Archives for November 2006

At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, Christ the King (B) – 2006

November 26, 2006

(RCL) 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19) or Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37 

It is an extraordinary scene. Into the room swaggers the representative of the dominant nation on earth, wearing the uniform that spells power and authority. He probably sinks languidly onto his couch. As the local focus of Empire, this man is burdened with the daily responsibility of ruling probably the most difficult of the colonies. In most cases, whatever people believe, however they were once governed, there is no real conflict with the official propaganda of the Empire. Religion is local, personal, tribal, or an amalgam of many approaches to “the other.” One might be intellectual or uneducated. It doesn’t matter. Nothing much prevented the belief that the Empire was unique and special.

But here, in this small piece of geography, lives an unbending people. They believe that their destiny is to be agents of a God, an exclusive God, and that sooner or later that God is going to intervene, send the Empire packing, and establish a pure nation, with a pure religion, and with a pure law. These people are so sensitive that when they see the Empire’s standard in the streets, they go ballistic and shout about idolatry.

The colonial governor gazes at a strange figure. This man. They say his name is something like Joshua, or Jesus. He’s been up all night, after being arrested on the edge of town. This fellow has been dragged before a religious tribunal, peered at by the locally tolerated ruler, and now stands calmly. The religious authorities say that he has mortally offended their faith by claiming some unique kinship with God.

“Who cares?” thinks the governor. Religious fanatics can and do claim to be all sorts of things. They say he has stirred up the people. “We know how to deal with rabble rousers,” thinks the governor. Perhaps he needs a good beating, maybe a little torture to make him talk, and if that doesn’t work, there’s public execution.

“He says he is a king.” Now that’s interesting. Might give the local petty king something to sweat about. Whatever the man says, next to the power and might of the Empire, he is merely deluded.
“Are you the King of the Jews?”

“My kingdom is not from this world.”

That sounds safe enough. Religion has its place after all, as long as it isn’t involved in reality and people start applying religious beliefs to the problems of the real world. Yet Jesus had said some thing revolutionary. He said that his kingdom was not FROM this world.

After the execution, when this poor man was largely forgotten by the governor, his followers began to say that Jesus is Lord. That word “Lord” is roughly the same as “King,” and even more, as “Emperor.” The time would come when Christians challenged the Empire, not with armies or political theory, but with the simple idea that God’s kingdom was now here and that Jesus is Lord.

At the Eucharist we pray: “In the fullness of time put all things in subjection under your Christ.” “Christ” also means “king.” At Evening Prayer we ask that the whole world will praise God, all nations obey God, all tongues confess and bless God, and that “men and women everywhere love and serve God in peace.”

What does this mean? Such an agenda for an Empire means using power to enforce peace. It often means using economic, social, political, or military strength to make people into Empire folk. The Church has tried such methods. Those have been the worst moments in its history.

The key lies in the word “power.” Jesus’ power from God, his kingdom from above is a kingdom of weakness. He has committed the kingdom to weak people. Our only weapons are love, compassion, self-sacrifice, and mercy. As that mysterious passage from Revelation reminds us, we have been called into the kingdom as priests.

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Priests serve for God to the whole world and for the whole world to God. Priests are not armed.

Jesus the King still stands before the rulers and powerful of this world. He holds in his pierced hands, the poor, the starving, the unwanted, the abused, those shunned by important people. He holds up the suffering and he IS the suffering. And we are his agents, who have benefited from his mercy and who now are merciful, forgiving, caring people set aside by Baptism, not to personal religion, but to be agents of God’s kingdom.

And that is why we shout “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.”

 

— The Very 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. 

How do you spend time?, Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – November 19, 2006

(RCL) Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8 

How do you spend time? How will you live this day? Each of our lessons appointed for this Sunday has something to do with the end of time, with a glimpse into the question of when.When will time as we know it end? What will that time look like? And however we think of it, whether as the culmination, the fulfillment, the end – we can’t think about the time when things will come to pass without thinking about what we are to do in the meantime. Readings about the future call us to look at how we spend our time now while we are engulfed in a world that keeps reminding us how short our time us, how fast time goes; a world where time management is an issue, where we look around and see problems so great that even if we had all the time in the world, we might never solve them. Scientists say the universe is both expanding and speeding up. It sounds as if even the cosmos works against us: there’s more and more to explore, and less and less time to do it in!

