Archives for March 2006

Being a Christian is no easy calling, 4 Lent (B) – 2006

March 26, 2006

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Taste is a very odd thing. Goodness knows where it comes from. It can be something handed down in a family, not without rebellion. It can be cultural or societal. Then we have the issue of whether something is in good taste or not. Episcopalians are sometimes accused of being more interested in taste than in truth. Even our sins are tasteful!

The gospel today contains a passage greatly beloved by almost all Christians. As the Revised English Bible reads: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Interpretation – may we term it “taste”? – has a great deal to do with how we approach this verse. To some it is a proclamation of exclusion. It might be read as “God so loved the world that he sent his Son in order that those who don’t have faith in him won’t have eternal life, but will perish.” Such an interpretation ignores the verses that precede and follow this popular saying. St. John talks about Jesus being lifted up so that all may see him and have faith in him. He says that Jesus didn’t come to judge but that through him the world may be saved.

It is so easy for us to make Jesus a prisoner of the church or of particular formulae of belief. We want this text to say that people who have difficulty with faith, people who are “not Christians,” people of other religions, because they cannot recite the Creeds are going to hell in a hand basket. Yet these passages talk about Jesus being lifted up that all may see, and that Jesus has come not to condemn the world, but to save it. Face it, we have a taste for judgment!

Despite the fact that Jesus told us that the eternal destiny of other people is none of our business, we want to judge, we want to condemn, and we want to assert that we are “saved” and others are not.

This is quite the wrong way to look at our calling. The church, we are told by St. Paul is the New Israel. St. Peter tells us that we are a nation of priests. Our catechism tells us that we have been called in baptism into a covenant relationship with God. All these are Old Testament metaphors. Israel was called to be the chosen people, chosen not to be the only people God loves, but to be the example of what it looks like to be loved by God. Old Testament priests were called to mediate between God and humanity, and humanity and God. The covenant we have with God is that we are to be His people, to the world and for the world.

As Jesus did not come to condemn or judge the world, but to save it, so the church is faithful when it demonstrates that it is the loved community, called to mediate that love to all, of whatever race, or color, or creed.

Part of our Lenten discipline might well be to examine just how we are doing in these areas. How do we as a congregation, and as individuals, “look” to the watching world? Do we look as if we are the beloved community? Do we look loving? How does the world around us see us? Are we accessible? Is there something compelling about us that draws people to the lifted-up Jesus?

Does our world, our community, our “village” see in us and our congregation the Jesus who does not judge or condemn, but the Jesus who yearns to make all whole, or “saved,” whoever they may be?

Being a Christian is no easy calling. It carries with it enormous responsibilities. Yet, as the collect for today reminds us, Jesus the true and living Bread fills us with his presence and empowers us to be for him the chosen people in whom God’s love for the whole of creation is daily made evident.

— Fr. Tony Clavier is Interim Rector of St. Thomas a Becket Church, Morgantown, in the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia.

Covenant relationship, 3 Lent (B) – 2006

March 19, 2006

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19:7-14; Romans 7:13-25; John 2:13-22

The giving of the Ten Commandments is read every Lenten season. In some churches the Commandments are read as a preparation for the Confession of Sin during penitential seasons. Recently they have been in the news, as legal battles have been fought over whether they can be displayed in public courthouses without violating the Constitutional separation of Church and State.

The Commandments need to be seen in a larger context, as part of God’s covenant with God’s people. The passage in Exodus that we read today is the conclusion of God inviting Moses up to the mountain and then agreeing to address the people of the Exodus directly, albeit cloaked in thunder, fire, and smoke.

Even amidst the noise and fear of God’s speaking, the reader is struck by how passionately God cares for the people and how much God’s desire to have a relationship with them shapes the giving of the Commandments. These aren’t just the house rules of a stern parent, they are the terms of relationship for God’s people who are loved and cared for by their creator. It’s almost as though God is saying, “Look, I know what will make you miserable, and here are ten things to avoid that will keep you from misery.”

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, a whole system had been put in place to uphold the Law and help people who break it find a way back to a right relationship with God. The faithful loved God’s law, recited it and its application night and day. In addition, a sacrificial system had been developed so people can offer the proper sacrifice at the Temple and have their relationship with God restored.

