Archives for June 2006

Because we are human, Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – June 25, 2006

 (RCL) Psalm 9:9-20 or 133 or 107:1-3, 23-32; 1 Sam 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23),32-49 or 17:57-18:5, 10-16 or Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41 

The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately, the lake of Galilee, is situated on an ancient trade route that linked Egypt with Syria and Mesopotamia. Towns founded by Greeks, Romans, and many others flourished in the region, and there was a thriving fishing industry on the lake. Although the lake continues to provide an abundance of fish, most of the ancient towns have long since been abandoned. But in Jesus’ time, people from all over the Roman world would have passed through the area on their way to other parts of the known world. It figures prominently in the stories of Jesus that have been handed down to us in the gospels. By its shores he recruited his first disciples, gave the Sermon on the Mount, and fed the five thousand. He and his disciples crossed its waters many times as they traveled through the region, and on it was while on those waters that the story we heard today took place.

At thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, the lake appears rather small to experience a storm as violent as the one Mark tells us about. However, because of its unique geography — a low-lying area surrounded by hills — it is prone to sudden and sometimes violent storms. According to Wikpedia encyclopedia Web site, the only constant on the lake is its changing weather. As local fishermen, Peter, James, John, and Andrew were intimately familiar with the unpredictable weather, including violent storms, and how to handle it. That they panic and wake Jesus up from what was probably a much-needed nap shows that this particular storm was extraordinarily severe.

The storm has pushed the disciples to their limit. In spite of their knowledge of boats and the Galilean weather, their boat is sinking. In desperation, they wake Jesus, not simply to warn him that his own life is in danger, but because they had nowhere else to turn. “Don’t you care that we’re drowning?” isn’t so much a question as a desperate cry for help. They wanted to be out of the situation, which seemed hopeless, and did the only thing left for them to do. They called out to Jesus.

His response is not what they expected, or they would not have reacted the way they did. They saw Jesus perform miracles of healing and casting out demons, yet this act of control over the elements of sea and sky stunned them. In an instant they are removed from the life-threatening situation and brought to a new place — not just of safety, but also of understanding, even if they can not yet fully comprehend the circumstances or the place itself.

How often throughout the gospels does Jesus do the unexpected? When faced with a hungry crowd and almost no food on hand, he sits the people down and feeds them. When teaching his followers who their neighbor is, the hero of his story is a despised Samaritan. When the disciples are faced with another dangerous storm on the lake, Jesus walks to them on the water.

To the modern Christian, these stories, passed down over the generations, have become part of the familiar fabric of our lives. We may question the mechanics of the miracles, or even the thinking of the observers, but more often than not, we are not startled by Jesus’ actions in the way his disciples and the others in these stories are. No matter how cynical one may be, or how little one believes that miracles like those in the Gospels can happen, deep down we expect Jesus to do something.

How many times in life do we find ourselves in a “storm” beyond our ability to handle? When we reach our limits trying to handle the situation, we simply want out of it. And when it becomes desperate enough, we often find ourselves crying out to Jesus, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?”

Jesus’ response can, and does, still take us by surprise.

In one young family, the husband lost his job, and they were barely surviving on the wife’s income from a low-paying church job. The husband’s job search stretched from months to a year, and then two. They prayed that the right job would come along and hoped that the seemingly endless string of rejections meant that he just hadn’t looked in the right place yet, or maybe the time wasn’t right. Then one day the husband had a sudden thought. He turned to his wife and said, “We’ve been praying for the right job to come along, but maybe it’s the right job for you and not me.” It was a something neither of them had considered before, and the inspiration shed new light on their situation and brought them to an unexpected place.

There was a man who found himself in financial trouble after some poor planning and decision-making. He was on the verge of losing what little he had left and prayed desperately for help in finding his way through the mess. He was on the verge of giving up a job he loved for a more lucrative job that he knew he would hate in order to pay the bills. Just as it seemed all was lost, a former employer called and asked if he could possibly come and work through some critical projects for his former company. The former employer was willing to work around the unpredictable travel schedule of his current job. Although it has taken some adjustments to work two jobs, he is clearing up his debts. He, too, has come to an unexpected place.

Neither of these stories is as dramatic as the calming of the storm on the lake of Galilee. They are not what we would consider “miracles.” Yet these people cried out in their time trouble, and they came to that unexpected place where Jesus can bring us.

“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Jesus asks. Because we are human, we struggle with our fears and our limits just as the disciples did. Yet, if we remain open to the unexpected, Jesus will see us through, in spite of our doubts, fears, and lack of faith.

 

— Jeffri Harre is the Program Assistant for Children’s Ministries and Christian Education at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. He attends St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he is also an EFM mentor. 