How do you spend time? How will you live this day? As fall deepens into winter and days grow shorter, our lectionary texts ask us to look at time.

And why not? Isn’t dealing with time one of our greatest struggles? We begin this life as children do, with their delightful incomprehension of time. Maybe you remember yourself, or some child you know, waking up long before dawn on Christmas day. “Is it time to open presents yet? When will it be time?” Or the countdown to a birthday: “Is today my birthday? Is it today? How many more todays?” We will grow old, some of us, and our days may stretch out before us, as we wonder how to fill our time: the time between visitors, the time between meals, the time between the great effort of getting up and the relief of another bedtime.

For many of us, time is a problem because for us, it is a limited commodity. We have to make choices about what we do and when. Surely one of our great human questions is a question about time. The questions is “When?” We want to know how much time we have, how long we’ve got, what the deadlines are: when.

Thankfully, we are not alone in asking questions that begin with “When.”

“When?” was the disciples’ question on the day captured in today’s Gospel lesson. They were in the holy city Jerusalem, looking at one of the most beautiful sights they could ever hope to see – the Temple, adorned with beautiful stones and precious metals, brilliant, dazzling in the sunlight. And Jesus, their tour guide, says, “All this will be rubble, ruins, not a stone left on stone.”

“When, teacher, when will this be? Give us some warning, some sign so we can know when.”

But Jesus responds, not with a countdown or a calendar – not even with some good clues for calculation. He doesn’t say when. And as for the clues, the signs, we may be surprised by how un-clue-like they really are. They are so general: wars, and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. Certainly these are not specific enough to set a watch by. In fact, they are unfortunately as predictable and familiar as if Jesus had said, the sun will rise and set, spring will follow winter and winter will follow fall. Yes, there will be wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and plagues. There were then. One of the wars brought down that beautiful temple. But, as we know all too well, there still are wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues today. No age has been without these calamities; and sadly, the time does not seem to be near when they will cease. The enemies, and strategies, and weapons, and targets change; but the constancy of war does not. No, Jesus is not predicting the end here. He is no doomsday forecaster.

But Jesus does not call his disciples to forecasting. He call us to faithfulness. He doesn’t tell us when. But he tells us how to live, how to use our time.

It is significant that rather than signs of an immanent end, Jesus tells about things around us in the world, things that demand a Christian response. Not forecasting, but faithfulness. Jesus confronts our fears of living in dangerous times. He does not promise us rescue from the world’s distress. Rather, disciples are called to serve in a suffering world, bearing witness to the God who will not let suffering have the last word. Jesus gives us signs, things to watch out for, not because they help us predict how long we have, but to tell us there is no more important day than the day we now live. The wars, rumors, earthquakes, famines, and persecutions remind us that there is a need for a witness to God’s love, and that we are ones who can bring God’s love to people who hurt, people whose lives have been torn apart when nation rises up against nation, or tribe against tribe, or people against people, when family member rises up against family member, when hurricanes strike and terrorists strike out, when people are hungry and sick and their lives are slipping away.

Jesus gives us signs, but they are not useful for predicting the end. They are useful for showing us where God needs us to be, where God is: among the poor, the lost, the least, the lonely, the weak.

Jesus tells his followers in the midst of these things not to be alarmed. Do not be terrified. Don’t fill up your time with anxiety and fear. Our readings from Daniel and Hebrews point to the reason we need not be afraid. Both point to a confidence in the ultimate triumph of God. Knowing who holds the future, we can be aware, but not alarmed; faithful, not forecasting.

What does the future hold? Besides war and earthquakes and famine? Are these endless? Will every age know pain? Will time march on and on and on, bringing only so much sorrow? No. God holds the future, and for now we get glimpses. For us, the author of the Book of Daniel wrote: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

It is a generous and gracious God who holds all life, all time, all our days.

So we are freed to be faithful – to live every day as if it matters. Not because it might be our last, but because God holds the last, and every one until then. We can live as if this is the most important day of our lives, because it is a precious gift of God, an opportunity to show love, not fear; to be aware, not alarmed.

How do you spend time? How will you live this day?

Live this day, and every day knowing that God holds them all. And God holds you too.

 

— 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.

We are to give, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – November 12, 2006

(RCL) Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 or 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 127 or 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 

She was a woman. She was poor. These are two facts anyone could tell that day in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She was also a widow who was down to her last two coins. These are facts that Jesus also knew about her.