Part of that sacrifice involved purchasing ritually clean animals. Since Roman currency was considered idolatrous because it was stamped with the image of Caesar, one had to exchange Roman currency for Temple money to purchase the sacrificial offerings. Anybody who has traveled and changed currency knows the moneychangers always get a fee, and that was exacted on the Temple steps.

Jesus saw this practice for what it was: an unnecessary barrier between God and the children of God. He saw the poor having to borrow money in order to purchase the animals of sacrifice. He heard the arguing and fretting over whether the moneychangers were charging a fair exchange. And he’d had enough. He singled out a table or two, and drove out the dove sellers and the money changers. Two interesting points: One, Jesus didn’t get arrested for doing this; and two, in John’s account this event took place at the beginning of his public ministry, where the other gospels place it at the end.

Regardless of placement in the gospels, the results are the same: controversy. Commentators remark that Jesus wanted to eliminate the system that kept God and the people of God apart, while enriching the pockets of some at the expense of the poor. The new temple will be, in fact, Jesus himself, the crucified and risen Lord, who will replace the building and its sacrificial system. People will no longer need to rehearse sacrificial piety in order to be in a righteous relationship with God. Jesus, the new temple, will make that possible forever.

So, the link between the giving of the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ passionate love for the people of God is a covenant relationship, one in which God desires to show us love and makes it possible for us to be in a loving relationship with our creator. The giving of the Commandments and the cleansing of the temple are both acts of love that remove barriers we create between God and ourselves.

Today as we worship in places that are deeply special to us, we might reflect on the barriers we have created that could separate people from God in worship. Is our church welcoming? Barrier free? Do we offer hospitality to guests and strangers? When we pass the offering plate, do we announce that guests are not expected to give because they are our guests today? Do we take strangers to the coffee hour and make sure they are introduced? In what ways might we better become a place where anyone seeking God might feel they are welcome, safe, and free to enter?

Finally, in our relationships with others, do we try to remove barriers that keep us and them from the love of God? Do we by our witness and speech imply that somehow we have achieved a place that might not be open to them? Where are the money changing tables in our worship, mission, and personal evangelism? And if we can’t see them, let us ask Jesus to show them to us and help remove them, so that all that we do might create a place for anyone seeking to renew their relationship with God.

— The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is currently serving as Diocesan Chaplain to staff, clergy, and caregivers in the Diocese of Louisiana. Until December of 2005 he served as a Congregational Development staff member at the Episcopal Church Center.

What he’s talking about is discipleship, 2 Lent (B) – 2006

March 12, 2006

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

In Yann Martel’s wonderful novel Life of Pi, 12-year-old Pi decides to explore a number of different religions in his native India. He has a rather remarkable reflection on a conversation he had with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin, about the crucifixion. Pi thinks to himself:

“That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers …. . But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified – and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions – that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar (His Son) die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”

Pi sounds a little bit like Peter here. We might wonder what Jesus would have said to Pi if Pi had been having this conversation with Jesus in today’s Gospel instead of with Father Martin. We might wonder if Jesus would have responded the same way to Pi as he did to Peter, because actually neither Pi nor Peter can quite believe that suffering, rejection, and death could possibly be a part of Jesus’ life story. Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter actually said – only that Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” But Jesus’ response is startling. “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s a little rough, don’t you think?  We might actually feel for Peter. It can’t have been easy to hear your leader say he was going to suffer and die. “Surely not!” Peter might say. “What kind of god would suffer and die for humans?” we hear Pi say. Love was Father Martin’s answer.

What Peter’s response was after Jesus rebuked him, Mark doesn’t tell us. But we do know that Peter had already acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah in the beginning of this very same chapter. Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the absolutely correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Now, just a few verses later, Jesus tells his followers again, and more openly, that he will suffer and die, but for the first time he explains why.

Here Jesus uses the image of the cross. Of course, the people in Jesus’ time would understand the reference to the “cross” that was used by the Romans for executions. We often refer to the “cross” as something we personally carry in life – sickness, for instance, or a difficulty of some kind, or a personal problem. While these understandings are valid enough, this isn’t what Jesus is talking about here.

What he’s talking about is discipleship. Jesus lays out the cost of discipleship here. This “cross” Jesus talks about is what sets apart those who want to be his followers from that part of the world that focuses only on vainglory, selfishness, oppression, and greed.

