Archives for February 2006

Now is the time for us follow their lead, Last Sunday After the Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (B) – 2006

February 26, 2006

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

This last Sunday of Epiphany completes a cycle of readings in which we experience God’s engagement in the world in many forms. From the arrival of the magi to the call of Samuel, from the call of the disciples to the teachings in the synagogue, from the healing of the widow’s son to the raising of Peter’s mother-in-law, God is manifest in the here and now, calling God’s people to ever new participation in the world and with one another. Reading scripture texts in church on Sunday, it may seem as if God’s presence were self-evident, the answer to the call a simple yes. Yet reading closely, even with those faithful witnesses of long ago, we become aware of their struggle, of their indecision or miscalculation, of the transition time it takes to say yes to the call to move into God’s future – even when we expect we know the outcome.

Parents who have ever attended birthing classes know this only too well. They learn the stages of the birthing process. First, the birthing coach learns to assist the mother in dealing with what may be hours of labor, breathing in and blowing out in rhythm to ease the pain. There is the end stage of pushing when the new life emerges from the womb, often with a great sense of power and wonder. In between there is a middle stage in this process called Transition. And you can’t get from labor to birth without it. There are certainly medical and technical ways to describe this stage, but basically it is exactly what it says – transition – that brief time when the baby is still firmly within the womb, yet unmistakably ready to come out. Women who describe this stage – for which there is little coaching to be done – say this is the most difficult time of birth. Midwives often report jokingly that “transition” is the moment when women decide they really didn’t want to have a baby after all and would prefer to return to the way things were. There is the strong physical and mental desire to keep the baby safely in the place where it has been for nine months, yet the equally irresistible urge to push the baby out. Transition in the birth process is that scary time when two equally powerful forces meet: the desire to keep things as they are and the pull toward new birth that changes everything.

We don’t usually think of today’s scripture texts as part of a birth process. But that is indeed what they are: transitional moments for a faith journey calling God’s people into new being.

In the Old Testament story of Elijah and Elisha we hear the anguish of the prophets as the mantle of leadership is passed. We see the faithfulness of Elisha who would like to believe that his master is not leaving. Knowing that the journey from Bethel to the Jordan will eventually end in Elijah’s death, Elisha refuses to part from him – despite the warnings of the prophets. Elijah tries to leave his disciple behind, but Elisha insists on traveling faithfully from Bethel to Gilgal to Jericho and the Jordan River. He does not agree to take on leadership until Elijah promises the possibility of a double share of the spirit of God. And only when Elisha watches Elijah taken into the heaven does he picks up the mantle left by Elijah, assured that the spirit of God is his own as well. During that long journey both Elijah and Elisha were “in transition.” Even with God in charge and the sure knowledge of what was to come before them, the journey was neither easy nor self-evident. The desire for the old to remain, the hesitation of taking on the new role was not without question or angst. Yet the presence of God in the parting of the waters as Elisha watched Elijah’s departure gave the assurance of God’s blessing. It was time for the new to be born, for Elisha to take on prophetic leadership – even in fear and trembling.

The text from Mark’s gospel offers us yet another story of reluctant transition. Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus experience a vision of Moses and Elijah. Immediately they want to hold onto this vision of Jesus and the prophets by building booths, a dwelling a place to remain on the mountain. Perhaps they yearned to keep hold of a way of life they knew well, ensuring the presence of Moses and Elijah along with Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to cling to a familiar way of being faithful. When suddenly the vision changes and Jesus is transfigured alone on the mountain, it is clear that some new thing is breaking into the horizon. The disciples are called to listen and see Jesus not only in the line of the prophets but also as the beloved son of God acting in the world in a new way.

In both these texts, the powerful voices of old are not denied or negated but passed on to new leaders, new work, and most especially to new ways of being in relationship with God. Elisha, even with a double dose of Elijah’s spirit, grieves the absence of his mentor and rends his garments. The disciples on the mountain with Jesus are terrified. Yet in both cases, they move on to say yes to God’s call to leadership among the people of God.

Today, we too are called to say yes to God’s call of leadership. Our church today may well be in a moment of transition. We might just as soon keep things as they are or have been, yet we know just as well that we are called to new places of faithfulness and to examine God’s call anew.

Designated as World Mission Sunday, today we are challenged to explore, engage, and discern God’s mission in our own churches and communities with regard to the reconciling mission of God in the world.