She was a woman of great faith. She became a living sermon. She remains an icon of faith as she put her whole trust in God, not holding anything back.

This unnamed woman is known now by her marital status and her coins rather than her name, for the story is “The Widow’s Mite” and she is “The Widow.” Yet we should be careful to note that it is the story of the widow’s mites as the woman had two small coins. Each of her coins were worth one four-hundredth of a shekel or what we might think of as an eighth of a penny each. Too small to bear a legible imprint, they were the grubbiest of coins in the empire of Rome.

Mark sets the scene for us sparingly. Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts. Now, on his way out, he pauses over and against the treasury to watch as offerings are made. Each person would walk up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, which were lined along the wall of the Court of the Women. As they tossed in their offering, the person was expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.

It would have been an impressive sight to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums, calling out to all how much they gave. And in such a group, who would notice the widow tossing the two smallest coins in the realm into the offering? Yet, in a move that is so like him, Jesus notices and calls attention to this act of faith.

Jesus calls his disciples together and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus knows that these are not any two coins, but the woman’s last two coins. The text says, “All she had to live on,” but the Greek is starker still. What is really said is that she put in her bios. It’s the word from which we get “biology,” the study of life. For Jesus tells us that the widow put her “life” into the temple treasury that day.

This is not a sermon about tithing, for the woman did not give ten percent of her income. These were her last two coins to rub together, and rather than keep one back, she tossed both into the temple treasury’s coffers. The widow gave 100 percent of her money. The widow is down to two practically worthless little coins, and she trusts it all to God. If this were a gamble, then the widow would be laying all her money on God. But this is not a gamble, for the widow does not bet her money; she trusts her life to God.

It would be nice if Mark filled in more details for us. Was Jesus’ arm around the woman as he said, “This poor widow has put in more …” or was the woman blending back into the crowd, never to be seen again? Or perhaps Jesus asked his own keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot, to give something to this woman so that she would not go hungry that evening. Or better still, did the widow come to be a Christ follower? Did she join with the other women who journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to the cross and beyond?

The Gospel never answers these questions. The nameless widow who gave two small coins fades into the background. We may want to know her name in order to name churches, schools, and hospitals in her honor. We may want to give her a place of honor in Jesus’ stories alongside disciples whose names we know, though their trust in God wasn’t always so exemplary.

But perhaps namelessness is appropriate for this living parable. And maybe it is best, too, that we don’t find out how her story ends. The nameless woman whose ultimate fate we never know is perhaps an even better icon of trust, for her story was a precarious one. She went to the temple that day not knowing if she would ever have two little coins to call her own again. It could have been her path to a life of begging or even a station on the road to starvation.

But in facing an uncertain future, the widow reached out to God. She trusted that if she gave everything she had to God, even the little she gave would be honored. And whether she was repaid handsomely by Jesus himself, or God cared for her in some other way, we, too, have to trust. We trust that the widow’s story turned out all right. We trust that whether she lived or died, she was God’s.

And by her example, Jesus shows that what we withhold may matter more than what we offer. The widow was a woman of great faith, who held nothing back. She knew what Jesus’ disciples were just learning: we are to give, knowing that everything we have is God’s already. We can’t give God anything. But we can offer our very selves to the Kingdom of God, holding nothing back.

She was a woman. She was poor. She was a widow down to her last two coins. She was a child of God who placed her whole life back in her loving creator’s hands.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue works as a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and is the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia. 

You are not far from the kingdom of heaven, 22 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – 2006

November 5, 2006

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 or Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 119:1-8 or 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34 

This is one of those gospels that when we hear it, we can get all comfy in our pews and say, “Oh well, of course. How lovely that thought is: Love God, love our neighbors. That’s what it’s all about. No problem.”

That’s what we might call “squeeze me, Jesus” theology – when we get all comfy with ourselves and think that just “love” is the answer. Thousands of popular songs have been written using those very words, heart-style jewelry is in every catalogue, movies by the score are based on our romantic notion of love. So, loving God and loving neighbor should be easy. Love should be the answer and everything would be all right. But we look at our world. We look at our church. What’s the problem? What aren’t we understanding?