Jesus reminds us that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” If we’re serious, really serious about being Jesus’ disciples, then we will lose our lives. Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying here that those who want to save their life might lose it, might have to give up something rather–crucial. He’s saying lose it! He’s saying that if we’re serious, life will be different. We won’t fit into the world in the same way.

But isn’t that odd? We look around and see people we consider to be very good people, very godly people, looking very normal. They work and play and pray and move about in society quite normally. They seem to fit. For the most part, we do the same. We work and play and pray and move about in society quite normally. We seem to fit. There certainly are still those who physically lose, or are in danger of losing, their lives for the sake of the gospel: people like Oscar Romero, missionaries in the Middle East, people who work with the poor in Latin America or Africa or even the United States. Many of us, however, can’t imagine that ever happening to us. Are we in danger of having the son of man be ashamed of us when he comes in the glory of his Father with the Holy Spirit? Does Jesus have nothing to say to us in this part of Mark’s Gospel?

Of course he does. This image of losing our lives isn’t only physical. When Scripture speaks about “the world” in this way, it means the world’s way of operating – the system, not the planet. It’s not speaking of the created stuff of the world, that wonderful gift of earthly beauty, but the way we deal with it and with each other – kosmos meaning “orderly arrangement” or “system.” Jesus challenges us to consider where that kosmos came from. God didn’t set up our political or economic or social systems; we did. God didn’t tell us to look at other people as markets or competitors or enemies; we did that ourselves. What Jesus challenges us to do is to lose that way of thinking – die to it – and take on God’s order, God’s way, God’s kingdom. This is what the kingdom of God means: the operating system of heaven, not of this world. Then the planet becomes our trust from God, other people become our brothers and sisters, and our goal becomes fostering God’s way of operating rather than this world’s, rather than business as usual.

Jesus was crucified because the religious and political and social establishments – Jewish and Roman alike – found him to be a threat. Jesus’ disciples can’t expect anything different, can they, if they are real disciples and not just disciples in name only? Few of us, I hope, will get hung on crosses to die. But many of us may find ourselves looked at strangely sometimes, or shut out of “the best” company, or made to feel disrespected and unwelcome, simply because our values are not the ones “everybody” – the world – accepts. Our business as disciples of Jesus is to follow him, not what “everybody” does, or even “the best” or “the leaders.”

Peter eventually understood discipleship and as we know, paid the ultimate cost of that discipleship. Most of us, I hope, will at least come to understand a disciple’s connection to Jesus as the young boy Pi did. He said, “I couldn’t get Jesus out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

If we are his disciples, our goal is not to get ahead but to get closer to God, not to be successful but to be faithful, not to gain this world’s approval but God’s. This eucharistic celebration of ours today claims that we are thankful for the opportunity to do just that.

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

Christ’s own forever, 1 Lent (B) – 2006

March 5, 2006

Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Who hasn’t been impressed by the beauty of a rainbow? Rainbows have the quality of wonder: yes, there is a scientific explanation for how light is refracted in a certain way, but really they seem more like magic. After a rain, a colorful bow appears in the sky, a pure gift, a delight to the eyes and heart, beauty and hope after the rain.

In our first lesson today we hear how our forebears in faith, the ancient Hebrews, saw in the rainbow a sign of God’s covenant with Noah, and through Noah, with all humanity. Our lesson comes from the end of the story of the great flood. It’s a story of God’s willingness to lose in love. It may not seem like a story about losing. After all, it ends with God’s promise that God will never again destroy the earth in such a way. But what if we imagine looking at the story from God’s point of view?

Reading the creation story in Genesis Chapter One, you’ll notice at the end of each day God looks at everything he has made and says, “It is good.” Over and over again, God looks at what he has made in the world and says, “It is good.” When we come to the sixth day, God creates humans, and on this day God says, “It is very good.” God looks at humans and sees the crowning achievement of creation: us. And God says, “This is very good.”

But before too long, things start to go wrong. God has given humans a great gift: the gift of freedom. God has made humankind in God’s image. That is, according to The Book of Common Prayer, God has made us free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, to live in harmony with creation and with God. But too often humans choose the other possibilities granted in their freedom: to hate, to destroy, to be thoughtless, to break their relationship with creation and with God.