With what can we compare the kingdom of God?, 2 Pentecost, Proper 6 (B) – 2006

June 18, 2006

(RCL) 1 Sam 15:34-16:13 or Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 20 or 92:1-4, 12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

“He did not speak to them except in parables” (Mark 4:34).

Back in 1990 when the now famous Hubble telescope was first launched, there was not much hope for its success. Apparently its reflecting mirror had been manufactured improperly, causing the telescope’s pictures to be out of focus. In fact, Hubble needed a giant – and expensive – pair of eyeglasses or refractions to correct its vision, because the curvature of its mirror was off by a mere one-fiftieth the width of a human hair. It seems that if the curve or parabola is not just right, a telescope is useless. It cannot focus light and reflect reality as it is – or in the case of Hubble, as it was billions of years ago. Small things can and do make a big difference.

Parables are the Hubble telescopes of faith and wisdom. In fact, the word “parable” itself is etymologically related to the word “parabola,” both meaning in some sense “comparison,” “reflection,” or even “relationship.” Both reflect light and truth. Both make it possible for us to see what would otherwise escape our attention. As spiritual telescopes, parables bring the gospel message into focus and challenge us to peer ever more deeply into the mysteries of life and faith, mysteries that we might never come to without the aid of the parable itself. This is why our Lord loved them so. And unlike the unfortunate manufacturers of the Hubble, Jesus always got his parables exactly right.

Some things of course parables cannot do. They do not tell us much about the weather or engineering, for instance. They do not deal with the nature of the material world the way science and the Hubble telescope do. They do not even attempt to explain some of the deepest mysteries of faith, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation. Nor are parables simple allegories in which we can mechanically correlate each character in the narrative to God or us or Christ himself, if we only know the right combination or key. Parables often raise more questions than they answer. But in helping us raise the right questions, they bring us closer to our true nature and to our relationship to God’s kingdom. They focus us on life’s essentials.

The language of parable is the language of faith – open to the kingdom of God at work in our everyday lives. In that sense, parables may seem on the surface to be ordinary and everyday. They are about everything from seeds and shrubs to lost coins and wasted money. Nothing very exotic. Nothing people today – two thousand years later – cannot identify with. Yet the words of the parable offer more than quaint images of the commonplace in life. They are about the things of this life considered as means of grace and growth. They are about the kingdom within.

The kingdom is the key. Jesus does not say for instance that we ourselves are like the mustard seed, which though small “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.” On the contrary, left to our own devices most of us would probably remain solitary and small-minded creatures of our own comfort and pleasure. We would not have the grace to live and grow into the life of the kingdom. It is rather the kingdom working within us that is the source of all we can become. And to that there is no spiritual limit. Yet the kingdom in all its abundance cannot be contained or manipulated by mortals like ourselves, no matter how much we may wish it were otherwise. The kingdom is at hand, Jesus tells us in the Gospels, but we cannot grab hold of it and own it as our own. It is not for sale at any price.

In our post-modern, matter-of-fact world of number-crunching and digitalization, stories and parables may seem anachronistic and frustratingly obscure. “Don’t tell us what something is like,” we might be tempted to say. “Tell us what it is. And be precise about it.”

But the kingdom of which our Lord speaks does not work that way. It never just “is.” It does not fit comfortably into our preconceived notions of life and order. It cannot be measured in megabytes. It cannot be spied through the lens of a telescope. It is always “like.” It is always found in relationship to the things and people of this life to which our Lord compares it. As the seeds in today’s Gospel account sprout and grow, though we may never know precisely how, so does the kingdom grow up within our hearts. The words of the parable, planted within us, have the power to alter irrevocably our spiritual existence.

So how can something so seemingly ephemeral have such power? After all, the parables themselves are often of little substance, sometimes hardly more than extended similes. How can they make any difference to us today? A renowned scientist once remarked that one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of the earth’s climate forever. Our Lord would have loved this image. He turns to parable and metaphor because no other language or speech can begin to describe the kingdom. Its growth and potential could give new meaning to the word “exponential.” Ten to the ten-millionth would not begin to encompass the kingdom of which he is speaking. And yet the meaning of the kingdom is found in the smallest of seed and grain.

And the meaning of the kingdom is found within each of us as well. Few of us are great and mighty by the world’s standards. Not many of us will run for office or be appointed to positions of prestige and power. Few of us will make it big on Wall Street or in Hollywood. Yet none of this matters in the life of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is of a different order entirely. The effect of the kingdom at work in our lives will never be measured in dollars or popularity. We will never know the good we have done with simple acts of kindness and love. With the simple flap of our spiritual wings, we may well change the divine dimension of our world forever. That is the parable of our lives. The kingdom is at work in the smallest cell of our body and every tiny breath of our spirit.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” Jesus asks. Or what parable will we use for it? The famous eighteenth-century French philosopher and cynic, Voltaire, was no friend to religion as it was known in his day. Yet in one of the aphorisms for which he has become justly famous, he captured the meaning of parable in the lives of Christians of any age. “How infinitesimal is the importance of anything I can do,” he wrote with great wisdom. “But how infinitely important it is that I should do it.”

