Archives for August 2006

We all need to find our gift of servant ministry, Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 16 (B) – August 27, 2006

(RCL) Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69 

Remember the old gospel hymn, “When the roll is called up yonder”? Today’s scripture challenges Christians’ exercise of God’s gift to servant ministry and how we will respond to God when we are called to share in God’s “glory.”

Throughout our lessons Joshua, David, Paul, and Jesus lay challenges of servant ministry before us. It is not done to chastise us, but to help us see and feel the call that is made to each of us to use our skills, our intellect, and our compassion to serve others.

In Joshua, after gathering the tribes of Israel together, he said to their leaders, “Revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness.” In the Psalm, David reminds his people, “The Lord ransoms the life of his servants and none will be punished who trust in him.” In Ephesians, Paul challenges his listeners to “Put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

The remarkable thing in the Gospel of John is that the disciples have questioned Jesus about his teaching on the Eucharist and what is required of those who follow him. “Many turned back and no longer went about with Him.” John called those who walked away from Jesus “disciples.” Obviously they were not just folks who showed up at Christmas and Easter. These folks were committed to Jesus – at least for a while, until things got a little tough and demanding beyond their understanding. Like many vestries, we are honored to be a member until we have some heart-wrenching decision to make such as a choice between paying our apportionment or keeping the thrift shop open.

The disciples became anxious about Jesus. They might have said, “We like him, but can we do what he is asking?”

Jesus called the twelve together and asked them, point blank: “Do you also wish to go away?”

Had we been Jesus, how would we have asked that question? Would we have asked it sadly, disappointed by what had just happened? Think of the tough decisions that we have had to make in business, at home, in social clubs, or at church. How have we reacted when questioned about decisions that affect others? We are uncomfortable. We may feel like getting up and leaving the room; it is a normal reaction. But it is gracious to stay and listen. We need to be part of the solution – only then can we be at peace.

Jesus knew what he was asking of his disciples. He knew what the cost would be: his life! He knew that what he was saying offended them. They were unwilling to really hear what he was saying.

Peter even later asked him, if this is so. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Blessed Peter just could not grasp that Jesus would be with him in spirit as powerfully as he was in flesh. Are not we – as active as we may be in the life of the church – often like this? We are fearful of being called “Jesus freaks” if we tell someone about the love Jesus has for them.

Jesus, admittedly, had an advantage over modern Christians. He knew “who were the ones that did not believe, and who would betray him.” We don’t have that luxury. What we do have is the element of surprise the Holy Spirit works through us as we share the agape love of Jesus with others.

Sometimes, no matter how strong our convictions are, or how great our desire to journey with Jesus may be, we may want to walk away, to find a spot in the wilderness away from the pressures around us. Peter doesn’t just come out and tell Jesus that is what he wants to do, but Peter is honest about his uncertainty. He realizes that no one besides Jesus is in the business of eternal life. Either the disciples of Jesus must keep this faith experience alive or it will die away for the simple reason there is no other alternative.

Paul, preaching to the Ephesians, makes reference to the use of the shield as the “shield of faith” and that should be carried by those who go out to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul adds that faith is always the complete trust in Christ.

As adults we need the child-like faith the 5-year-old girl had when her grandmother visited her. Sarah had been in Sunday school earlier that week, and she said, “Nana, I know Jesus. Do you? Because Jesus is a friend of mine, I let Jimmy play with my teddy bear today. What did you do?”

What a joy it will be when we all get to heaven and find our name on the roll of servant ministry. How has God empowered us, as individuals and a congregation, to reach out and serve God by serving others in Jesus name?

William Barclay, in his commentary, points out that the sign of the Christian is when he or she is eager to be on their way to tell the story of Jesus: his death, his resurrection and his ascension. This is the commitment of being a servant for the Lord. Barclay emphasizes that for servant ministry there are three conditions people must have in their prayer life:

Prayer must be constant. It is from daily prayer that we find daily strength and holy guidance.

Prayer must be intense. No beating around the bush. When you have a clear message from the Lord about a particular concern, be bold about your prayer life. Be the prayer warrior he has called you to be.

Prayer must be unselfish. We must learn to pray as much for others as for ourselves. We must seek a community of believers to pray with us and for us. Together we will know the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as it uses us to be a vehicle of servant ministry.

