, 2005

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

The dramatic, fast-moving pace set by St. Paul once he made the decision to respond to God’s summons to enter Macedonia continues with this visit to Thessalonica (Thessaloniki in Greek). Someone must have told Paul the story of the city: how it used to be called Therma, and how Cassandros, a general in Alexander’s army, became king and renamed the city in honor of his wife, a half-sister of Alexander. And someone among the devout people he met, maybe Jason himself, must have told Paul about the suffering in the heart of this beautiful city situated as it is in a gulf that has the protection of Mount Olympus in the west and the beloved mountain of the city, Hortiatis, in the northeast. The residences and shops line the deep, natural port and rise gradually toward lovely hills. But in the heart of Thessaloniki there was much suffering. The general, Cassandros, emptied 26 surrounding villages and towns in order to populate the new metropolis, with all the troubles such forced relocations cause to the inhabitants; he wanted a larger city than the old, humble Therma and this was accomplished through the suffering of thousands of poor people. And Thessaloniki herself, his sad wife, was killed by one of her own sons. So the city, which by Roman times in the first century was a glorious place of palaces and public buildings, a province of the Roman Empire, has had a history of suffering which continued into World War II. Archeological evidence shows that by the time of St. Paul it had been inhabited continuously for a thousand years, and other evidence goes back 6,000 years.

Because the city had a long history of culture with Greek as its language and was strategically located on the Via Egnatia, which stretched from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, it was the perfect place for establishing a church for the spread of the Gospel. St. Paul, a uniquely urban missionary, chose his cities with care. In Thessaloniki he found receptive listeners in the synagogue, and many devout women. St. Luke uses the word theophovoumenoi, God fearers, to describe many who heard Paul. It is possible that they had been attracted by the God of the Hebrews and were observing some of the high standards required by this God in their lives, but had not undergone the required changes demanded by Jewish law in order to become full members of the synagogue. The ground seemed fertile for the reception of the Good News of Christ. (The Greek Orthodox Church today claims Thessaloniki as “the golden gateway” for the spread of Christianity to Europe.)

What is significant about Paul’s stay in Thessaloniki is how peacefully it started and how dangerously it ended. The province of Macedonia was committed to emperor worship. So when Paul was accused of “proclaiming another king whose name is Jesus,” the authorities became worried and did not want to take a chance with someone who was threatening the hold of the emperor in their city. The best phrase in all this passage described so vividly by Luke is this: “These people who have been turning the world upside down.” Paul, the peaceful follower of Jesus Christ did exactly that—he turned the world upside down. Therein lies the victory that makes all the suffering worthwhile. And make no mistake: the Christians of Thessaloniki started suffering earlier than the rest, before the persecution of Christians became fashionable among Romans. The world was being turned upside down: the people who accepted the Good News of Jesus Christ were changing from “malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander,” as the writer of today’s Epistle puts it, into people who were becoming “living stones” in the edifice of the faith which was to change the world.

The metaphor of the stones in 1 Peter brings to mind the great suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who always refer to themselves as “the living stones.” The suffering of Christians started early in the history of Christianity and continues in many parts of the world today. Misery in many parts of the globe makes us deeply troubled if not for ourselves then for others who are undergoing such terrors as war, dislocation, genocide, natural disasters that utterly destroy their livelihoods and families, while we in this country contend with hypocrisy, lies, loss of jobs, and an utter disregard for the poor and the powerless. It is sometimes very difficult to remember that we are in Eastertide.

But Jesus tells us in St. John’s gospel, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” This is the part of the gospel that deals no longer with the earthly Jesus but with the glorified Christ after his resurrection and ascension. The writer of the Gospel of St. John, probably a disciple of the great apostle, is writing during the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, near the end of the first century when persecution of Christians had become vicious and was being encouraged through most of the Roman Empire. So the writer wants to remind his readers of the promises of Jesus. And the message that comes through loud and clear in these chapters of the Great Discourse is that we are not abandoned, that we are not alone, and that the God of Jesus Christ is like the Jesus the disciples have known and loved. This is the most important, the life-giving message of this passage: that God is like the Jesus they have known so intimately — filled with love, mercy, and justice. The gospel reaffirms here in the strongest imagery that the Jesus of history is the Christ of God and eternity.

So let us look around us. Suffering is not all bad — this conclusion is brought out by the courage of the people of Thessaloniki and the courage and endurance of St. Paul and of countless people in the world today who suffer and still believe in God. What is bad and evil is believing in a false Jesus by not recognizing the qualities of the Jesus of the gospels and by misunderstanding the character of God. Whenever an act smacks of injustice toward the poor, violence towards the enemy, vengeance and hatred towards those who disagree with us, then we better recognize that this cannot come from those who have gone through the “way” which is “the truth and the life,” no matter how loudly they claim that they are Christians.

