Archives for July 2006

We only need to open our eyes, 8 Pentecost, Proper 12 (B) – 2006

July 30, 2006

2 Samuel 11:1-15 or 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 14 or 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21 

“So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves … they filled twelve baskets.”

Isn’t that amazing? From five loaves of bread, the disciples gathered fragments enough to fill twelve baskets, and that’s even after feeding about five thousand people. John doesn’t tell us how much of the two fish were left over – perhaps none – still, it’s an amazing story.

It’s a gospel we love. It has all the elements of a wonderful story. Jesus is a terrific main character. He has people following him by the thousands because of his teaching and preaching certainly, but mainly because of the signs they see him doing. There are the disciples – willing enough, but still unsure of this very different leader. And there is a little boy with his small lunch that miraculously ends up feeding thousands – with more to spare. It’s a story with a happy ending.

It’s also a mystery of sorts, because we desperately want to figure out just how Jesus did that magic trick. If we could figure it out, if Jesus would just let us know how to take that little amount of food and multiply it to feed thousands, we could feed all the poor in our own time, couldn’t we? If God would just give us the directions, give us the words, give us the actions to be able to do this, we would be able to do what Jesus did. The walking on the sea in the middle of a storm would be a neat thing to be able to do, and don’t we wonder about that, too? But the best part of the story is really the feeding of the five thousand, and that’s what we should be trying to figure out, isn’t it?

Of course not. It’s intriguing, and we can be sorely tempted to focus on the how, but this isn’t about a magic trick. The how doesn’t matter. The if it really happened this way doesn’t really matter either. What matters is what this account teaches us about Jesus, and who he is, and what that has to do with us, and how we relate to this gospel story. It also has to do with how we relate to the person of Jesus, and finally how all of this fits into our living together as a worshipping community here and in the world.

So we look at the passage again. The people on the hillside were filled with food. In fact, they ate until they all had enough, and even then there were twelve baskets left over. But that wasn’t all that Jesus wanted to give them. Verse 15 of this chapter says, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” They hadn’t gotten the point that Jesus wanted them to see much more than food. He wanted them to be fed not just with something physical, he wanted them to be fed with spiritual food: the truth about the kingdom of God, the truth about the God who sent him, and the truth about what it truly meant to be his disciples. This story doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus, the teacher, knew people needed to experience the truth as well as hear it. They needed to be filled with the word and to experience what this life with God was all about.

So, it might have been a good idea to include most of Chapter 5 with today’s gospel reading, because in feeding the people, Jesus was actually showing them what his words meant. In Chapter 5, Jesus explains who he is. He describes who God is and exactly why God has sent him. Jesus also explains how the people will fit into the life of God if they listen to his words and what the consequences will be if they don’t. We read: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he himself does, and he will show him even greater things than these, works that will astonish you … whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life.

But he also warned, “You search the scriptures, believing that in them you can find eternal life; it is these scriptures that testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me to receive life! … You have no love of God in you.” These were tough words, but hopeful ones. Jesus was telling them that they needed to do some serious soul searching.

Then, like any good teacher, Jesus gave them a glimpse of what he was talking about. He didn’t let the people go away hungry, for anything. Even when they didn’t listen, he fed their spirits and their bodies. Maybe with the hope that in time it would sink in.

So, what about us? We’re asked to listen to the scriptures, examine our lives, and take seriously our response to God’s invitation. Just like the Israelites, we are nourished with the word as well as with the bread and that should be pretty filling. If we take that seriously, we’ll be well satisfied.

We need to take a good look at Jesus’ words in Chapter 5. We often gather together to “search the scriptures.” We all believe that in the scriptures we can find eternal life and that they testify to Jesus, but we also have to examine whether or not we’re coming to receive life. Our lives are bound up with the whole people of God as well as with our communities. We are called by our baptism to continue spreading God’s message through our faithfulness to God’s word.

Then there is that feeding of the five thousand to deal with. Jesus showed his followers exactly what he was talking about. He fed them with food – real food. And again we’re so tempted to ask, “How’d he do that?” Lots of scripture buffs try to figure it out, but we’ve already said that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter how it happened. The important thing was that Jesus was preparing them for the gift of his own self that would carry them on when he was gone.