There is no one more colorful in the Anglican Communion than Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Many years ago, he preached in St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. The wall was lined with soldiers carrying guns, waiting for the opportunity to close the service down. The cathedral was filled to capacity. Bishop Tutu spoke of the evils of apartheid. Near the end of his sermon, he pointed a finger at the soldiers and said, “You may be powerful, but you are not God! You have already lost!” Before the soldiers could react, Bishop Tutu, with that wonderful smile that God has given him, came out from behind the pulpit and began to bounce up and down the aisle with glee. As the congregation moved into the aisle, dancing with him, he spoke to the soldiers again, “Since you have already lost, we invite you to join the winning side,” The soldiers melted away. They broke rank. Surely some found Jesus that day and danced with unspeakable joy. Bishop Tutu was inviting those soldiers to cross over and be servants of the Lord.

We all need to find our gift of servant ministry. Join the winning side! Tell others in our work place, where we live, or play, or go to school that we want them to join the winning side. Tell them about our friend, Jesus.

 

— Harry Denman is a layman and parishioner at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. A former member of Executive Council and Chair of Episcopal Life, he is retired and writes devotionals on the Collects and other Christian materials for his blog, LaymanAtWork

The hospitality of our God, Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 15 (B) – August 20, 2006

(RCL) 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 or Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 111 or 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58 

“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.” The King James language would have been familiar to Lawrence of Arabia when he titled his long and idiosyncratic memoirs of the Middle East “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” In Proverbs 9, the reference to the seven pillars is probably an allusion to the idea of the earth conceived as a platform resting upon pillars. But what matters here is, of course, the personification and character of Wisdom as God’s “daily delight” as it says in Proverbs 8, and as master-craftswoman in the work of Creation itself. The first few generations of Christians, attempting to describe Jesus theologically, leaned heavily on this Wisdom tradition and attributed to him many of her characteristics.

The thematic connection between the reading from Proverbs and the continuing discourse in John’s Gospel, where we are now in about the third week of the “Bread of Life” speech from John 6, lies in the offer of God’s life-giving hospitality. The passage from Proverbs 9 shows Wisdom preparing a banquet: animals are slaughtered, the wine is mixed with spices to increase the flavor, and she sends out her servants to invite the “simple people” to her house for the festivities. The purpose of the banquet is to invite and encourage the “simple” to embrace the path of following wisdom, and begin by learning insight. Later in the same chapter a contrast is drawn with the lesser figure of “Folly,” who neither makes preparations nor sends out invitations, but expects passers-by to drop in casually for bread and water. This non-banquet invites and encourages nobody on the road through insight to wisdom; the path of Folly merely goes down to Sheol, the abode of the dead.

We understand, then, that Wisdom’s hospitality invites us to life, not death, and so we move into the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6. Eating and drinking at Wisdom’s feast is to live and walk in the way of insight. Eating the bread that Jesus is offering is accepting to participate fully in his own flesh and blood. We have to understand both passages metaphorically, though it is always worth pausing to contemplate the horror of Jesus’ words if they are taken literally: eating flesh and drinking blood is the language of cannibalism. Wisdom’s banquet can be taken as a symbol of God’s invitation to enjoy the abundant richness and sustenance of his presence in our lives as we commit ourselves to seeking him by study, prayer, and action.

But when Jesus talks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he is saying that unless we come to live by his death we shall not find that abundant richness and sustenance. We find our true and eternal life with God only as we take Jesus’ self-offering in dying as characteristic for our own living as his disciples. When he goes on to say in John 6 that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them,” Jesus is indicating that both life in this world, and life in what we call “the world to come” are intimately bound up with our relationship to his sacrificial death.

The “Bread of Life” discourse is, from end to end, resonant with overtones of both Passover and Eucharist. But the significance of the whole thing lies not only in the promised abundance of abiding, eternal life that God, through Jesus’ life and death, gives for us and to us, but also in the way we appropriate the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life and death into our own ways of being and thus make our own lives available to others. That deeply inviting hospitality is seen in Lady Wisdom preparing her feast and setting her table. She will make herself available to those who seek insight into her ways and paths.

The picture awakens memories of Abraham’s hospitality, the feast laid out for his anonymous and angelic visitors in the desert “by the terebinths of Mamre,” when he and Sarah are promised the inheritance of life in the world to come of a son, Isaac.

Like John 6, the inviting and deeply hospitable banquet of Wisdom haunts us with its allusions to God’s gift of manna in the wilderness. The long journey through such inhospitable places is where the People of God came to terms with their departure from Egypt, their deliverance and the invitation to freedom; the inhospitable desert is where they learned new things about God’s hospitality, and looked forward to life in the world to come of the Promised Land.

May all our Eucharists show forth to ourselves and to others the hospitality of our God, and may our lives grow ever deeper into the self-offering of our Savior Jesus, so that we can offer ourselves and the fruits of our lives and labors to others in his name.

 

— The Rev. Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York. 