Important questions! If we believe what Jesus is saying to this scribe, we have to admit that love is the answer. But really to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to define what we mean by love and perhaps more importantly –because it’s so easy for us to get comfortable with the familiar – we need to define who our neighbor is.

First, we need to understand that the love Jesus is talking about has to do with loyalty. The Valentine heart thing is all well and good, but this kind of love is a deliberate mind thing – a deliberate choice. It’s a commitment to living the kind of life Jesus lives. Jesus is telling his followers that to love God is to be loyal to God both when it’s easy and when it’s difficult. We must be willing to be loyal to the end no matter what.

But even if we can wrap our minds around the concept of being loyal to God – of trying to live a godly life – we have to remember that this love, this loyalty is bound up, as Jesus says, in loving our neighbor. We can’t choose to do one or the other.

Then, of course, comes the sticky part. Just who does Jesus mean by our “neighbor”?

We know the answer to that: everyone is our neighbor, both those who are like us, those who are easy to love – but also those who aren’t just like us and those who are pretty difficult to stand, let alone love. Not an easy thing to do. Our neighbors are also those whom we may never meet, but who might be touched through our outreach and prayer. The good news here is that they just might touch us.

Loving our neighbor isn’t just about benefits we confer on them. Remember the Old Testament lesson for today, that wonderful story of Ruth and Naomi. That’s a story of love going in both directions. It’s a story about real loyalty. Orpah wasn’t being mean or disloyal when she chose to return to her own mother’s house, to her own people. That was a perfectly sensible and honorable thing to do in that culture. Ruth and Orpah weren’t Jews – they were Moabites. We can sense the love that Orpah had for Naomi, but she chose to take a chance at being remarried, perhaps among her own people. Ruth on the other hand, made a radical and courageous choice. Her love, her loyalty to Naomi was so fierce and dedicated that she couldn’t abandon her mother-in-law even if it meant she might never be remarried – a problem for women in that culture – and might never be accepted by Naomi’s people.

Barbara Keener Shenk in her lovely book The God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel puts words in poetic form to Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi. Ruth says to Naomi:

“Your inner flame warmed me and helped me see
That loyalty and truth form bonds … and last eternally.
I came to share your bitter dregs with you
And found the cup was filled with joy for two.”

That kind of love asked a lot of Ruth and it asks more of us, too. Remember at the end of our Gospel passage, Jesus said to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” (But you’re not there yet.) And no one dared ask him any more questions. Being brought face to face with that concept of love – the kind Jesus is really is talking about, the Bible’s kind of love – was maybe quite enough for Jesus’ followers right then. They didn’t yet understand love as Ruth did. Some of them eventually understood. Others walked away.

So, what now? We may be perfectly willing to accept the full responsibility of this kind of love, but we’d like some guidelines. Jews seek to live out of Torah. We seek to live out our baptismal covenant. Take a couple minutes when you have your prayerbook in your hands, and read pages 304 to 305. You’ve already said yes to this covenant at your baptism. Let the story of Ruth and the words of the baptismal covenant strengthen your heart.

 

— 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.

We remember those who have gone before, and pray that we may follow after, All Saints’ Day (B) – November 1, 2006

(RCL) Wisdom 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44 

In recent years Halloween seems to have needed defending against those who regard it as terrible. Certainly there can be excess at Halloween, but in itself the holiday is worthwhile. It can even teach us something of importance.

Halloween is October 31, and All Saints’ is November 1, though many congregations celebrate All Saints’ on the following Sunday. As is well known, the name Halloween means All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve. It’s also widely known that many popular Halloween customs date back to the pre-Christian Druids of Ireland and Britain.

However, these customs come to us through the filter of many Christian centuries. Christ has conquered the powers of darkness and revealed the old gods to be nothing. The once fearful aspects of this season have become playful. Where once adults shuddered in fear, now even the smallest child can laugh.

It’s Christian confidence that makes Halloween a light-hearted time. Just as many who are not Christian share the joy of Christmas each year because the light of Jesus is abundant, even so many who are not Christian share our confidence at Halloween because grace is abundant. It overflows.

Halloween has been baptized. It has become All Saints’ Eve in more than name alone. Both occasions address the same themes, though they do so in different ways. Both occasions are concerned with the hope of life beyond the grave, choosing the side of the angels, and courage in a scary universe. All Saints’ approaches these themes with triumphant joy. Halloween deals with them through mischievous humor. Blessed are those who pass through the humor of Halloween to the joy of All Saints’.