That is the parable of the kingdom and the lesson of the mustard seed. Our lives are more than the sum of days lived and dollars earned. Life has meaning beyond the walls of home or workplace. It has meaning beyond the walls of self-interest and ego. We live in relation to one another and to the world around us. And in that relationship we find the meaning of the kingdom and the worth and value of our lives. And that is infinitely important.

 

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

The heart of creation is love, Trinity Sunday (B) – 2006

June 11, 2006

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29 or Canticle 2 or 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Over 30 years ago, Karl Rahner, one of the finest theologians of this century, lamented the fact that most Christians are “mere monotheists.” By this he meant that if the doctrine of the trinity were eliminated from the faith, then the bulk of popular Christian thinking, preaching, writing, and singing, and the mind set it reflects, would not have to be changed much at all. That’s still true. We don’t pay much attention to the Trinity – to what it says or to what it means. We know we believe in God – the same God everybody believes in – and that, pretty much, is that.

But it’s not that simple. We Christians do have a different and distinctive way of understanding God, one that sets us apart from everybody else. And even though the prayers, the creeds, and most of the symbols we use in worship are thoroughly Trinitarian, the bulk of our thinking about God is not.

So, since today is Trinity Sunday, the day we are called upon to pay special attention to the way God has been revealed in the Christian faith, we should consider the Trinity. Of course, God is a whole lot bigger than anything we can say or imagine, so all references to God will be both metaphorical and incomplete. At the same time, this vision of the Trinity of God is true, and it matters, and it makes a difference.

There are two fundamental perspectives we can bring to the Trinity, to the doctrine that one God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, the Trinity describes the way that we, as Christians, experience God. We know God as God is revealed in the person and life of Jesus – and this revelation happens by and through the Holy Spirit. That is, the Trinity speaks to how we discover and experience who God is. This is the perspective usually offered when talking or preaching about the Trinity.

But there is more. The doctrine of the Trinity also talks about who God is; it talks about what God is really like inside. This is where the mystics and the theologians sort of run together, and speak perhaps with more poetry and awe than precision. But let’s look for just a minute at what they say about God, borrowing some language from the third century.

Once upon a time, way before the beginning of everything – not at the beginning, but before the beginning – God the Father, who is love and who therefore must love, God the Father speaks his own name; He says his own word. And God the Son is begotten – true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. The Son is the second person of the Trinity. Later, after the beginning, the Son will become incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and will be born as Jesus of Nazareth. The Son is what happens when the Father expresses Himself, when the Father reaches out in His love. Now, the Son loves the Father, for the Son is the Father’s word, the Father’s self. And the Father loves the Son, totally and without reservation, and so the Father and the Son are bound together in love.

This love, which binds together the Father and the Son, is also real. This love is God the Holy Spirit – the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. And the Son and the Spirit are of the same substance, the same stuff, as the Father; that’s the only stuff there is. In this way the Godhead is complete. Three persons, each distinct, each real, each from before the beginning, each and all are one God. The one-ness of God is discovered precisely in the free act of love by which the three persons of the Trinity choose to give all to each other. This relationship is what makes God who God is. Put another way, God is what happens when the Father loves the Son in the Spirit.

St. Augustine says this about the Trinity: “Now, love is of someone who loves, and something is loved with love. So then there are three: the lover, the beloved, and the love.” This relationship of love, God the Holy Trinity, is the foundation, the bedrock of the universe; it is the heartbeat of all creation. Everything that is begins here, has its purpose and its meaning here, and will find its fulfillment here.

Such is the living center of the Christian understanding of God. We insist that God is not a mean old man with a beard; that God is not some unconscious force out of Star Wars; and that God is not that peculiar little committee – two guys and a bird – that we often imagine. Instead, God exists, at His heart, as a relationship of love – one God in three persons, the well-spring of existence.

That’s a quick look at the Trinity, at our alternative to the “mere monotheism” that Rahner decries. It is a complex, dynamic, and exciting understanding of who God is and what God is like. Like any good theology, it has consequences, and it sets the stage for how we can live.

If you think about it for a minute, it’s no wonder, as we heard the Epistle of Peter say a few weeks ago, that the Church learned very early that they could tell whether they were truly entering the mystery of Christ by how well they were managing to love one another. Remember that? Of course. Relationships of love are what God is all about.