So should it be with our life of faith: delicious, satisfying, 10 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – 2006

August 13, 2006

(RCL) 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51 

Café Beaujolais, a wonderful bakery on the northern California coast, makes a rich, dense bread they call Austrian Sunflower Bread, boasting different seeds and grains and yielding a golden loaf of complex texture and rich flavor. This is how it’s described in their materials: “Austrian Sunflower Bread, our healthiest loaf, is hearty and moist, keeps well despite a lack of any oil or butter. Made with white flour, sunflower seeds, cracked wheat, oats, barley, polenta, millet, buckwheat, flax seed, soy grits, sesame seeds, water, malt, sea salt, and yeast.” This is the sort of bread invoked by Jesus’ claim: “I am the bread of life.” Certainly the follow-on claim: “Those who come to me shall not hunger,” has much texture to it when such a bread is considered.

What is your usual bread of choice? Even in the absence of a market survey, it’s reasonable to imagine that the most popular and most often eaten bread in America is sliced white bread – that stuff of many air holes, squishy texture, consistent predictable color, and a flavor so bland it is hard to describe.

We love it. It’s the perfect platform for peanut butter and jelly, and toasted, makes a good bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. One of the reasons we like it is precisely because it contributes so little to our experience of food. Tasteless, it doesn’t compete with other flavors. Of little texture, it is easy on the palate; we don’t have to work much to eat it. Predictable in its shape and color and size, sliced white bread is portion-controlled. Lacking in its own nutrients, vitamins are added for our good health. Mass produced and prominent in our grocery stores, it is the best price we can get. To top it all off, it has preservatives so that freshness is not so much a concern.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. Is Jesus akin to sliced white bread? What kind of bread comes to mind when we hear “I am the bread of life”? Perhaps some will think of pita bread, or brown bread, what we have come in contemporary times to associate with the Last Supper. Yet even that is not what we use in most churches for communion bread, probably because of “convenience,” which some of us have named “tradition.” In the Protestant churches that commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the bread of choice is the conventional white bread. In churches of the Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic traditions, we often use communion wafers. Is this the “bread of life” to which Jesus likened himself? Many a seminary professor has observed that it is easier to imagine the communion wafer as Christ than to imagine the wafer as bread. The same has been said of our favorite American white bread.

Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ proclamation: “I am the bread of life.” Earlier we read the story that has come to be known as the feeding of the five thousand, wherein many hungry people are fed on very little bread. The focus of this feeding story has traditionally been the miracle of the free meal, with little attention given to the bread itself and what it might signify. In the same way that the focus of the mass feeding has been on the miracle and not the food itself, so, too, with today’s proclamation that Jesus is the “bread of life,” we usually focus our attention on Jesus rather than on the bread. But how can we begin to understand what he was saying about himself until we look more closely at the bread?

This passage from John’s Gospel is a lesson about abundance. It is difficult to associate plain white bread, the mass-produced kind, with abundance. It makes a good carrier for other flavors, but by itself, doesn’t have much “tooth.” Consider a sampling of breads from smaller bakeries, and the sorts of breads many of us make at home:

Banana nut bread
Chocolate cherry bread
Ten-grain bread
Rye with caraway
Cheddar cheese and jalapeno bread
Blue corn tortillas
Italian loaf
French baguette
Ricotta cheese and roasted garlic bread
Rosemary olive oil bread
Sourdough bread

Our lives – our families and friends – are enriched with fruits and nuts. Why not our bread? And to turn that around: When Jesus spoke of himself as bread, as the Bread of Life, is it possible that he was speaking of richness, of texture, of boldness and flavor? That he was inviting us to a greater feast in our life of faith?

Jesus’ ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed. We have one example in today’s reading from the Old Testament. In the reading from 1 Kings, Elijah sets out on a long journey sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: food! Not just once does the angel feed him, but twice. The angel commands him: “Get up and eat!” This wasn’t just any food, but bread. Elijah “got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

Jesus was well-acquainted with the Exodus story, and would have known the tradition that the Lord God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years with manna – bread – from heaven. It is in the wilderness of the desert as in the wilderness of our souls that we hunger. The Exodus theme permeates John’s Gospel, setting up a tension between the manna given from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread that feeds us in the wilderness of our souls. Somewhere in the midst of that tension we find the bread of life: not manna from God, not the flesh of Christ, but the Bread of Life, the Bread that brings life.

If this vision of bread given us in John’s Gospel teaches us something about Jesus, perhaps the first lesson to keep in mind is that Jesus is not simple, not plain, not undemanding. Our Lord is many-textured, multifaceted, and complex in flavor. He calls us to love, to forgive, to encourage, and to get involved. He showed us how to welcome, to persist, and to stand firm. Our Lord was tender, he enjoyed meals with strangers and disciples, he rebuked the careless. Jesus taught in the temple, raised the dead to life, challenged the complacent to care, wept over the death of a friend, and told stories. He drank wine at a wedding. He washed filthy feet. He prayed.