Children are the chief celebrants of Halloween. Those of us who are adults serve as their acolytes. And what do children do on Halloween? They dress up in outlandish costumes and witness their peers dressed up the same way. They walk through their neighborhoods in the evening, enter houses made to look frightful, they collect candy, and they return home again. The whole business is a delightful joke. Behind the scary masks and costumes are laughing children. Inside the frightful houses, decorated with spider webs and candles, are friendly, generous neighbors.

The child who goes forth with a trick-or-treat bag takes a sane, healthy, and adventuresome risk, and finds that the universe can be a safe place. The trick-or-treater discovers that the world is a comedy where terrible things have been defeated and remain only as a laughingstock. It’s a great therapy for fear. There’s nothing hellish about it, because in hell there is no laughter.

Those of us past childhood would do well to imitate the willingness of children to venture forth into the unknown, take risks, and return home not only safe but triumphant. Children are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. They are new to this fight, and want to prove themselves heroic.

Benedictine sister Genevieve Glen writes of children:

“They are all too aware of the human need to wrestle in the inward night with the unreasoning, the untamed, the inexplicable, and yes, the evil in us to believe us when we tell them that there are no witches and warlocks, no ghosts and goblins, and no phosphorescent skeletons. … They know, too, that if you’re afraid of something, the best thing to do is to dress yourself and your friends – and even your little brother – as the thing you’re afraid of, so that you can see it in familiar flesh and confront it and deal with it and prove to yourself that it can’t really hurt you. They know that pretending that it isn’t real won’t work if it is. There are monsters under the bed.”

So the Halloween wisdom of children comes down to this: There are monsters under the bed, but we can face our fears, and by grace and struggle be set free from them. This is infinitely preferable to the common adult attitude that denies monsters under the bed, yet insists on remaining fearful. The children have caught the Gospel. Their hearts are filled with faith and fun.

This feast of All Saints’, with triumphant music, splendid prayers, white hangings and vestments, and everything else – this is the sunny side of Halloween. Today is joy while last night was comedy. The saints we honor this day, a vast, innumerable crowd, are but graduates of the school of grace and struggle in which trick-or-treaters have just enrolled. The saints are those wise enough to face their fears and accept the help of God as naturally as a small child walking in the dark accepts a parent’s hand.

The saints are those who accept an adventuresome risk, and one that’s sane and healthy too, even if their contemporaries can’t figure them out. These saints know the great therapy for fear. They take God seriously, at his word, while everything else, everyone else, including themselves, they regard not seriously, but lightly.

Saints are people who aren’t afraid to live with both the gruesome and the glorious. They are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. They are called forth into the unknown as into a dark night, they venture forth, enter spooky places, and return home not only safe but triumphant.

What makes them the saints they are? The renowned Episcopal preacher Barbara Taylor offers a list of upsetting characteristics, including “immoderate faith, intemperate hope (and) inordinate love.” They put on these characteristics like the outlandish costumes of Halloween, and never take them off.

Their hearts are full of faith and fun. Ignatius Loyola told his seminarians, “Laugh and grow strong!” Philip Neri performed ridiculous dances in the presence of cardinals and wore his clothes inside out. Teresa of Avila taught her Carmelite nuns to dance on holy days and even gave them castanets.

Children at Halloween recognize that beyond the very real struggle, there is a world of delight, free from fear’s control. That world is where the saints dwell, both saints in heaven and saints on earth.

Perhaps you have known some saints. Perhaps you know some now. Perhaps you are one of these saints, dwelling, part of the time at least, in that world of delight.

Today is the feast of All Saints. We remember those who have gone before, and pray that we may follow after.

Trick-or-treaters venturing forth on Halloween night provide us with a map for the journey, one drawn in the bright colors of childhood trust, courage, and humor.

The saints massed in their glorious ranks are a promise of our happy return home, with hearts glad and eyes open to the wonder of God.

As on Halloween night children were everywhere in outlandish attire, so every day of the year saints are everywhere, in heaven and on earth, known to us and unknown, costumed and uncostumed, children of God living by love and delight, all of them with one common home where the feast has no ending.

Using words from the priest and poet John Donne, let us pray to join the saints in that one common home:

“Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity in the habitations of thy glory and dominion world without end. Amen.”

 

— 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).