This year, you are invited to examine the role of leadership that Anglican women are playing in a world that increasingly needs all voices at the table in seeking to claim God’s promise of abundant life for all. Is it possible that God is calling women in our time to play a particular role of leadership using their particular skills? We live in a time of grave danger and war in our world and of controversy within the church. Is it possible that women, whether by nature or nurture, have the skills necessary to recall the family of God to the table of conversation and reconciliation? Is it possible that women whose work has often been to keep families at the table, have the gifts needed to engage those who disagree in a new dialogue that seeks a common faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ? Is it possible that women and men together might take the renewed mantle of God’s prophetic witness to move forward in the healing of a broken world?

The World Mission Sunday poster highlights Anglican women whose work as delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is responsive, relevant, and radical in their commitment to put their Gospel faith into action. Now is the time for us follow their lead; to move from transition’s desire to keep things the same and answer the irresistible call to say yes to what is coming to birth. What might it mean for each of us to respond not just to our own needs or those of our family, community or church, but to those around the world? What does it mean for our church to deepen its relevance to the needs of that whole world? And indeed, how might we bring the radical witness of the prophets and Jesus with us as we move into a church whose members build on the foundation of a strong past and move with passion into the future?

Anglican women from around the world invite all of us to join in this work, assured that God’s coming among us will continue to be made manifest in this season and well beyond. May we be given a double share of God’s spirit and the courage to take on the mantle as it is passed. AMEN

— The Rev. Margaret Rose is the executive for Women’s Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center. She lives with her family in New York City.

God’s embrace, 7 Epiphany (B) – 2006

February 19, 2006

Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12 

As we have worked our way through the beginning of Mark’s gospel this Epiphany season, we have seen the explosive growth in Jesus’ ministry. In today’s gospel his popularity has hit such a peak that the people can no longer gather close enough around him even to hear what he has to say. The word is out – in spite of Jesus’ wanting everyone to keep it a secret – and crowds are coming to see him, gathering around, demanding his attention. People are coming from all over: sick people, possessed people, and just plain curious people, and all of them want just a little piece of Jesus’ time and effort. They could overwhelm him with their many requests and demands.

Do any of you know what this is like? Those of you who are mothers are most likely familiar with this kind of problem. Many of us are familiar with the countless demands of a job, or the unreasonable expectations of a boss. And most of us know what it is like to have too much of a good thing: too many people making demands, too much attention, too many things to do.

And for Jesus, the problem is not simply that there’s too much going on. The crowd that is such a positive sign of his popularity keeps the people who really need him at bay. They limit his effectiveness by keeping many people away.

Clearly, some followers are just plain too creative to be thwarted by this. In today’s gospel, the four people carrying the paralyzed man do not give up when they realize they can’t get near him; they do not declare their task impossible, they do not go home in despair. No, they are so determined to help their friend get to Jesus that they take the roof off the house where Jesus is — and they don’t just remove a few shingles, they dig through what must have been some combination of adobe brick, wood, thatch, and maybe even stone.

It’s a powerful image, isn’t it? We can almost imagine the conversation of these four faithful friends:

“Just look at the crowds!”
“We’ll never get near him.”
“We might as well give up.”
“But we came all this way.”
“We’re tired; what can we do at this point?”

We can imagine them trying to get through the crowd, “Excuse me, but this man is ill and needs to see Jesus.”

And we can just about hear them say, “Forget it. We’ll never get through. We might as well give up.”

And in that moment of despair, the very darkest time in their journey of hope – just at the instant they are about to abandon everything, declare defeat, and return home – in that moment, one of them must have thought, “Hey, what if we were to go around behind the house, hoist our friend up over our heads, and dig through the roof?”

I figure at this point, the other three responded with a combination of outraged skepticism and uncontrolled laughter. “Oh, right! The four of us are going to carry a paralyzed man to the top of that house, then dig through roof. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

And the paralyzed man himself, what do you imagine he said at this point? Would he not be terrified at the risk of being lifted up and lowered through a hole in the roof, let alone concerned about the sacrifice his friends were making on his behalf?

And somewhere in the midst of this confusion and chaos – with tempers short and bodies exhausted, having already put a lot of energy into this effort, and having every attempt met with failure – somewhere in midst of all this comes a moment of grace. “Why don’t we just try it? What have we got to lose?”