He does that now each time we gather to share the Eucharist with each other. We’re fed with real food, the sacrament of his body and blood. And that’s a much more impressive miracle as far as I’m concerned. We’re the inheritors of the promise he gave to his followers that day, and we’re still constantly filled to overflowing with both word and sacrament. So, in the end we have been given the directions, the words, and the actions to do what Jesus did.

But remember, we’re also the inheritors of the apostles’ ministry. Jesus is saying to us, “What are you going to do so these people can eat?”

There are lots of hungry people right here in our own communities. Summer, when so much food is visibly growing right before our eyes, is a good time to reflect on how we’re helping Jesus feed them.

And what are we doing to feed people with more than physical food? Jesus has given us more than enough food to be fully satisfied in body and spirit and to strengthen us as we continue his work. We only need to open our eyes to the richness of the word and sacrament that is already an intimate part of our lives and let it empower us in love and service to others.

 

— 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.

Big and brave, Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 11 (B) – July 23, 2006

(RCL) 2 Samuel 7:1-14a or Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 89:20-37 or Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is about Naaman, the Syrian army commander. Naaman is a very important guy. I picture him dressed in an impressive uniform, riding in a big chariot, and surrounded by his officers and staff. What happens is that Naaman contracts leprosy. His skin is a mess – big, ugly blotches all over him.

He gets word from Elisha the prophet that he can be cured of his leprosy by dipping himself in the Jordan River seven times, yet he resists doing this. His officers and staff approach him and say, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult and dangerous to cure your leprosy, certainly you would have done it. Then why not do something as simple as dipping yourself seven times in the waters of the Jordan?”

Naaman is a proud man, but he’s not dumb. He concedes their point, goes straight to the Jordan, and by the time he’s toweling himself off, the general’s skin has become as fresh as the skin of a little child.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to do something. What he says is: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” In other words, he tells them to take a break to devote some time to being rather than doing.

Often he tells us the same thing. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” Often he tells us to take a break and devote some of our time to being rather than doing.

Yet often we ignore this command. We want to follow Jesus and are willing to take action, but when it comes to rest, when it comes to Jesus telling us to take a break for a while, then we respond as Naaman did at first: We would do something big and brave, but rest is too simple, we say, and so we ignore what Jesus tells us.

Jesus has his reasons for inviting his disciples to rest. They have just returned from a mission on which he had dispatched them. He had sent them out in pairs and in haste. They were not to encumber themselves with gear or supplies, but simply trust local hospitality to meet their needs. They were not to linger where they were not wanted. Instead, they were to be on the move, calling people to repentance, casting out demons, anointing the sick. It was work they had never done before, and once they returned, they must have been exhausted.

Many of us do critically important work and find ourselves exhausted. Yet we don’t rest. We may even believe that we cannot or should not rest. We push ourselves in a way that we would never push others. Our life may be productive, we may check off everything from our daily “to do” list, but deep down we recognize something is wrong, that we lack a sense of deep meaning, and so we feel cheated.

The disciples have returned from their travels, but the pace has not slackened. As the gospel reports, “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Does that scene sound familiar to you? Is your workplace like that? Is your home like that? This is a common experience for people today. Many are coming and going, and they have no leisure even to eat.

Jesus listens to the disciples as they report on all they did and taught in the numerous places they visited. He does not, however, tell them to throw themselves into action again with even greater abandon. He doesn’t ask them to do something difficult and dangerous, big and brave. Instead, what he asks for is disarming in its simplicity: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

Jesus invites us to rest, yet we treat rest as a four-letter word. If people are resting, we may be suspicious of them. If we are resting, we may be suspicious of ourselves. There’s always more to do, further ways to justify our existence by what we produce. In the face of this, Jesus smiles and says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

If asked, most of us could recite something of the pattern of our work as we engage in it day by day, week after week. I wonder, though: Can we do the same regarding our rest? Do we have patterns established that insure that going off by ourselves to rest for a while is a reality for us, rather than simply a desire?

We may lack such patterns of rest, but we can take steps to establish them. Gradually we can build into our lives rhythms of rest and solitude to balance out the busy rhythms that already pulsate so strongly. It can be done.

Let me mention a couple of resources. One is a little book by Donna Schaper called Sabbath Keeping. She helps us see that the sabbath is not something to keep, but a way of living that helps us become people who work when it’s appropriate, rest when it’s appropriate, and even rest and work at the same time. She sees sabbath as a road to living a life of plenty.

