Archives for 2005

Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2005

December 25, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around the, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

There is a clergy person who, like many others, makes a practice of visiting a nursing home in her community every week. In that nursing home there is a resident, a woman, whose mind is as sharp as anyone’s, but because of her illness, she can no longer walk or speak.  She communicates mostly by gestures, or by spelling words in her lap with her one good hand.  She and her clergy visitor have become good friends over the years they have known each other, and, as friends do, the clergy visitor occasionally runs little errands for her friend, small tasks that her friend can no longer do for herself.  A week or so ago she waved her visitor into her room with some sense of urgency.  There on her bed was a paper napkin with a picture drawn on it, and looking straight at her visitor, she pointed to that napkin over and over again.  It was obvious that this was something important.  Her clergy visitor looked closely, and there she saw her friend had sketched, as best she could, what appeared to be a flashlight.  “Is that a flashlight?” the visitor asked.  Her friend’s head nodded up and down, while she pointed first at the picture and then to herself.  The visitor laughed.  “You want a flashlight?”  The head nodded again.  “Whatever for?” the visitor asked.  But there was no deterring her.  In her own way she made it known that this was a matter of great concern and importance to her, and that was that.  So the clergy visitor agreed.

The next time the visitor went to the nursing home she made sure that she had the flashlight in hand.  She walked into her friend’s room, shining the light all over the walls.  A big smile crossed her friend’s face, and a look that could only be interpreted as relief.  “Please,” the visitor said, “tell me what this is all about.  Why do you need a flashlight?”  Her friend moved her wheelchair towards the door and indicated that her visitor was to follow.  Together they went down the hall to the nurse’s station, where one of the aides told the visitor that, a few weeks earlier, during a week of heavy rain and high winds, the power in the nursing home had gone out for a time.  Her friend had become frightened, and she wanted the assurance that if it happened again, she would have that small beam of light to shine in the darkness and ease her fears.

For all of us, there are always those times in our lives when fear and worry get the best of us.  To the rest of the world they may seem totally unfounded and even ridiculous, but to those who live in the midst of them, they can be very real and totally overwhelming.  Big or small, these fears can take over our lives so that they literally become who we are and what we do. There are many examples of these fears: fear of the unknown, fear of illness or loss of health, fear of waiting for the results of a medical test, fear of losing a job or fear of ever getting a new one.  There is also fear for our children and what the future will hold for them.  Every one of these powerful fears can send a stab through our hearts.

Blessedly for all of us, we have this glorious season of Christmas that comes again and again each and every year to remind us and to renew within us the realization of the wonderful gift to us from a loving God – a God who sent God’s only son into the world to take those very fears upon himself and replace them with the joyous Christmas message of light and love and hope.

In many of the Christmas stories that are read from Scripture during the weeks before Christmas, we hear of God’s messengers, the angels, delivering this very message.  Do not be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth would become the mother of John the Baptist, even in her old age, Gabriel’s first words to him were, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard”.  Not long after, Gabriel appeared again, this time to Mary, to announce that she would be the mother of Jesus.  And again his first words were, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”.  And an angel appeared to Joseph, too.  He was betrothed to Mary and it would have been understandable in those days if he had sent her away, but the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.  And finally, on Christmas Day, in glorious splendor and light, an angel appeared to the shepherds on a hillside while they were tending their sheep and said to them, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord”.

All of these people were just ordinary folk who, each in their own way, were asked to overcome their fears and, in faith and obedience to a loving God, do improbable and difficult things.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and I’m sure many of their friends and neighbors had much to say as Elizabeth became obviously pregnant in her old age.  Mary, on the other hand, was just a child of perhaps fourteen or fifteen.  She was unmarried and so a disgrace to her family and to Joseph, her betrothed.  Everyone would have understood if Joseph had put her away from him.  According to the times, he could have had her stoned, but he did not.  Because of the angel’s words, he stood by her and held his head, and Mary’s, high.  As for the shepherds, they were the lowliest of the low.  Always smelly and dirty from herding their sheep, they lived apart from the other townspeople and were shunned by them.  And yet they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, and they went quickly to see the babe in the manger.

All of these people were asked to do difficult things, things that were totally out of character for them, and things we can be sure they never would have chosen for themselves.  It is obvious that they were afraid.  But Scripture tells us, too, that they were faithful people.  Not only did they believe in God, but they trusted in God and in God’s love.  They knew deep down in their hearts that if God asked something of them, God would also provide the strength and the courage and everything they needed to get the job done.

