Archives for 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). 

I’m blessed, Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 25 (B) – October 29, 2006

(RCL) Jeremiah 31:7-9 or Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 126 or 34:1-8 (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52 

Gospel singer and evangelist Clay Evans sings a song entitled “I’m Blessed.” It’s a great piece about God’s goodness and mercy, always present, always here, through all things. In one verse, Evans soulfully sings:

“If you want to see a miracle,
All you gotta do is just look at me.
I’ve been blessed, I’ve been kept, by goodness and mercy,
Right now, I’ve got the victory.
I’m blessed.”

It’s of note that Evans is African American, born in Tennessee in 1925, who became a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Certainly no small or easy journey.

In today’s gospel reading, we hear another story about a difficult journey. We hear the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar.

In the pre-industrial society in which Bartimaeus lived, a beggar was the lowest of the low in the social hierarchy. One can well imagine the pain and suffering he endured. But through it all he somehow managed to maintain his hope, opening him to be in a place where he could call out to Jesus as he passed by. Sitting by the side of the road, Bartimaeus called out, “Jesus, have mercy on me.” But he was sternly ordered by the people in the crowd to be quiet. Yet in hopefulness he persisted, crying out more loudly still, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And Jesus heard. Bartimaeus was healed, made well, to get up and follow Jesus on the way.

As much as we might wish otherwise, our Christian faith does not provide immunity from hard times and struggle. Our churches are filled with people of faith who are suffering through some of life’s most difficult challenges. People who have lost a child or a spouse, people who are battling addictions, people who are loving yet anguished caregivers, people who are fighting life-threatening illnesses, people wracked with worry about their loved ones fighting overseas, people who are trapped in cycles of extreme poverty and oppression. The list is almost endless. It is a sad but true fact that many Christians at some point endure painful, soul-wrenching struggles.

But while our faith cannot prevent us from experiencing these struggles, God’s promise of goodness and mercy can carry us through even the worst of times. The difficulty is maintaining our belief in that promise. The question this morning is therefore, “How can we, as Christians, maintain our belief in God’s goodness and mercy through life’s most painful challenges?”

First and foremost, we can turn to the promises of Holy Scripture. We can find hope in the story of Jesus’ own suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus knows our suffering. He experienced first-hand what it is to suffer, and He knows our pain and suffering. Through God’s continued spiritual union with creation, we can be assured that when we suffer, we are not alone. God suffers with us. Every tear, every heartache, is one also felt by our creator. And we can be assured that God stands in solidarity with us through even the worst of times, whether or not we sense God’s presence. And God gives us hope. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion was not the end of the story, our suffering is not the end of the story either.

Another way we can maintain our belief in God’s goodness and mercy is through prayer. A young seminarian who lost both her parents at an early age shared a way of praying that helped her through the worst of times. She shared that in those most painful of days, she used to sit with her grandmother. Together, they would read the Bible, focusing on two particular passages.

First was the one that follows directly after the Bartimaeus story we heard this morning – the story of Jesus approaching Jerusalem, when he asks two of his disciples to go ahead and find a colt for him, on which they place their cloaks.

The second is Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The woman used these two images together to prayerfully imagine Jesus inviting her to take his yoke of love, in exchange for the heavy load of grief, loss, and doubt that she carried. She pictured releasing the pain she carried, which was placed by Jesus on the back of the young colt in exchange for the yoke of spreading the message of Christ’s love in word and action.

We close this morning with the story Captain Porter. The captain served in the Vietnam War. After an exemplary tour of duty, he was called home. On his last night overseas, he wrote excitedly in a journal about a young nurse from Kansas that he was to see that evening. But then tragedy struck. On his way home, the Captain’s vehicle was attacked, resulting in injuries that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It was twenty years later when a newly ordained priest came across him in an assisted-living facility in New Mexico. He had been living in the facility for nearly two decades, confined to his bed or a wheelchair. The new priest was nervous about meeting the captain. She knew his story, and fully expected to find him bitter and downcast. She wondered how she could be of comfort and offer hope to someone whose promising life had been cut short and severely compromised. It was with some trepidation that she knocked on the door of his room.

Imagine her surprise when he greeted her with eyes that sparkled, expressed his joy at seeing her, and invited her to sit down. The two spoke, and she finally asked how he was able to maintain his faith and optimism. He shared that each night, a caring attendant came in, and together they read a few passages of scripture. Next, she would prop a flashlight up on his nightstand to illuminate the icon of Jesus on the crucifix hanging on his wall. The captain explained that as they gazed at Christ’s image, he and the attendant would recite the Lord’s Prayer together. As he finished his story he looked at the young priest, smiled, and said, “You know, I’ve lived a blessed life.”