Another resource are the numerous retreat facilities open to us throughout the country. Some of these are associated with Episcopal and Roman Catholic religious communities. Both individual and group retreats are available. An individual retreat may involve working with a spiritual director or guide. Retreats can be scheduled for one or two days or longer periods. They are sometimes available for specialized groups. For more information on retreats, speak to any of the clergy connected with this parish. And if you go on retreat and find yourself sleeping a great deal, that may be exactly what God wants you to do!

The French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once said that more than half this world’s ills come from how people cannot sit in a room alone. Our refusal to rest can hurt us, the people around us, and the endeavors to which we devote ourselves.

A lot of us try to function without the Rest Factor that Jesus wants us to include in our lives. We’re plenty busy, but the results are disappointing. When we factor in some rest, some sabbath time, we are not working as much, but what we do is more significant, more meaningful than it was when we were always on the go.

Like Naaman the Syrian commander, we may be willing to do something dangerous and daring, big and brave, when what we’re asked to do is something simple. Naaman needed to slip into the Jordan River’s healing waters. What we are asked to do is equally simple: to slip into the healing waters of a life that makes room for regular rest, a life marked by sabbath time.

 

– The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley, 2003). 

Being close to the power of God, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10 (B) – July 16, 2006

(RCL) 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 or Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 24 or 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29 

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who recently died at the age of 81, was an honored scholar, civil rights leader, antiwar activist, and a prophet. He summed up his faith by saying, “I believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action.” He also said, “The Christian church is called to respond to Biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice, and pursuing peace.”

His actions and words are evidence that he was able to navigate the tension created by those who would separate power into the categories of church and state, or more accurately, of God and man.

His words are good to reflect upon, particularly given the world we live in, where power and authority are often thought of in terms of personal privilege and gain. Are the choices we make to live our lives progressively seen as authentic demonstrations of Biblical mandates or do these choices simply challenge authority and invite criticism? And what if we are criticized? Should we let that deter our actions and cause us to forsake the Gospel mandate?

Especially evident in our reading today is the complex and often volatile relationship between the rule of God and the rule of humanity. Those who recognize the power of God as ultimate, speak the truth, and those who speak genuinely prophetic words are often judged as dangerous and threaten the established political and religious institutions. We can name many prophets of our time who have demonstrated a true understanding of God’s power and have spoken out, telling the truth about injustices and pointing us toward understanding the Gospel in spite of the cost: Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Desmond Tutu. Their stories inspire our lives and challenge us to ask how privilege and power blind us to prophetic words and their demand for justice. Does our desire for privilege and power – even for benevolent purposes – lead us to feel exempt from living according to the Gospel?

David, the anointed king of all tribes, recognized God’s power and captured Jerusalem, putting an end to the Philistine threat. This accomplishment is significant because without it, Israel never could have developed as an independent state. This established Jerusalem as a political center. When David retrieved the ark from the Philistines and brought it to Jerusalem, it established a center for worship. God’s power in the ark – and in David’s reign as a king – are brought together in a place still identified as holy today.

God’s power is awesome, and in the ark God’s power seemed so dangerous that the Philistines let it go. God is king, and His authority is over all of creation. God’s power is so awesome that being too close to it, coming toward it unintentionally, may be dangerous.

Psalm 24 describes in liturgical form how the power of God must be seen. Our path toward God must be ethically sound, which involves three things: first, purity of outward deeds or having clean hands; second, purity of thought and inward truthfulness, having a pure heart; and finally purity of religious practice or unadulterated faith, not pledging to falsehood or swearing by what is fraud. As it says in Ephesians 3, God’s power “working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,” and that is at the root of our worship and is the reason we live as Christians.

Being close to the power of God, being prophetic, and being truth-telling advocates for the Gospel message can be a euphoric experience. As Christians we ritualize the experience of approaching God through prayer and song. In Native American traditions, dance is a significant part of that expression. The procession that brought the ark into Jerusalem was ecstatic with singing, playing instruments, and dancing. David lost himself in the feeling of approaching God and sensing the power of God. Others may despise us for expressing our encounters with the holy, with our whole selves, bodies, minds, and souls, but that cannot discourage our joy.