And lo and behold, they not only succeed in getting their paralyzed friend to Jesus, but in having him healed: seeing him stand, and take up his mat, and walk. Seeing the impossible happen, a miraculous cure, the power of God working before their very eyes.

Now, the point here is twofold. First, it is about tenacity; about not giving up till you see Jesus. How many of us would turn away in frustration just seeing that crowd? I suspect many, if not most, of us would do just that. How many people do you know who say something like, “I tried going to church, but it didn’t change my life, so I stopped” or “We used to go to church, but they were such hypocrites. Nothing happened”? How many times have we tried something once, and then given up when we didn’t see immediate results?

These five souls – one paralytic and four friends – just kept at it until they achieved their goal. They may well have stopped and re-examined their situation, even, as I suggested, argued about their predicament. But they continued on in spite of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles.

And the second point is about creativity. Notice that they did not continue on with their original plan when circumstances prevented it. They had to develop a revised plan to account for those changing circumstances. They did not insist on their own original idea in spite of all odds. No, they carefully considered the situation and came up with a creative solution. Someone in that group must have said, “This isn’t working. Let’s try something else.”

Tenacity and creativity: two spiritual attributes that we all posses in some portion. These are values that can help us mature into the full stature of Christ and important attributes to consider as we approach the coming season of Lent. We’ve all heard the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Today’s gospel tells us to do that, yes, but perhaps it also suggests that “If at first you don’t succeed, try something different, try something else.”

And notice, finally, that they used their energy not for their own personal gain, but in service of another. They did not use their gifts of tenacity and creativity to increase their real-estate holdings or their investment portfolio, but to strive for someone else’s healing.

And at the end of that effort, after all that arguing, heavy lifting, and brainstorming – a result of our tenacious striving and our creative energy in serving others – what awaits all of us is what the paralytic in today’s gospel received: Jesus’ touch of healing, his proclamation that our sins are forgiven, and his bidding for each of us to stand up and take our own proverbial mat and walk.

Those four friends of the paralytic knew that the healing touch of Jesus was their friend’s destiny. They weren’t quite sure how or when, but they knew in their hearts that this paralyzed man was entitled to health and salvation. They knew that God’s loving embrace was not reserved just for those who managed to make it closest to Jesus. And they knew it was their responsibility to see that their friend got the healing he needed.

Their faithful tenacity would not allow them to give up in the face of some pretty serious adversity. And their hopeful creativity allowed them to see a way forward when others might have turned back. The paralyzed man received the help of God’s power: his sickness turned into health, and his sorrow into joy. This person was a burden to his friends, unable to help even himself. His body was transformed into the temple of God’s presence, his weakness vanquished by the risen Christ, his soul restored to the soundness and serenity that God had always intended for him – and for everyone.

May we not be turned back as we strive for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. May we seek new strategies and ideas for reaching the goal, through service to others. And may we all, through God’s grace and mercy, come to know the healing of God’s embrace.

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates is curate at the Church of the Ascension, New York City, and a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at Drew University. He is the author of numerous articles in scholarly journals, including “The Problem of Clergy Misconduct: Preaching Liberation from Bondage to Sin in an Age of Moral Freedom,” Journal for Preachers (26:1, Advent 2002). 

I am here in Jesus’ name, 6 Epiphany (B) – 2006

February 12, 2006

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, I Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45 

Conflict comes in the religious community as well as in the secular world! We have all heard of the inevitable collision between two ships on the sea traveling the same course toward each other. There is no time to change direction.

So it is in our gospel lesson for today. Jesus’ action in showing compassion to an “outsider” and healing the leper puts him in great conflict with the ruling priests of the temple and the commandments of Moses. His authority threatens the legitimacy of the scribes, and his concern for human need tears at the traditions of the established church.

As with most conflicts, it happens very innocently. Jesus takes compassion on a leper and does what would have been a no-no in his time: he touches the diseased man. Many of the scribes were already unhappy with “this preacher” who seemed to be challenging the roots of their orthodox faith. This act of inappropriate behavior seemed to be the last straw. Leprosy was probably the most hopeless disease in those early days of Jesus. Not much different than the stigma AIDS has in our society today. Lepers were so grotesque, respectable society labeled them contagious and sent them into exile. It was even customary for a leper entering a community to cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” where he walked. Lepers were condemned to die in isolation.