When we come to Noah and the ark, God, who had seen humanity as the very best act of creation, is heartbroken. The divine heart is so broken, so disappointed, so upset, that God decides there is no way out of all the pain and destruction humans are causing except to wipe the slate clean and start all over.

In the story of the flood, God is the big loser. God’s beloved humanity, God’s precious children, God’s best day of creation had all gone terribly wrong. So God chose Noah, who alone of all the people on the earth had not forgotten about God, to build an ark, and to be protected from the waters, so there would be a way to start over again. The rain started, and it is as if the tears of our brokenhearted God flowed down from heaven, tears of sadness, tears of disappointment and anger flowed from the very heart of God and filled the earth.

When the waters subsided, Noah, his family, and the animals came out of the ark onto dry ground, and God said some important words. God was not lulled into thinking that this experience changed humans, that somehow we wouldn’t sin anymore, or that we would always use our freedom to choose rightly. No, God said, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever destroy every living creature as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

This is the meaning of original sin: everyone of us, if left to our own devices, will do wrong. No human ever avoids the inclination to sin, even from the time we are small children. But God decided he won’t let that fact lead to our destruction. And so, when we come to today’s reading, we see God hang his bow in the sky. Here, think “bow” as in “bow and arrow,” but now not as a weapon of anger, not an archer’s bow taut and pointing down on people to destroy them, but hung up in the sky, unstrung, disarmed, and colorful. God hangs the bow in the clouds as a reminder of God’s promise, to remind God never again to destroy the earth.

This promise God makes to Noah is called a covenant. A covenant is a solemn agreement made between two parties. People have been making covenants for a very long time, thousands and thousands of years. Party A agrees to do something for Party B if some conditions are met. Covenants usually come with strings attached. “If you pay me tribute, I will protect you.” “If you keep this law, things will go well for you.” Usually the agreement made between them is sealed with some sign. Here the sign is the rainbow. But what is amazing is that God’s covenant with Noah has no conditions. It’s a covenant without any “if” clauses, such as, “if you love me,” or “if you obey me,” or “if you worship me,” or “if you are kind to others, then I will be good to you.”

No, the covenant God makes with Noah is an unconditional covenant, a covenant of love in which God promises to remember us even if we forget God. And the covenant God makes with Noah is really made with all humanity and all creation. God will never destroy all humankind, despite all we do to turn our backs on God, to choose hate instead of love, to destroy rather than create, to act thoughtlessly instead of using reason, to break our relationships with others instead of living in harmony. Despite our wrongdoing, God will remember his promise to us. God is willing to be heartbroken for us before he will break his covenant with us.

It’s not that God has been willing to tolerate our sin, but rather than send another flood, he sent his own beloved child, Jesus Christ, to deal with our sin. Rather than kill, God sent Jesus, who was willing to die. Rather than punish, God is willing to forgive. God added to the sign of the rainbow the sign of the cross. And in the sign of the cross, we see God’s willingness to love us unconditionally, to be brokenhearted for us. In the sign of the cross we see a sign of victory through the death of Jesus that means that someday all tears will be dried – the floods of tears cried because of the evil humans do to one another will be dried and gone. The deluge of tears we cry because of our injustice, prejudice, and indifference will be wiped away. In the place of destructive waters of a flood, there will be only the water of life, and in the place of the tears, a rainbow.

In our Epistle lesson today we hear that the waters of the flood prefigure the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ, to his death and resurrection, in order that we might know new life now. In the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever.

For many Christians, our Lenten journey now underway will end at the baptismal font, where we will once again renew our baptismal promises, where water may be sprinkled on us as a reminder of God’s love, not God’s wrath, and where Jesus’ triumph over the power of sin and death will be celebrated. As we journey through Lent, may we be people who look for the signs of God’s love and actions in the world, signs like the rainbow and the cross, and celebrate that God keeps his promises. May we be people who carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, accepting and sharing God’s love and forgiveness for us and for all humanity. The covenant made with Noah has never been overturned. God still promises to be gracious to all people, including people who have known loss, people who have caused loss, and people whose loss seems meaningless. God still promises to love all humanity and all creation. As followers of Christ, may we be people who also reflect God’s love and graciousness to all humanity, to people of every creed and color and class, and to all creation.