In our Christian tradition, the liturgy brings us close to God and feeds us to go out into the world to live as God intended. David shared the blessings with offerings and then distributed meat, cake, and food to the people just as we gather to share the blessings in the Eucharist. The way in which we live our lives and the way we celebrate our joy and connection to God is what unites us as people of faith. We are also united as living members of the Body of Christ, people who live in accordance with the gospel message.

The prophets of the Old and New Testaments and the prophets of modern day demand justice and a life lived according to the Gospel. Their witness exposes those who misuse power and privilege for their own glory. Their witness exposes the use of power to control and oppress others. Their witness assures us that it is possible to recognize God’s power as the only authority. We must strive to live lives that are evidence of the power of God as we become truth-telling advocates for justice and peace. And, when this brings us close to God, let us be moved to celebrate ecstatically with our whole selves.

 

— The Rev. Debbie Royals, Pascua Yaqui from Tucson, Arizona, leads the Four Winds Congregation in Sacramento, CA, and is Missioner for Native Ministry in the Diocese of Northern California. She is actively involved in all aspects of Native Ministry in the Episcopal Church. She has been appointed to the Episcopal Council for Indigenous Ministry by the Presiding Bishop and has been selected as Convener for the Indigenous Ministry Network of Province VIII.

But life in Christ is life in truth, Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 9 (B) – July 9, 2006

(RCL) Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 48 or 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

The prophet Ezekiel was active, scholars think, from about 593 BCE to 571 BCE. This period encompasses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon in 587 BCE. It was a time of great turmoil for Israel. The reading for today comes from the second chapter of the book of Ezekiel, and tells the story of God’s commission to Ezekiel as prophet to the people of Israel.

Ezekiel has an amazing vision of fire, winged creatures, and a chariot, and something that seemed like a human form seated on a throne. When he saw this, which he said was “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” he fell on his face. And then he heard the voice of the Lord.

The voice said it was sending him to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels. “You shall speak my words to them,” the Lord said, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.” And then the Lord told Ezekiel not to be afraid or dismayed.

This is pretty standard stuff, in terms of what we know of the Old Testament prophets: they are sent by God to the people of Israel to call them back to the covenant, they are ignored, forgotten, berated, mistreated, tortured, killed. And nobody listens to them. This plays out over and over again.

Then we move forward 400 years or so to Jesus. As Christians, we have a different view of Jesus; it’s hard for us to understand that to most of the people of his time he was just another prophet. And his experience was no different. In today’s Gospel reading he is in his hometown, teaching in the synagogue, and no one is very happy with what he has to say. These are the people he grew up with, who know him and his family. And how do they respond? They are scandalized. “Hey, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy? What does he know? Who does he think he is?”

“Who do you think you are?” is one of the most enduring phrases from childhood. We use it to put people down, to rein people in when we think they are starting to think to highly of themselves, when they start getting “too big for their britches.” Everyone thought Ezekiel and the other prophets had a lot of nerve saying they spoke for God. And the people of Jesus’ hometown knew for certain that he was getting too big for his britches, coming home and preaching to them that way.

We have not changed much over the centuries. Human nature being what it is, we don’t care much for people who think they have a corner on the truth, or that they know “God’s will.” Very often our suspicion and skepticism is important. There are just too many instances of people being led astray by self-proclaimed experts and zealots, usually with very bad results. We’re right to be careful, to be skeptical. It can be dangerous not to be.

But then how do we determine who is speaking the truth? How do we discern the real prophets from the fakes? It can be very difficult. We let our prejudices get in the way; we expect people to fit a certain mold, to look and sound a certain way, to be of a certain social status. But all through the Bible we read of God using the least expected people to do His work, and very often the people involved weren’t too happy about it. Moses said he was not eloquent, that he was slow of speech: “Oh My Lord, please send someone else.” Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Nobody with any sense wants this job! But God says again and again, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll tell you what to say.”

So who is telling us what we want to hear, or what they want us to hear, and who is telling us the truth? In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says he will not boast of what he has seen and heard “so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me.” Paul wants people to see and hear Christ in him, not Paul. This is one way of determining if someone is telling the truth: if it is for self-aggrandizement, for gathering power and attention, for promoting personal beliefs, then it is best to be skeptical.