The world was turned upside down by Paul and his co-workers for good, not for evil. The suffering that followed was not a punishment from God but the inevitable reaction of people who wanted to worship men rather than God. We don’t live in a very different world, after all. We still mistake evil for good; we still follow people who call out “Lord, Lord,” but do not do the will of him who sent Jesus to live and die for us.

If Jesus indeed is who he claims to be in this passage, then we better look closely at his life, his works, and his words and determine what it means for us to carry his name — to be called Christians, for his sake and for the sake of a suffering world.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

4 Easter (A) – 2005

April 17, 2005

Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25John 10:1-10

An Episcopal bishop who served for many years in the upper Midwest loves to tell stories he learned from the Native Americans of the area, many of whom are Episcopalians. Here is one of them.

A wise Native American man was asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world today. The elder reflected for a moment and then replied, “My child, there are two dogs battling within my heart. One is full of anger, hatred, and rage. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” The old man paused, and he and his grandson sat for a moment in silence. Finally the boy spoke, “Grandfather, which dog will win the battle in your heart? The one filled with hatred or the one filled with love?” The old man looked at his grandson and replied, “The one I feed will win.”

Our world is still untamed and full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it in our newspapers. We do not have to drive far in our cars to feel it on our streets. The world is a dangerous place, whether we live in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Yet, the conflict we experience is not truly on our streets or in our neighborhoods, much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart. The Indian wise man was right. Too many of us feed the dogs of anger and hatred.

Jesus knew this fact at least as well as we do, for his world was really no different from our own. Many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us yet today. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. The world still has its share of “thieves and bandits” ready to snatch and scatter the flock, as he makes clear in today’s gospel account.

We like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we do not let them, and that no problem is so intractable that we cannot solve it. But events of the past few years have made us doubt our conviction. We are not secure even in our own little worlds. We really do not have our act together. We remain vulnerable as much to our own sinfulness and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries. All of us are starving for love and compassion. Yet the world is torn apart by hatred, anger, and rage. In spite of its thin veneer of order and discipline, the human condition remains as messy and chaotic as a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Thieves and bandits lie in wait at every bend, ready to snatch heart and soul.

Left to our own rhetorical devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians in this sleek post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. After all, as animal behaviorist Temple Grandin tells us in her recent bestseller, Animals in Translation, animals perceive the world far differently and much more chaotically than we do. Surely, we might be tempted to think, we have little in common with them. Yet Grandin also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together.” Like it or not, we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit.

Like the flocks they tended, the shepherds of Jesus’ day were often dirty and woolly, enduring sun and rain for days or weeks on end. But unlike their charges, they were vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying thirst. The shepherd knew his flock as no one else. And the sheep followed him “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor, his own presence stretched out and bridging our ovine insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Our hymns today will probably not include the “Whiffenpoof Song,” but the words are nevertheless worth remembering. “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa, baa, baa.” It is all too easy to lose direction, to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going. It is all too easy to go astray like lost sheep. And that is worth bleating about. For it is then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart: to hatred, anger, and violence.

This of course does not mean that we are notorious sinners. It is hard to imagine vicious sheep after all. It even sounds funny. But we are also familiar with the story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is wisdom in Aesop’s ancient fable of course. Appearances can be deceiving. Each of us is capable of sin and hurt. There are always creatures at war beneath our woolen pelts. Which shall we feed?

The bishop likes to conclude his story of the Indian elder with a kind of postscript. “Which one of the dogs will win?” asked the boy of his grandfather. “The one I feed will win,” replied the elder. But then he continued, “My child, feeding one dog or the other is only part of the answer. The Great Spirit feeds each of us. It is from the Great Spirit that we first learned to feed others at all.”

This Easter season we are all fed by the Great Spirit of love and forgiveness. We have come to the Paschal banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance and be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world is still a place of famine and danger. The human heart listens for the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed, we must now feed others in Christ’s name.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.comIsten hozott!

3 Easter (A) – 2005

April 10, 2005

Acts 2:14a,36-41Psalm 116:1-3, 10-171 Peter 1:17-23Luke 24:13-35

Doubt and disillusionment, discouragement and despair: These are emotions that are common to all of us at some point in our lives. Loss of a job, loss of a loved one, divorce, illness, even the loss of a pet, any of these things and more can throw us into a tailspin and fill our hearts with anxiety and fear. We think that things will never be right again. Especially in the middle of the night, things seem at their very worst. We forget that there ever was a thing called hope, and all that we have learned about God’s saving grace is nowhere to be found. If ever we knew how to call upon God, it is now only a distant memory from a better and happier time; and even when we need God the most, we turn our backs on God and walk away.

That is exactly the situation in which we find Cleopas and his friend in today’s gospel. Followers of Jesus, they had believed in the new life he had promised them. Their hearts were filled with joy and anticipation as they looked forward to hearing more of his word and to being witnesses again and again to his good works, to his miracles. Fed in body, mind, and spirit by their fellowship with Jesus and with other believers, their lives had become filled with a new joy, and even all that they had to give up to follow him was as nothing compared to what they now had. They thought it would go on forever.