Now Christmas is here again for each and every one of us.  The gifts of that first Christmas are as true today as they were on the first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago.  Out of God’s constant and abiding love, God waits to give them to you through God’s best gift of all, the gift of God’s own Son, come to earth as a tiny babe born in a manger in Bethlehem.  May God fill your heart with his love this Christmas, and may that love overcome your fears and set you free to accept the gifts God came to bring to each of you, gifts of light and hope and peace.

— The Rev. Judith Carrick, a vocational deacon serving in the Diocese of Long Island, is currently assigned to St. Anselm’s Church in Shoreham, New York.

Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2005

December 24, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

The birth of the Messiah in a lowly stable is current news. Just a year ago Newsweek devoted a December issue to the topic. It was quite good! It talked about how modern scholarship attempts to unravel what happened or didn’t some 2,000 years ago. It leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, and a feeling that the investigations into the historical background for the birth narratives of Jesus might just be a blind alley.

There has always been resistance to accepting the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the babe in the manger. In fact, resistance has a lot to do with how anyone comes to terms with the Nativity. But did you ever wonder how it is that God’s way of working in the world is designed to minimize resistance? Had the announcement of the birth of Jesus been broadcast widely, the Roman Empire would have done everything possible to suppress the event. In fact Herod typifies the resistance. Though a Jew, he is so threatened by what he hears from the wise men, who are only asking for information about finding Jesus, that he sets out to destroy every male two years of age or less, just to be sure no usurper comes along to challenge his reign—as if God were interested in doing that.

In the science fiction stories about the Starship Voyageur, the Borg are creatures depicted assimilating every life form with which they come in contact. “Resistance is futile,” is their mantra. But in one episode one of the starship crew becomes part of the Borg and discovers that by not resisting actual liberation from them is possible. This is precisely what God chose to do.

We are all resistant to change, new ideas, even new ways of keeping house! “My mother always did it that way; don’t change it!” “This new plan by management will never work!” “We’ve never done it that way before!” Somehow we think resistance will win out over change. Sometimes it does, but rarely. At best it can delay things, even in Congress!

That is because in spite of our natural inclination to resist there is also a drive to move ahead, to open new frontiers and see things in a new light. God seems to work this way. Our God is not a God of tradition and unchanging revelation. Our God does new things.

The Birth of the Messiah had been “in the works” for a long time. In fact, the whole of Scripture up to the New Testament can be read as God’s preparation for this event, the birth of Jesus. And there was resistance. The people led by Moses were unruly, complaining, and disobedient. They preferred Egypt’s slavery to wandering in the desert. Many of the ancient kings of Israel turned against the ways of the Lord. The 8th Century BCE prophets were repudiated, even the greats like Amos and Hosea.

But the plan prevailed, and now comes the birth event itself. Yes, on this Holy Night we are all but there, “standing on the tiptoe of expectation,” as one Gospel writer puts it. But that’s because we know the story. The actual birth of Jesus was a quiet, unheralded event except for a few motley shepherds, the Holy Family and some seers from the East.

And that’s the point. God chose a path to be born into humanity that would encounter little resistance because God wanted to join the resistance, not provoke it. The author, Rick Maurer, in his book entitled Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies that Build Support for Change, writes about the phenomenon of resistance and how one overcomes it by actually joining it. Well, God knew about this before Mr. Maurer did! God joined the resistance, if you will, by choosing to be born into it, lowly and quietly in a backwater region of the Roman Empire through the biological birth process of a young girl, probably 14 or so.

It is this method of God’s, taking the path of joining the resistance, that makes the Christmas story believable. If Luke had chosen to depict Jesus’ birth in terms of cosmic, earth-shaking conquests, if Luke had portrayed dominions and powers being toppled, it would never have worked. Few people approach the Messiah as conquering king. Most of us come to the crib, gaze into it and wonder, wonder if the light of the Christ Child is really strong enough to overcome the great resistance of the darkness.