Yet what did Jesus do when the leper spoke to him and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean”? This is the ultimate test of the personal relationship Jesus has with those in need. He will, through his ministry, meet the full range of physical needs: blindness, blood disorders, epilepsy, palsy, paralysis, and even insanity. Jesus does the same today, when we, in our own struggles of pain and disease cry out in hope that we will be healed. We may not have leprosy, but in our mind and in our circumstances, we say through our faith process, “If you choose you can make me whole.”

Christians are a people of faith and hope and compassion. Jesus is the healer on his terms and in his good time. We may not understand the answers we get to our cry for help, but we can never doubt that, as a believer, Jesus is working in our life and through the gifts of others to touch us at whatever point of need will be best for us.

As with the leper, Jesus responds with the deepest of human feelings. As with us, he knows the full range of human emotion. He knows our joy, he feels our anger, he senses our disappointments, he experiences our laughter. He is with us in our impatience and endures our surprises; he celebrates our exhilaration and is saddened by our times of depression. Of all these feelings, compassion stands out as the deepest of all emotions and is the truest expression of the heart of Jesus. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is a rather large Christian congregation called “The Guts Church.” It gets its fair share of “jokes” because of its name. A friend told me that “guts,” in our modern vernacular, would translate into what the Greeks would have called compassion in the days of Jesus. Indeed this congregation is committed to serve the most needy, moist disenfranchised in the community with compassion.

When Jesus is moved with compassion, He feels so deeply the suffering of the leper that it is just as if He himself is suffering as a leper. Jesus was not moved with pity, sympathy, or empathy. Each are too superficial or condescending. Jesus saw the need of this individual – just as he sees the need of so many more – with a hand-on-hand, heart-for-heart, gut-for-gut reaction. He feels His way into the leper’s needs. Jesus goes beyond compassion: he reached out and touched the leper. He violated every medical warning and social taboo. By touching the leper Jesus lets the leper know that He will take his place not just as a man with a contagious disease but as one who is socially contaminated as well. When we read this story we can not help but feel how little we know of true compassion!

One of the great stories of compassion that has the mark of Jesus all over it involves an elderly crippled lady who lived in Missouri during World War II. She spent most days lying on a day bed, knitting socks and other garments for her church’s thrift shop. Her husband was a small-town newspaper publisher, and he came home one day and told her that the son of a friend of theirs had been killed on the battlefields of Europe. She asked him, “What can I do for his mother? I pray for the soldiers, but I want to do more.” His response was, “Lou, you have a compassionate spirit. Write his mother a note and let her know how much you love her and that her son is in the arms of Jesus.” She did just that. For the next three years she wrote more than 300 notes to mothers who had sons killed in the war. She showed her compassion by touching the lives of hurting people. She was a servant of the grace of Jesus.

We can do no less. We can be the hands that touch a wounded soul. We can express the words that soothe a wounded spirit. We can be the arms that hold and hug a person who may be dying. We can be the friend who sits and listens and loves another because we see a special child of God in need.

We all have choices to make. Jesus had a choice to make. He could conform to the status quo of the temple or risk limiting his ministry by provoking the opposition. Later in Mark’s gospel it is said of Jesus, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” What a cost for compassion! Jesus has to give up his ministry in the city temple for the sake of a single soul. It became necessary for people to come looking for Jesus in out-of-the-way places like deserts, tiny villages, and along the seashores. Yet they came in thousands to hear his message and to find healing of body, mind, and spirit.

The leper, although instructed by Jesus to tell no one, went out and proclaimed his healing freely to the world. This action escalated the conflict in Jesus’ life. The more he served his Father, the more he came in conflict with the authorities of the church and of all authority around him.

This conflict led Jesus to the cross where he showed compassion to those who drove nails into his feet. “They know not what they do,” he said of the soldiers. To the thief hanging at his side, Jesus said, “You shall be with me in paradise.”

When have we reached out in prayer, in a touch, in a word, in a still, small voice, and said to someone who is at the bottom of life, “I am here in Jesus’ name. How may I help you?” It is then we feel the grace of God and share the love of Jesus.

 

— Harry Denman is a layman currently residing with his wife in an independent retirement center in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He is a communicant of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church and a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. He writes meditations and sermons on his blog, LaymanAtWork.