One can almost imagine The Rev. Clay Evans singing in the background:

“If you want to see a miracle,
All you gotta do is just look at me.
I’ve been blessed, I’ve been kept, by goodness and mercy,
Right now, I’ve got the victory.
I’m blessed.”

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has served as a priest in the Episcopal Dioceses of El Camino Real, San Diego, and Connecticut, and in the Anglican Diocese of the Waikato in New Zealand. She currently serves as a Staff Officer for Congregational Development working with small-membership churches (those with an average Sunday attendance of 70 or less) at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

Jesus tells us that our baptisms have given us power, 20 Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – 2006

October 22, 2006

(RCL) Job 38:1-7, (34-41) or Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16 or 104:1-9, 25, 37c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

Sounds like the office doesn’t it? Two up-and-coming members of the team take the boss aside and ask to be made vice presidents. Maybe they thought Jesus had an easy time talking, healing, and feeding. People often assume that a genius is someone who does things without much effort at all. It just happens. They forget that genius is “ten percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration.”

Following a great woman or man can be exhilarating. The roar of the crowd, preferential treatment, and adulation rubs off on those who walk in the shadow of the great. This even happens in the church. We’ve all met people who get their excitement and empowerment by being on the vestry or controlling a committee. They see themselves as special, licensed to get away with behavior that would not be tolerated at home or at work.

Jesus’ answer to these two disciples is ironic, perhaps even a little sarcastic. These brothers, nicknamed the “the sons of thunder,” were into power. They wanted Jesus to call down thunderbolts on a group of seemingly disrespectful people. Now they wanted a share of the power Jesus seemed to exercise.

Jesus assures them that they will share his ministry to the full. They will be baptized as he was baptized and drink of the cup from which he will drink.

When the other disciples hear of all this, they are annoyed. Whether their annoyance is at the brothers’ temerity, or whether they had hoped to make a similar request, we are not quite sure. In any event, Jesus goes on to give power a new meaning.

It is important for us all to remember that there is a Christian vocabulary suited for Christian living. More often than not we get into trouble when we give a word its secular meaning when we are supposed to be talking Kingdom language. “Power” is one of those words. Instinctively we translate the word “power” into “force,” or “dominance,” or “oppression.”

On the other hand, using the vocabulary of the world, we translate “servant” or “slave” as one who is oppressed and down-trodden. I’m sure the first Christians had the same trouble. But if we get the vocabulary wrong, we often find ourselves asking for the same sort of “justice” James and John sought. We seek empowerment.

Jesus tells us that our baptisms have given us power — dynamic power — power enough to lay down our lives, and if it is our lot, die for the Gospel and die for the Church. Jesus tells us that the cup we drink, the bread we consume, gives us the strength and fortitude to be servant-leaders, of which the diaconate is the example-ministry.

Surely that’s not the deal, is it? But Jesus tells us that servanthood, slavery, is exactly the deal.

Elsewhere Jesus tells us that if we want to save our lives, make something of our lives, exist to live, to be recognized, to succeed, we will die. Our only hope is to walk the way of the cross, dying in order that we may live. The strength of the church is in mutual self-offering in Christ for the life of the world.

The death of the church, at least from our point of view, is when we all seek the things we want — even if they are good, and caring, and virtuous, of great help to the boss — and thereby lose the courage to die, to let go, to offer up. Perhaps we need to re-learn that lesson; to offer up and let go of our most cherished passions and causes, trusting that God will see these things through the death of sacrifice, and restore them in his good time, and in his good way, shaped now into his will.

 

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

True humility, Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 15, 2006

(RCL) Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear this Gospel? Do you wonder if you are one of the rich people whose wealth will make it next to impossible to get into heaven? Have you ever heard this Gospel used in stewardship campaigns in which the prescribed fix or remedy for wealth is to give it to the church, ensuring that God would look favorably on you? Does this sound familiar?

As far back as the early Church, there have been suggestions that good graces and favor with God are obtained by sharing our wealth with the church. The burden of wealth is lifted, paving the way to heaven by the simple transfer of money or possessions. In fact, there was a time when it wasn’t even a suggestion – you could purchase the indulgences you needed. If you were wealthy, you were blessed in many ways. If you were poor, you were out of luck. It is no wonder that people living on the margins may hear hope in the words “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It suggests a certain promise of justice.