But that was then. Now all their hopes and dreams were as dead as Jesus. The events of the past few days, ending with the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, had beaten every last shred of hope from them. They thought there was nothing left to do but get out of Jerusalem and go to another place, perhaps to pick up the pieces of their former lives and begin again; to turn their backs on all that had seemed so expectant and hopeful, and walk the seven miles on the road to Emmaus.

So they started out, the two of them, talking as they went, and going over and over the same ground – as if saying it one more time would change the outcome. Don’t we all do that? If we’ve lost something, don’t we keep revisiting the same spot, thinking that if we go there often enough, the lost item will miraculously appear? As they do this, Cleopas and his friend, a stranger meets them on the road. It is Jesus, but their hearts are so full of defeat and so devoid of faith that they do not recognize him. What’s more, when this stranger asks what they are talking about, they cannot believe that he doesn’t know all that has happened. Where has he been? And so they tell it all once more. They even tell him about the empty tomb, how some women had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was not dead but alive. But still, they said to the stranger, no one had seen him, so perhaps the women had just heard what they wanted to hear.

When they had finished their side of the story, the stranger chided them. “Weren’t you listening when he told you how all of this must come to pass? Don’t you know how, from the beginning of time, the prophets had foretold exactly what has just happened, that the Messiah must suffer before he enters his glory?” As he recites Scripture to them, going all the way back to the time of Moses, they are so taken in by his words that when they reach Emmaus, they don’t want to let him go; they want to hear more, and so they invite him to stay with them. He agrees, and as they sit down to supper, the strangest thing happens. A guest in someone else’s home, Jesus becomes the host. He picks up the bread, he blesses it, he breaks it, and he gives it to them. And in that simple but so meaningful act, something they had seen him do time and time again, their eyes are opened and they know with certainty, not only who he is, not only that this is indeed Jesus, but they also know that all he had said to them was true. It was just like Mary and the tomb. Jesus had only to speak her name, to call out to her in the same way he always did, with the same familiar voice and inflection, and she knew immediately who he was. For Cleopas and his friend, their doubt and despair were instantly forgotten. They were so renewed in faith, so excited and happy that their feet grew wings, and they ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell others the Good News.

If Jesus was disappointed in the disciples and all the others who deserted him at the end, who, in the midst of their despair and disillusionment, chose to take the road to Emmaus rather than stick it out by his side, we never hear about it. One of the most wonderful things to come out of the resurrection is that we learn this about Jesus: no matter how bad things become for us, no matter where we go to hide ourselves when the world gets to be too much for us, even if we lose our faith for a time, he will come to be with us. He won’t ask us for explanations, we won’t have to justify our position, and there will be no recriminations. He will simply meet us as we walk, each of us along our own road to Emmaus. It may be in a shopping mall where, out of frustration, we are buying something we don’t really need, or it may be in a car that is taking us away from those things we can no longer endure; or it may actually be on a road as we try to walk off the results of that recent medical test that took us completely by surprise. Whatever route we take when we just can’t take it any more, Jesus will meet us there. Even though it is us who are going away, he is always faithful.

In the words of the noted preacher Barbara Taylor Brown:

“He comes to the disappointed, the doubtful, the disconsolate. He comes to those who do not know their Bibles, who do not recognize Him even when they are walking beside Him. He comes to those who have given up and are headed back home, which makes this whole story about the blessedness of being broken.”

This should not surprise us. Jesus’ entire ministry was centered on those who needed him the most: the poor, the sick, the blind. Wherever he could find them, he shared not only his love, but whatever else he had, until finally he shared his broken body as well. The wonderful truth of this story is that God uses everybody to proclaim God’s kingdom, and not only when we are being good and faithful and true, but even in our moments of waywardness and faithlessness as well. Just as he made himself known to the two men walking along the road, and then used them to make his story and the news of his resurrection known to the world, so he comes and stands beside us in our moments of despair, calling our name, waiting for us to recognize him, to realize again the truth of his words, to be renewed in faith so that he can use us again. In countless ways, Jesus comes among us, never demanding, but patiently waiting for us to open our eyes and see him. It may happen as we stretch forth our hands in prayer, it may happen in the reading of Scripture or in listening to a friend; it may come as we walk along a road or, like Cleopas and his friend, it may be in the breaking of the bread. He is there. We have only to be willing to have our eyes opened in faith so that we can see the Risen Christ for ourselves, so we can feel his presence and his peace as they surround us.

The gift of Emmaus awaits you. Wherever you are on that road, pray that when the Risen Lord comes to you, your eyes may be opened so you can behold him in all his glory; and then, renewed in faith, run to tell others the Good News.

 

— The Rev. Judith Carrick is a deacon in the Diocese of Long Island, currently serving at St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church in Shoreham, N.Y.