And so far, it seems, that is exactly what happens. Slowly, deliberately, and with apparent failures and setbacks, the plan of salvation unfolds. It’s not a smoothly rising road, but a journey with rocks and deserts in the way for most of us. But this crib is the starting place, and it teaches us all something profound about God’s nature. God does not choose to use power to overwhelm us; rather God uses the most compelling possible strategy, being born as a human being, to lead us back to our loving creator. Nothing else would have or could have worked. The writers of the Gospel saw that, and used the birth narrative to illustrate this truth. True, they each wrote about it from different perspectives, but the account of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a charming story.

How do you measure resistance to God? America is still a church-going nation, but if you came from another planet and read newspapers or watched the six o’clock news you would never know it. The resistance is in full swing every day. Good news is hard to find. It always has been. It doesn’t make good copy.

Luke is not interested in any of this. As a writer, as a believer, he wants one thing to be clear: God came and was born among us, quietly but with every intention of joining the resistance and conquering it, one soul at a time. That is the miracle, the Good News prevailing. This is the night when we can shed our resistance anew, and find that simple things like a birth in a manger matter more than anything.

This is the night when heaven and earth are joined in a glorious way, with human beings at the center of the joint. This is the night when “the hopes and fears of all the years” are resolved by a stable and a star. This is the night when we can truly sleep in heavenly peace, because we know that God has entered our world to reclaim it forever.

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is staff officer for congregational development, rural and small church communities, at the Episcopal Church Center.

Trinity Sunday (A) – 2005

May 22, 2005

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

“Give me a simple religion,” we sometimes yearn. It’s an odd prayer. If someone calls us “simple” we are very offended. Certainly there can be nothing simple about God. It would be very odd indeed if complicated humans and a complicated God met together in a “simple faith.” In a few minutes we will say the Creed together. The Creed is a table of contents to the important teachings found in the Bible. The Creed is full of rather complicated notions. God is “Almighty,” the “maker of heaven and earth,” the maker of “all that is,” whether seen or unseen. Our first reading today drew us into the mystery of a God who creates and sustains and who made us in his own image. The truths we learn here are beyond simplicity, beyond the world of facts. They pierce into the mystery of a truth beyond our understanding.

“We believe in one God.” “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord.” Sunday-by-Sunday we gather together and profess the faith of the church. Together, as one family, we embrace for ourselves as individuals, a list of concepts that point to truths which no words may encompass. We read the signposts pointing us in the right direction to God and away from concepts that might harm us and make us less than we were intended to be.

Something deep within us affirms the words we recite. Each of us is an individual with our own unique features, fingerprints, mannerisms, talents, and “personality.” We’ve been gazing at this person in the mirror since we were tiny children. Our Western culture influences us to assert and demand our individuality. “It’s my life and I’ll do as I please with it,” we shout when we lose our tempers. We’ve been doing that ever since we threw our baby food at the wall.

Yet we also yearn to be loved and to be part of someone or a collection of “someones.” At school we wanted to be popular, to have friends, to be admired. Then comes love! How appropriate it seems to tell someone that we live for them; that they are the most important “other” in our lives. How tragic it is when we are judged to have used someone else to satisfy our own selfish desires; when we have dominated, abused, and rejected a love given to us in trust. In the Marriage Service, we are told: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy.” Notice the words “union” and “mutual.

Perhaps our need to say we are unique, special, autonomous beings and our need to be united with others is practical evidence that we are made in the image and likeness of God? If this is true, it is true because God made us this way and what God makes is good.

God the Father Almighty, our King Jesus, the Life-Giving Spirit—to use the language of the Creeds—are certainly individuals to an extraordinary degree. Each has a distinct role, by nature or personality, and as lovers of all that has been made, seen or unseen, including us all. Strangely, their personalities, their perfect personalities, create unity as they share together love. Love belongs to God, is created in God and is shared by God. We should be grateful for love, and greet it wherever it is found, as God’s gift and not as something we manufacture. Love humbles us. For God’s love may be found well beyond the “individualism” of our personality, family, race, religion, language, politics, causes, or culture. Truth and justice, as God’s features, always draw us together and never divide us into individualism: “It’s my life and I’ll do as I please.” While love impels us to strive for truth and justice it does so in a manner that reflects the long-suffering, loving, forgiving kindness of the God whose loving diversity creates oneness and wholeness.

“Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.”