And it is no wonder that the one new commandment that Jesus gives us is the commandment to love one another; which is the commandment to imitate Jesus and his life – to imitate his life as a human being among us, and at the same time to imitate his life as the only begotten Son.

It is through this command, seen in the light of our notion of God as the Trinity, that we can begin to see what God really wants from us and what God really wants for us. God’s will for us, God’s desire for us, is, first of all and most of all, that we choose to share his life – that we become more and more deeply a part of that conversation of love, that constant, obedient, and joyful relationship that is the very core of who God is.

After all, we are created in God’s image – in the image of the Trinity. So, the more our lives are shaped and formed by the life of love we see in the person of Christ and in the life of God, the closer we get to our best and truest selves. The more we become who we really are.

This business of the Trinity is not just abstract theology, it is very immediate, and very personal. In some very important ways, it is about us – about us here and now; and about us forever.

The heart of creation is love, and we are both created and invited to enter that love, and to share that love. The divine love is our source, our vision, and our final end. That is good news. It is good news about why we exist; and it is good news about our destiny. It is worth paying some attention to.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has been rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Big Spring, Texas, since 1994. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Fr. Liggett and his wife Kathleen have a 20-year-old son.

Come Holy Spirit, Day of Pentecost (B) – 2006

June 4, 2006

(RCL) Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 

Have you ever bought something that needed to be assembled? After struggling to get the huge package into the house, and further struggling to open the wretched thing, the instructions are tucked right at the bottom.
The instruction booklet is in a number of languages, the English translation – for that is obviously what it is – tucked amidst other languages and alphabets.

There’s a list of all sorts of nuts and bolts, a few odd-looking tools, which look much too fragile for the job, and then the assembling parts, heavy and awkward to manipulate. One feels lost, confused, and even helpless. “If only Josh (or whoever) were here,” we think. He knows how to do this sort of stuff. It’s even worse when he ordered this thing and then left us to it, assuring us that we would have the skill to get the task finished.

I often think that the disciples in that Upper Room, after the Ascension and before Pentecost, held a long, long vestry meeting. The task had been assigned. They were to go into the whole world telling about the Good News of the Resurrection, baptizing those who believed. They were to be “witnesses.” That word, from which we get “martyr,” means life-givers. That’s a risky and dangerous business.

They were to be a new race, or tribe, or nation. Anyone who believed could join. It didn’t matter what gender one was, or one’s race, language, nationality, customs, or religion: all were welcome.

So what did they do? They held an election. It made them look on task. It made them look busy. It’s a pity we don’t know what they talked about. The treasurer had committed suicide and the books were in a mess. Someone must have said that there was no way they could afford to go into the entire world. Someone else may have suggested that it was dangerous to go outside the Upper Room. After all, they were the chosen. Who would do the work if they were killed or thrown in prison?

Someone else must have said that they were no good at evangelism, and after all, everyone has a right to their own religion. Perhaps Jesus had been poetic?  Surely he didn’t mean that they were actually to “convert” people?
The Upper Room must have felt so safe, so comfortable. It was in that room that Jesus had given them the Eucharist. At least they could be obedient in doing that. Maybe others would come from outside and join them?

And then something extraordinary happened. They were all attacked by what seemed to be wind and fire, the ancient symbols of God’s presence. That energy, that being set on fire with confidence, thrust them out into the street, where they were soon accused of being drunk at ten o’clock in the morning.

As we read in the gospel this morning, all this had been promised. Now all those fears and doubts, all those reasonable objections to Jesus’ command evaporated. The Church was on the move. The Church was intended to be on the move. It was not intended for Upper Rooms. It was intended for the street, for people, and places everywhere.
The Holy Spirit wasn’t given so individuals could have a form of “spirituality” just for them. The Spirit wasn’t given to an elite group so that they could practice a religion close to their political opinions, left, right, or center. The Holy Spirit was given to the Church to enable it to be the Church. In its power, the Church is enabled to put things together and to be together.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t guarantee that the decisions we make together are wise or good. The Holy Spirit guarantees that the Church and the Church’s mission will go on and on until kingdom come. It is the truth of kingdom which is, and is to come, into which the Spirit leads us. The Holy Spirit shows us Jesus and brings us to the Father. The Holy Spirit moves in the water; in bread, and wine, and oil; and in our prayers, private and collective. Above all, the Holy Spirit drives us out of the safety and security of our local Upper Rooms, our parishes. The Holy Spirit pushes us beyond ourselves, our abilities, expectations, and safety levels.

Today we pray, “Come Holy Spirit.” Watch out! Your prayer may be answered.

 

— The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, West Virginia.