Very often the truth comes from the sources we least expect. Very often the truth is inconvenient. In our culture, the truth has become less important than what sells, than sound bites and twisted rhetoric used to push a certain point of view. We are not certain who to believe. Remember the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes? Something was happening, and the truth was not part of it – and the least likely person saw through the scam.

The truth disrupts our carefully design constructs, our carefully guarded prejudices, our convenient belief systems. No wonder we cry, “Who do you think you are?” The truth can threaten the very foundations upon which we have built our assumptions about other people, about systems of governance, about everything. We all have prejudices and assumptions that get us through the day. Look at our world: here we are in the twenty-first century, and human beings are still fighting wars and practicing genocide across the world, and allowing corporations to make billions of dollars in profits by keeping people in economic slavery.

But life in Christ is life in truth. Who is speaking the truth to you today? And how are you called to speak the truth? When and what do we hear or refuse to hear, speak or refuse to speak? We often confuse speaking the truth with judging others – Paul’s phrase “speak the truth in love” has been sadly misused over the centuries, used by people to say anything they want under the guise of “truth.” But what if speaking the truth starts with telling the truth to ourselves, with heeding the still, small voice in our own hearts? We may not all be called as prophets to the nations, but we are called to discern the truth, to listen to the truth, to speak the truth. It starts with deconstructing our own carefully built walls of convenient assumptions and half-truths. Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, we will be better able to hear the word of the Lord all around us.

 

— The Rev. Kathleen L. Wakefield is associate rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Juneau, Alaska, a spiritual director and retreat leader, and a wife and mother. 

Independence Day (B) – July 4, 2006

(RCL) Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48 

[NOTE: Collect 17 “For the Nation” (BCP p. 258) may be used instead of the Collect for Independence Day (BCP p. 242).]

The fact that we have the option of two Collects for Independence Day hints at the possible ambiguities associated with a national holiday. Such ambiguities also reside within our Gospel. This section of the Sermon on the Mount makes the claim that Jewish tradition directs love of neighbor and hatred of enemies. While the former is well attested throughout the Old Testament, Judaism nowhere prescribes hating one’s enemies.

Although just who constitutes a neighbor has been subject to much debate, Jesus throughout the Gospels, New Testament writers like the one in Hebrews, and Paul in his mission to the gentiles, appear to extend the boundaries of the neighborhood to all those who have been created in God’s image. Indeed, as early as the Noah narrative deep in the origins of Genesis, our God is portrayed as the One God who provides for the entire human family, letting the sun shine and the rain fall for both evil people and good.

Surely, as what is increasingly referred to as “the global village” continues to shrink, forces like globalization extend our neighborhood to even the furthest and most remote corners of this fragile earth. Images stream into our homes via satellite and The Internet of catastrophes, triumphs, and discoveries wherever they are to be seen.

This day’s scripture reminds us that we are all of us sojourners on God’s earth and it is ever more important as we pause to reflect on our nation’s origins, history, and contributions to God’s ever-growing neighborhood.

“Love the sojourner, therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (RSV)

A sojourner is one who lives or stays in a place for a time. The Bible understands this to be the most fundamental characteristic of what it means to be human: we are all here just for a time. We are all of us on our way to somewhere else.

For people of Biblical faith, Abraham and Sarah are the perfect prototypes of sojourners, journeying from home to a homeland, which is ultimately who we all are: people on our way. They stepped away from the friendly confines of the familiar and into the new world of God’s dream for them. In a cosmic sense, we come from God and return to God, with this brief sojourn on earth as a kind of midpoint in what we often refer to as “eternal life.”

Jesus calls us to be perfect, which in Greek means something like “whole,” “undivided,” or “complete.” In one sense the perfection Jesus calls for is to treat other people in the same way God treats people — all people — in the divine realm. Jesus calls us to live in a new world of God’s eternal reign, and Jesus in all that he says and does proclaims this new world to be already operative.

As Hebrews lays it out, persons and communities achieve identity, in part, by imitating exemplars. Abraham and Sarah are such exemplars, setting out from home to they know not where, allowing God to lead and direct them to a new world, a new home, a new life where even a craggy old man, “as good as dead,” and a woman, “even when she was past the age,” could become the parents of a nation of God’s people more numerous than the stars of the heavens and grains of sand on the seashore.

As history would have it, this nation of Abraham and Sarah became the quintessential sojourning community, now distributed throughout all the earth. And by adoption, we gentiles were added to that nation through the mystery of the cross and resurrection, a mystery that means to remind us that we, too, are sojourners called to care for others as God so graciously and generously takes care of us.