It should come as no surprise to you that the number of possessions or the amount of money we accumulate defines success in our society. Along with this success comes power. The power to choose how we live, where we live, and what we eat are among the many choices. Are we to accumulate wealth and give it all to the church or good causes in order to gain God’s favor? Is the answer in well-publicized gifts to good causes or in supporting our local congregations or churches?

This Gospel makes us squirm and feel discomfort, especially about wealth. Can there really be a trade off: do this, and that will be the reward? Do you think that Jesus meant what he said to the man in the Gospel? Is he asking us to sell all our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him? This is one of those moments when Jesus is being really clear, but our ears want to hear a more subdued version.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Are we to believe that wealth is incongruent with Christianity?

We begin to feel the conflict between being a person of faith who follows Jesus and the commandments while at the same time living by secular standards of success. This is one of the ethical challenges of living as Christians. The answer may be in stewardship, but not in stewardship limited to giving money and possessions away. Rather, it may be in understanding stewardship as caring for all of creation. If we understand stewardship as a social justice issue that provides security for all, we might come closer to knowing what Jesus is calling us to do in this Gospel.

Jesus tells us that living a good life requires more than obeying the commandments. The commandments are specific, listing do’s and don’ts, but they are not all inclusive. There is more to living a Christian’s way of life – loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And when we love God and our neighbors as ourselves, we naturally follow the commandments. With this in mind, the lessons today point us to loving God and our neighbors: the two great commandments.

We can probably name individuals whose lives modeled simplicity and obedience to the commandments. They seem to be given hero status, people such as St. Francis or Mother Theresa, for example. We can’t imagine ourselves living as they lived. They are saints; we are not. It is unimaginable, impossible, or unrealistic to think of ourselves in this way. Yet we are closer to understanding the principles they lived by than we are willing to admit. What might be missing are the bold and radical actions that came out of loving God and their neighbors. Jesus gave us the best example of total surrender to God. Through bold and radical actions and words, Jesus trusted that God would provide. He humbled himself in faith and obedience.

When we are most genuine, our humility shines through all the veneers that the world paints over us. The veneers of wealth and riches do not define us. Our possessions do not carry identity. However, these things may indeed separate us from being in relationship with each other and with God. They may be a barrier to the experience of surrender to God. If we allow it, they may lead us into a false sense of security and self-reliance.

The reading from Amos further clarifies this Gospel and its ethical challenge. In Amos, wealth is to be shared. Our covenant with God extends to the just distribution of wealth as a way of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Sharing resources with everyone around us is a concept confined to co-ops and the like, not pervasive outside those intentional communities. The wealthy do worse than ignore this idea; they sit in judgment of it.

We have to ask ourselves how justice is obtained concerning wealth. This is not an easy task, particularly because it is one of the most power-producing or power-diminishing elements of our society. Money issues break many relationships, so why would we be surprised that it might strain or break our relationship with God?

We have to ask the hard questions. Are we engaged in the just distribution of wealth because we participate in Outreach projects such as feeding and clothing the poor? If so, then how do we justify supporting wealthy companies and corporations whose practices are unjust, particularly in relationship to the poor?

Think about companies who cleverly build in depressed communities, in close proximity to Reservations, and places where people are desperate for jobs, but they offer only enough hours to keep them from paying for benefits.

Or consider companies who encourage our elderly to supplement their retirement by offering them part-time jobs while the company continues to destroy the environment with chemicals because it is cheaper to pay fines than to upgrade their photo processing?

Do we consider ourselves just and concerned about the environment, but continue to drink coffee out of styrofoam cups at our coffee hours and drive SUVs – those four-wheel drive vehicles that usually never leave the road?

We will know that there is a just distribution of wealth when someone loses a job and we all feel it, or when the cry of the earth causes us to make conscientious choices, or when no life is lost for lack of food or medicine.

Our covenant with God to love one another requires that we consider our choices and our actions. The awareness of our neighbors is the first step toward understanding what the Gospel is calling us to do. True humility is concerned with the just distribution of wealth as the only real stewardship. Jesus teaches us that surrendering the false security of wealth makes us good stewards of all creation. The simplicity of good stewardship is the uncluttered state, which may allow us to pass through the eye of that needle.

 

— The Rev. Debbie Royals, Pascua Yaqui from Tucson, Arizona, leads the Four Winds Congregation in Sacramento, California, 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.