So St. Paul speaks to each of us on this Trinity Sunday. Finding order and agreement is not a political process after all, but what happens when we open ourselves collectively and individually to the God of love and peace. This we symbolize when we share the “Peace” with one another. In the Gospel reading, Jesus commissions us to go into the world telling everyone what it means to discover oneself as a person, an individual, and how our personality and individualism is celebrated most forcefully when we live in unity with each other as people possessed by the God who is unity in community and community in unity.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

 

— The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier was, until recently, the dean of the Institute of Christian Studies for the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. He is now interim rector of Christ Church in the Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand (France), a church in the Convocation. 

7 Easter (A) – 2005

You will be my witness

May 8, 2005

Acts 1:6-14Psalm 68:1-10, 33-361 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11John 17:1-11

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Joseph Fitzmyer says that this is the “programmatic verse” of Acts; it sets the scope of the spread of the Word of God, the goal that the commissioned apostles are to attain as they bring that Word from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth.”

And, in fact, this verse might also be said to set the program for the Christian life; we who are followers of the Risen Christ are also called to be his witnesses wherever we go.

What’s that? You say that this commission was just for the apostles? If that is so, the witnessing would have come to an end centuries ago. Do you think that Peter and John and James ever heard of the town or city we have gathered in today? Oh, but then perhaps it’s the job of the bishops, the successors of the apostles to be witnesses? Or perhaps the role of witness is meant for all of the ordained clergy?

Think again, my friends! The commission is for all us. “You will be my witnesses.” The commission is for all us who are called to take part in the royal priesthood of all believers. Just as Jesus said, “Follow me,” he also said, “Be my witnesses.” So we had better be about doing just that!

And what is a “witness,” anyway? Webster’s definition says: “One who has seen or heard something and who can give evidence for its occurrence.” And also: “One who signs his name to a document for the purpose of attesting to its authenticity.” It would seem that the testimony we must give does not call for mere hearsay. But then, how are we, living in the 21st century, in a place that the apostles never even heard of, to be witnesses to something that happened 2,000 years ago, in a place most of us have never seen? Sure, we’ve read the Bible; we know the story, but does that make us witnesses? Can we, as Webster says, give evidence of the occurrence of these things? We weren’t even there!

Let’s look more closely at what Jesus said. It’s true that the apostles had been witnesses of all that Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry, but what Jesus says in today’s reading is, “you will be my witnesses.” Our testimony is about him, not just about what happened long ago and far away. We are to give evidence about what we ourselves have heard, seen, experienced. We can’t be witnesses unless we have met the Risen Christ — unless our lives have been transformed by him. If we could in good conscience go before a notary and sign a paper attesting of the presence of God in our lives and in the world, then, and only then, can we be his witnesses.

This is something that we, as Christians, probably do a lot more often than we know. St. Francis of Assisi said it well: “Proclaim the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” How many persons in your own life have been witnesses, silent or otherwise, to you? We might recall our parents and other role models in our lives who have inspired and encouraged us, both by their words and by their examples, in our lives in Christ. We are called to do the same, and this call is not issued just to teach us individually, but also to us as members of the Body of Christ — and more specifically, to us as members of this congregation. We should be seriously considering how we are called, in this place and at this time, to be his witnesses.

Probably we don’t think of ourselves in that way. Nevertheless, if the Lord Jesus calls us to be witnesses, we’d better not think of this as something optional. But what we do? How can we get started? It would appear from today’s reading that two things are necessary.

First of all, of course, we can do nothing through our own power. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus said. As we await the glorious feast of Pentecost next Sunday, let us pray earnestly for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all of us, both corporately and individually. It is only when we are clothed with power from above that we can do the work he calls us to do.

The second thing that we must do is reflected toward the end of the reading from Acts: “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” The communal prayer and harmony reflected in the stories from the Acts of the Apostles should serve as a model for our own church community. Any disunity in the Body of Christ will always be an obstacle to the effectiveness of the witness we bear. As the Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died that we might all be one, so we must pray and act as one.

In the Baptismal Covenant, which we will renew next Sunday, we are asked, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” We must be wholehearted in this commitment, in order to be his witnesses.

Let us pray: May the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself; may the power of the Lord Jesus strengthen us is his service; may the joy of the Lord Jesus fill our souls, and may we be his witnesses wherever we may be. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Barbara Beam serves the congregations of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church, Noel, and St. John’s Episcopal Church, Neosho, both in the diocese of West Missouri.

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.