It takes little reflection on these core stories of our faith to find the stirrings that brought and continues to bring sojourners to this land we call America. A land founded, in part, by religious and entrepreneurial refugees from an old world seeking a new start. A land that, as it found its identity, became a beacon of freedom and liberty for people the world over.

Yet, there are two edges in the sayings of Jesus that greet us on this anniversary day of our independence: the liberation of our forbearers came at a price for those already living in the neighborhood, and for those we brought by brute force to work the land that gleams from sea to shining sea. This does not appear to have been a faithful living out of whatever it might mean to become perfect as God is perfect.

So it is we gather to reflect and pray on this our Independence Day. The Book of Common Prayer recommends that we pray either to “have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace,” or to have “a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will.”

That is, we gather to renew our commitment to become a people like Abraham and Sarah, a people like Israel, a people like Jesus, who remember who we are and whose we are: we are God’s sojourner people. And we have only a brief time for this sojourn and this reflection. We have only a brief time to become perfect as God is perfect in caring for others, all others who sojourn with us.

If we take this time to reflect on how we as a nation might use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will, we will come to know the kind of faithfulness and hope that gave Abraham and Sarah, and all those who came and still come to the shores of North America seeking a truer vision of God’s purpose, the courage to leave the realm of the familiar and to step out and into the New World God has already begun in Christ. With Christ, in Christ, and to Christ be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

A poem by Edward Sanders from the anthology Poems for America:

O America! how I thirst for you to shine
& swirl in peace
on your tiny globe
out on the arm of a Spiral Galaxy
we call the Milky Way
swathed in a sheath of glowing gas
100,000 light years across!

I am singing you America
I am singing your wilderness
your smoggy cities, your art
& your wild creativity!
I am singing your crazy inventors
I sing the Hula Hoop& the Harley Hog & the oil of Hopper

& I am singing your schisms & controversies
O Nation, Vast & Seething
Day& Night & Dream!

War and secrecy
make writing America
a twistsome ting
and how many thousands of times
have I shook my head with the
ghastly sudden knowledge
of this and that
but how many thousands more
have I smiled at the millions
who have made my nation a marvel.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. 

May we see past scandal and welcome grace, Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – July 2, 2006

(RCL) Psalm 130 or 30; 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 or Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24, Lamentations 3:23-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43 

Maybe you saw the movie “The Godfather, Part II.” In that film, the Mafia godfather, Don Corleone, goes to Rome to negotiate a business deal with the Vatican. He is not interested simply in business; he wants to gain respectability.

There in Rome he meets with Cardinal Lamberto, who asks if he would like to make his confession. At first Corleone refuses. He makes a little joke about how it would take too long. However, he wants the cardinal’s help, and senses something redemptive in his presence. So Corleone begins his confession.

First he tells of his marital infidelities. Then he admits ordering the murder of his own brother. Overwhelmed by the burden of his guilt, he breaks down and starts to sob. Cardinal Lamberto pronounces the words of absolution, then says, “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”

Some may find this story scandalous. Here we have a career criminal, an adulterer, cold-blooded enough to plot the killing of his own brother, and yet he’s said to be forgiven, redeemed. Some may say that what’s called for here is not mercy, but retribution, revenge, a settling of scores. Let the Mafia man taste some of his own medicine!

Yet if there’s a scandal here, it’s the scandal of Christianity. Behind Cardinal Lamberto’s words is the blood of Jesus, God’s Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world.

And the Holy Spirit is hard at work in this encounter with Don Corleone. The Holy Spirit cracks open the hard heart of the Mafia man, and gives him tears of repentance for the horrors he has committed. The scene of confession becomes a resurrection morning. Don Corleone is raised from the death brought by his sins into the new life Christ offers him.

Some may still call this a scandal. But I would suggest to you, something of a scandal always happens when grace is at work.

Consider today’s gospel. Jesus raises from the dead a 12-year-old girl. We’re not given her name, but she’s the daughter of Jairus, a big man in town.

Jairus makes a fool of himself in public, begging Jesus to help his sick child, insisting that he can restore her to health.

Jesus goes with Jairus, but on the way they encounter people coming to meet them who report that the girl is dead. In the face of this terrible news, Jesus invites Jairus not to fear, but simply to believe.