They are sacred mysteries, Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – October 8, 2006

(RCL) Genesis 2:18-24 or Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 8 or 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16 

Sometimes we are so familiar with something that we don’t even notice it anymore. The little bit from the second chapter of Genesis that we just heard, and that we just heard Jesus quote, is like that. It’s so familiar it’s invisible. But it is dreadfully important and says some absolutely basic things about our vision of the world and of human life.

Remember the central pronouncement of God in the creation story? Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God has said one thing about His creation over and over: “God saw that it was good.”

But now God looks at all he has made, everything, and says, “It is not good.” It is not good that the man – and here “man” means, not a male person, but a human being – should be alone.

Think about that. Listen to that. Everything else is good, but this isn’t. Notice also that Adam, the human being, was hardly alone in the garden. First of all, God was with Adam in the garden. That’s a lot all by itself. Then, when the animals were all done, all of nature, all of creation, was with Adam in the garden. The whole world was there. The man was not alone.

In fact, this sounds like the perfect situation for much of popular American religion – one man alone, surrounded by nature, with God close at hand. How many times have we heard people say that this is really all the religion anyone needs: just me, God, and the great outdoors? Sometimes this is symbolized by a golf course or a trout stream. But when God saw it, when God saw one person, God, and the great outdoors, God didn’t say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Instead, God said, about this and only about this: “It is not good”.

Creation wasn’t finished yet. As long as the man lived in isolation from other people, the creation of a good, a complete, human being, had not yet happened.

It was in order to complete creation, to make a whole human being, that the other person, Eve, is created.

There are a couple of things to notice here. First of all, this story is not as much about the roles of men and women as it is about what it means to be a human being. Also, it is not saying that everyone should be married or that only married people are whole people. That’s just not true. After all, Jesus, the perfect image of God, was single. But this is saying that we human beings can only grow into who we are created to be with and through the other – through relationship and community. This growth happens in many ways, but it does not happen alone. If you ask an honest monk where his biggest and most important struggles come from, he’ll tell you “other monks.” We do not become whole or complete in isolation, but through community, through the “other.”

It is to this end that God has given us certain structures and situations in which we can, maybe, begin to discover what it means not to be alone, and where we can have our humanity drawn, and sometimes dragged, out of us. God has given us schools of love, places to grow.

Marriage and families are first of all about this. They are schools of love. And while not everyone is called to the vocation of marriage, for those of us who are, this business of helping one another grow into who we are created to be is one of the primary reasons God created marriage. To be sure, there is more to it than this, but that is primary.

In much the same way, God has called us to be the Church, and he has called us into this church, because without something like this we simply cannot be very Christian, in spite of – or more likely, because of – both the difficulty and the joy other people bring.

One of the central insights of Christianity is that being a part of a real, human, chunk of the body of Christ is essential to any serious Christian growth. Like marriage and family, parish life, church life, is not really about agreement, success, having our needs met, or happiness. Instead it is a school of love. It is about growth into wholeness. That is why, in Church as in families, the real ties that bind are ties of love and circumstances, not of any other sort of homogeneity.

Such growth is simply not possible without commitment to a lifetime of effort and intentionally seeking the grace and help of God. God’s intention that marriage be life-long is not an arbitrary and difficult rule God gives us to make our lives even more difficult. Instead, such intention is a gracious and necessary (if minimal) requirement if a real marriage is even to be possible.

In the same way, our Baptismal vows, which include a commitment to the life of the Christian community wherever we find ourselves, are also for the long haul; for better or worse.

So are life vows in monastic communities and the commitments involved in the other schools of love we are given. These vows are life-long in intention, because God knows we need at least that long to begin doing what we promise to do.

Sure, there are times when that does not happen. There are sometimes situations in which separation is the only option that contains hope and the possibility of healing. We have all known that reality. People leave churches and find new ones – as most of you know from experience.

And the pain and tragedy of divorce – and the fact that it brings very real possibilities of both destruction and new hope – is, in one form or another, a part of the lives of every one of us. If it hasn’t happened to us personally, we have been affected, often deeply affected, by it. These failures of relationship are devastating, and those who hurt need our love, our compassion, and our support.

But there is also an important thing about these experiences, about the times we fall short. We see them as tragic exceptions to the way we know life should be, and the way we want our lives to be. We know that we often miss the mark of our convictions and our beliefs. Yet even in the midst of our failure, we continue to stand firmly for the truth of God’s vision of life. Our vows, our marriage vows and our baptismal vows, our Ordination vows, these are not for just now, they are not for just when it feels good; they are for life. That is our standard and our goal. We may fall short, but we hold to that standard.