We will at last be made whole, 5 Epiphany (B) – 2006

February 5, 2006

(RCL) Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39 

“The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Most of us are familiar with Lourdes, the Roman Catholic shrine in southern France at which the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a saintly young woman named Bernadette a century and a half ago. Pilgrims today continue to throng the shrine, hoping to be cured of their ailments. Over the decades, thousands have left behind their crutches and braces as silent witnesses to the Lord’s power to make them well. This sort of thing is of course nothing new. From Compostela to Walsingham to holy sites in our own land, pilgrims throughout the ages have made their way to sacred temples, grottoes, and hillsides in hopes of finding healing and strength.

Some dismiss such journeys of faith as piety gone astray, as especially inappropriate in an age of therapeutic advances such as our own. The time and money would be better spent visiting medical experts, some might say. Yet many others have come to the realization that healing is an essential element of the Gospel message. Christians of all denominations have long treasured the scenes of healing found throughout both Hebrew and Christian Scripture. Surely, the Lord will not disappoint those who today come seeking his power and favor in their own lives.

The ministry of Jesus began with healing. Consider the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. No sooner had Jesus called his disciples to his side than he cured a man with an unclean spirit. Then, leaving the synagogue, he entered the house of Simon and Andrew only to find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Our Lord took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her, and she got back about her life.

For those whose lives he touched – whether they were close to him and his disciples like Peter’s mother-in-law or whether they were perfect strangers gathered on the street outside the door – healing meant a second chance and hope where there had been no reason for hope. In an instant, healing brought freedom from physical debility as well as inner change and transformation. No wonder “the whole city was gathered” at Jesus’ door. The scene was probably not that much different from contemporary Lourdes at pilgrimage time. People know what works.

But healing was never an end unto itself in the ministry of Jesus. In his very first words, as recorded by Mark, Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Healing heralded the coming of a kingdom that transcended this world of pain and death. And most importantly, this kingdom was within anyone’s grasp, not in some far off place. It offered lasting spiritual integrity in a world of human weakness and sin.

We are all still in need of healing, even at the peak of our physical vitality. After all, there are a lot of very healthy-looking specimens among us who seem to be anything but hale and hearty on the inside. You only need to turn on the television or open a popular magazine to find the latest fountain of youth or miracle cure touted and sold like kitchen knives at a carnival. But makeovers and the latest fad diets cannot assure us of happiness and fulfillment. Real transformation, as understood in the Gospel, will never be a passing fancy. For paradoxically, the gospel makes us acutely aware of our own ultimate frailty and death. Even those cured by Jesus became sick again at some point and eventually died.

This is the “epiphany” in today’s lesson. In the moment of healing we come to experience God at work within our lives, but only if we recognize our utter dependence on God and the kingdom. We have no power to make ourselves well. Jesus’ message would not have resonated with the people of his day, much less our own, had he not first led them to embrace their own vulnerability and need for God’s love. For Jesus, healing was not so much about breaking the laws of science – of which he as man could know nothing – as it was about the power of God to change lives and make all things new.

In our own English language the words “healing,” “health,” “wholeness,” “wellness,” and “holiness” all share the same etymological root, meaning “full” or “complete.” At whatever stage of life we may be – whether child, adolescent, middle-aged, or elder – we recognize implicitly our own deficiencies and lack of completeness. We experience our need for something or someone beyond ourselves. We need the Lord’s strength not only to make us well, but to make us whole.

Jesus “cast out many demons.” For some today, the quest for inner harmony and wholeness is undermined by the contemporary demons of addiction and other behaviors that lead to ruin and self-defeat, sometimes even to death itself. But for those in pursuit of the kingdom, wholeness comes only in oneness with God. And healing, however or wherever experienced, makes that oneness possible. Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and raised her up from her sickbed, and she was made well. Seldom was Jesus’ healing such an intimate and personal act. She came to realize, as no one else, the meaning of the kingdom and oneness with the Lord. But that closeness and oneness is ours to have as well.

How can you know when you have been healed? Seems like an odd question. For many, the answer is obvious: when the pain is gone, the fever has come down, and the disease is no more. But the gospel gives a better answer. “The fever left her,” we are told of Peter’s mother-in-law, “and she began to serve them.” As she was healed, she immediately began to serve others. When we are ready to help others in their need and focus once again outside ourselves we will know that we too have been cured. We will no longer be slaves to our hurts and resentments. We will at last be made whole. And we shall live.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, El Cajon, California.