When we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the Bread of Life,” let us hear all of these things and many more. And as we live our lives and live our faith, let us be rich in texture, of bold flavor, and nourishing to the world. No more white bread in our love of God, but abundant life, abundant living, abundant faith.

While searching for the ingredients of Austrian Sunflower Bread, a website turned up this journal entry, contributed by an American living in Austria:

“I’m partial to the sonnenblumenbrot, the sunflower seed bread, a dense whole-wheat loaf with a variety of whole grains mixed in. … When you eat bread here in Austria, you understand why it’s so hard to find something that even comes close to good enough. Bread in Austria is Food, with a capital F. It’s not some spongy filler or a vehicle for a spread; it’s a Food with its own merits. … The other day we were at the Merkur, a new chain supermarket that recently opened in Liezen. They have a bakery and they had just packed up a fresh batch of sonnenblumenbrot. When I picked it up, it was still warm. It held the warmth until we got it home and when I sliced the end off, sunflower seeds scattered across the bread board. I ate my fresh slice with a slab of butter. It was delicious and satisfying.”

So it is with our Lord, the Bread of Life. So should it be with our life of faith: delicious, satisfying.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religion and philosophy at Park University near Kansas City, following twelve years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys growing roses, raising children, and making chocolate desserts.

By the very power of God, The Transfiguration (A,B,C) – 2006

August 6, 2006

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the Transfiguration. Six months from now we will hear this same lesson on the last Sunday of Epiphany, just as six month’s ago we heard the parallel story from the Gospel of Mark. The transfiguration event is retold every year on the Sunday before Lent. We use it today because this year August 6 falls on a Sunday – and August 6 is the time honored Feast of the Transfiguration.

August 6, 2006 reminds us that sixty-one years ago flyers of the U.S. Army Air Corps dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan – a profoundly dramatic event that forever changed the world. This cataclysm released such energy that a blue sky was transfigured into a blinding white light of an intensity never before witnessed.

To some, it seemed that hell itself had intersected with the earth that day. Fifty to seventy thousand people were instantly killed and countless other maimed and fatally injured.

For more than six decades we have lived with the reality that humans have the capacity to destroy every lifeform God so lovingly created.

This is an extreme, dramatic example of how we on earth can treat on another, how fearful we can become when we are threatened, how easily we can forget why we were created, despite what God desires and longs for us to become. It illustrates how easy it is for us to pervert the energies God has created.

Though the bombing of Hiroshima has been repeated only once, its memory keeps vividly alive the threat brought by the existence of such weapons. For a season we might forget, but its sobering reality is never far from home. Our world is now embroiled in the fear and frustration and agony attached to the intentions of Korea and Iran to develop the capability of employing nuclear weaponry.

Maybe there is nothing new about this. Maybe this is just one more example of a history-long tendency to misuse technology. Still, on this sixth day of August, 2006, the existence in our world of enough nuclear weapons to kill all humans many times over makes us wonder whether scientific development has reached a point whereby we can literally negate God’s purposes.

Today’s gospel, however, reminds us of a deeper reality – that God insists always on having the last word. The dazzling, blinding white light cast on the mountain declares that God insists on transfiguring hell into heaven. God will not let the hell of Hiroshima that we speak of be the last word. God will not let the selfishness and inhumanity of nuclear annihilation win out.

The power of God can transfigure the events of August 6, 1945 into a level of restraint in the way nations settle differences. Wearied and bewildered world leaders in our small global community are fully awakened by powers bigger than all of them and the people they represent. The power of humanity to destroy and dehumanize one another is ever before them.

People of faith know that lying beside the power to destroy is the power of God – a force that will rise in human consciousness, intersecting our human ways, and unleashing the dazzling white power of love that can transfigure us.

As we remember August 6, 1945, always the image of the mushroom-shaped cloud comes to consciousness. But Christians who remember that August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration know, too, that another cloud overshadows the mushroom-shaped one. It is the cloud of the mountain from which the voice of God reminds us that Jesus is God’s chosen one to whom we must listen.

By the very power of God, we can be changed into the likeness of Christ – restored to unity with God and one another, united in God’s love. By the transforming, transfiguring power of God, humanity can turn its back on the intersection of blazing white hell on earth that we know as Hiroshima. By the power of God, in all its dazzling whiteness of love, we can face a future of heaven on earth, listening to God’s chosen one and following him into the way of life.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Seminary of the Southwest, 2005) and current member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, lives in semi-retirement with his wife Toni in Bastrop, Texas, a small town near Austin.