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is also a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Remember, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2006

March 1, 2006

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The season of Lent begins with one word: Remember. “Remember,” says priest or minister as a cross of ash and dust is traced on our brows, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a sober beginning to the serious business of Lenten prayer and penitence. As we reflect on those things that have defined our lives for good or evil and made us who we are, we also remember that we share a common fate and end. “In the midst of life we are in death,” is the way the burial liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer puts it. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Our time together is short, and our journey has an end. The ashes of this day bear an uncanny resemblance to what will be left of us all a thousand years from now. They bring us together as nothing else can. A NASA scientist participating earlier this year in the recovery of the Stardust space probe describes it this way, “All the atoms on earth and in our bodies were in stardust before the solar system formed.” And, he might have added, to stardust they shall return.

On Ash Wednesday, we are brought back down to earth that we might become heirs of the promised kingdom of heaven. Our Lenten season of repentance originates in the dust and fragments of what we have done and of those things we have left undone. The withered remnants of once green palm branches, burned on Shrove Tuesday and reduced to the ash of today’s solemn Ash Wednesday ritual, bring to mind the setbacks and regrets of the year gone by; those things we might wish to forget but somehow cannot because they have been seared into our memory. The dust of our failings and sin reminds us of our common heritage. Across nave and chancel our shared human fate is on display for all to see.

Remembering what has come before is not a bad way to start anything important. We recall the milestones of our lives – the births, baptisms, weddings, and graduations. They provide stability and strength in a world grown ephemeral and uncertain. But most of us also remember our own vulnerability and deficiencies and our shame at how we have wounded others. We recollect these things not because we can alter what has been but because in the act of remembering and repenting we are transformed and made new. Like sparrows bathing in dry sand, we are paradoxically cleansed and renewed in the dust of our Ash Wednesday remembrance.

All that we do as the people of God is in some measure a recollection of what God has done for us. The Jews, our spiritual ancestors, still celebrate Passover. They commemorate events thousands of years ago when God led Moses and the people of Israel from burning bush and through scorching desert sands into the freedom of the Promised Land. To this day, the Jews begin the feast of Passover with a recitation of the great events of their history and redemption. They dare not forget who they are nor where they came from.

As Christians, remembering takes us back to our roots in the cross. That is where we come from. At our baptism, priest or minister anointed us with oil in the sign of the cross, and we were “marked as Christ’s own for ever.” In our daily prayers we cross ourselves in the name of the Trinity. And as we approach the altar table on Sunday morning to receive the communion elements, the celebrant reminds us to “take them in remembrance that Christ died for you.”

The cross of ash on our forehead today conforms us to the image of the crucified One, the Word Made Flesh, through whom in the expression of the Creed, “all things were made.” We come from the Father, the Creator of the dust and sinew of which we are formed. And through Christ we return to the Father, giving back our mortal and fallen nature sanctified and renewed in the death of him “who knew no sin,” as Paul explains today in our second reading. In Christ, we ourselves “become the righteousness of God.”

Our Lenten journey begun today will draw to a close on Good Friday in the full meaning of the cross. Our contemporary world, like that of Jesus’ day, is distinguished by violence at home and war and terror abroad. How can one find hope at the crossroads of such suffering and anguish? Perhaps it comes only in knowing that the contradiction of the cross is in reality the paradox of life. In the cross, the order of the universe is transformed, and evil and pain are overcome. We remember that life and its meaning are not found in length of days, but in how we live our lives.

“Put oil on your head,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel account from Matthew, “and wash your face.” Put away your gloom. His words bring to mind the water and chrism of baptism and the life won for us through his death. It is almost as if he, along with our neighbors and co-workers, has seen us leaving church today with our smudge of ash. He counsels us not to “look dismal” or smug, as some might who practice their piety before others and seek only praise and a reward for their efforts. Penitence is neither a sign of despair nor a badge of merit. It is an evocation of hope and regeneration and a way of life.

Our Lenten renunciation is in reality a celebration of the kingdom so close at hand. Our spiritual sacrifices and acts of penitence are not ends in themselves but an assurance of God’s love at work within us. To give ourselves away as Christ gave himself for us is to embrace redemption and life. “Now is the acceptable time,” Paul tells us. Our Lenten journey has begun. It takes us to Calvary but it does not end in death. From the ashes of our sin and shame, God will raise us up to new life in the resurrection of his Son.

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge of Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, El Cajon, California, in the Diocese of San Diego.