When they arrive at the house, the professional mourners are there already, doing what they do when someone has died: they wail, they beat their chests, pull out their hair, and rip their clothing. They ritualize the final separation that death brings. Their frenzied actions are void of hope.

The crowd laughs at Jesus when he insists that the girl is not dead. He goes to where she is lying, accompanied only by the three disciples that are with him and the girl’s parents.

There Jesus takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up. She gets up immediately and starts to walk about. Jesus tells them to give her something to eat. After all, she is twelve years old — still a growing girl.

Do you hear scandal in that story? What Jesus does seems to be nothing other than a compassionate response to the girl and her father. But those around Jesus must be shocked. For what does he do with the girl everybody believes is dead? He takes her by the hand! He touches a corpse!

According to God’s law in the Hebrew scriptures, touching a corpse renders a person unclean. The people around Jesus are shocked, much as some people today may be shocked when Cardinal Lamberto absolves Don Corleone. The people around Jesus believe that purity must be maintained, and they have Bible texts available to quote in their favor.

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus giving some orders. He tells those with him to get the girl something to eat, and he commands them, strictly orders them, not to let anyone know what has happened to Jairus’ daughter.

We can be confident that the girl gets to eat. We can be equally confident that the other order is not obeyed, and that the story of Jairus’ daughter spreads like fire through dry tinder. Would you keep such a story to yourself?

Why then does Jesus issue this order? Why does he follow up many of his miracles with the insistence that people keep mum about them? Does he really expect to be obeyed?

It seems to me that he doesn’t want to be labeled simply as someone who comes into town and does a bunch of neat miracles. He doesn’t want to be known as simply the go-to guy when somebody’s sick, or you need bread and fish multiplied.

Instead, he wants people to know him because of something yet to happen, that work of grace more scandalous than any other, when he will die on a cross of shame and be raised in glory by the Father. That scandal will bring grace, not just to one person or a few, but to all creation. It will mean not only new life for Jairus’ daughter, dead from some illness, but new life for Don Corleone, who, spiritually speaking, has been for a long time a walking corpse.

We are here today to celebrate this greatest of all God’s scandals: the cross and resurrection. Some people simply cannot stomach it. They want a world more orderly, more fair than that, and in a way their desire makes sense. But we are given instead a world of undeserved mercies, where fear gives way to belief, and small decencies are scandalized by the generosity of God. Yet in this world we quite readily become fixated on scandal and we overlook grace.

We see a hapless victim dying on a cross. God sees the lamb victorious over evil.

We see a law-breaking rabbi who touches a corpse. God sees a once-dead girl now dead no longer and restored to her father’s arms.

We see a Mafia godfather, a man of steely heart and vicious life. God sees one of his children, hard heart now broken, tears flooding forth, now dead to his past and given a fresh start.

So often what we see is scandal; what God sees is grace.

Can we learn to recognize grace when it happens, sometimes in front of our faces? Can we be party to scandal that may shock the decent, but release the power of resurrection?

Each of us is on the receiving end of reconciliation. Christ always addresses us through words like those of Cardinal Lamberto: “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”

Christ always risks ridicule and misunderstanding by lifting us from death like Jairus’ daughter, and restoring us to life and to relationship.

Christ always dares to make present to us his most audacious scandal, the cross and the empty tomb. His grace comes to us free, but its price for him is the cross. For us he bears shame, abandonment, and death. He does it for us. He does it for all.

One further scandalous demonstration of grace to add to these others: Christ makes each recipient of reconciliation also a minister of reconciliation. His audacious expectation is that those who have been forgiven will forgive; those who know new life will offer new life to others. Christ’s expectation is audacious because in this world, grace appears as scandal, mercy appears unjust and leaves us uncomfortable.

The time comes for each of us when we can be a minister of God’s audacious grace if we are willing to weather the scandal.

It may be a matter of defiling ourselves, appearing to others as impure by society’s standards.

It may mean announcing to a hardened reprobate that his sins, her sins, do not exceed God’s ability to forgive.

It may mean making room for undeserved mercies for ourselves and for others, understanding that all are sinners and all are redeemed.

May we recognize the opportunity when it is placed before us. May we see past scandal and welcome grace.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest, writer, and teacher. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002).