All of this is really to say that, at its heart, marriage is not a convenient human institution for protecting property, regulating sexuality, and safeguarding children. And at its heart, the Church is not a voluntary social convenience for like-minded people to share in an essentially private task.

As ordinary and as unglamorous as they usually are, both marriage and the Church are vastly more than this. They are sacred mysteries, built into creation and into human nature. They are schools of love, gifts of a loving God. For it is not good to be alone; and the only way to goodness, to wholeness, is through commitment, relationship, community, and the grace of God.

 

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

We must begin within, 17 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – 2006

October 1, 2006

(RCL) Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 or Numbers 11:4-6,10-16, 24-29; Psalm 124 or 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 

“No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me”  (Mark 9:40).

You may be familiar with an outfit called the Church Ad Project. Started some years ago by a dynamic Episcopal priest with an interest in evangelism and church marketing, it got some of the best brains in the advertising world together to donate their time and talent to produce catchy, if somewhat offbeat, ads for the Church.

One such ad – a favorite – highlights the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of women in the ordained ministry. Above a photograph of a very traditional-looking altar reads the caption “Where Women Stand in the Episcopal Church.” The message is clear and simple. Women have indeed been accorded their full and equal share in the grace and responsibilities of ordained ministry in our Church. Some are now even serving as bishops, including our newly elected presiding bishop.

Perhaps this popular ad or poster could be revised from time to time to highlight where others stand in the Church. Pick a marginalized or out-of-favor group, and somewhere in the Episcopal Church you will find them accepted and fully integrated into the life of their local worshipping community. That is where they stand in the Episcopal Church. Our Church has tackled some of the toughest issues of our time in order to make all people feel welcome in its ranks. After all, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” has been our motto for many years. No matter who “you” may be.

In today’s Gospel account, the disciples come to the Lord troubled about someone, an outsider without standing in their community, acting in his name to cast out demons. Scripture does not record who this someone was, so we can only speculate. It may have been a religious zealot with his own agenda. It could have been a genuine believer not yet fully integrated into the circle of Jesus’ disciples. It may have been an imposter or fraud. We will never know for sure. But the disciples certainly do not put out the welcome sign for him. Like overeager corporate attorneys defending their company’s trademarks in the marketplace, they act quickly to protect their exclusive franchise on the use of Jesus’ name and authority. They want this outsider stopped. And they take the matter right to the top, confident that Jesus will get the point and lower the boom.

It does not work out that way. Jesus is not concerned that others are acting in his name. He probably knows that his world – just like ours today – has more than its fair share of evil spirits: war, violence, hatred of those who are different, and greed, to name but a few. Casting out such demons – no matter who is doing it – is bound to be a good thing. “No one who does a deed of power in my name,” Jesus tells his anxious disciples, “will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” He reminds them, and us, of what should be an obvious truth: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus’ tolerance for those not of his following is astonishing for his troubled times. But it is more than just tolerance. Jesus does not simply put up with those who do not belong to his circle, as if they were an annoying but harmless irritant, like summer bugs at a picnic. He welcomes them. They are the disciples to come. Those who do not now belong will soon enough have a full share in the reward of the very kingdom he has come to proclaim. Whoever bears “the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward,” says Jesus. All are welcome to work wonders in his name. Casting out demons is not the personal prerogative of the disciples. It is the challenge for all.

Our world is scarcely less fearful and frightening than that in which our Lord lived so long ago. People are still afraid of those who do not belong, of the exile and refugee, no matter what “deeds of power” they may demonstrate. We see this played out every day in distant lands and in the corridors of power in our own country. Our prejudices remain a stumbling block to our common life and to world peace. We remain too ready to perceive enemies everywhere at work against us. We are as much as ever in need of Jesus’ reassurance that all will be well. We still need to be reconciled, one to another.

Reconciliation is of course the definitive “deed of power” that drives out the demons and evil spirits of any age. It requires that we see the other in a new and different light – as the neighbor in the next village and as the distant relative who shares our bloodline. Only this kind of change of heart can bring an end to suspicion and bloodshed. But it takes hard work and patience, both of which are in short supply.

Too often, like the people of Israel described in our first reading, we complain when things do not go our way. We want instant answers and immediate gratification. We think back to good times that probably never were. We grumble. God must sometimes be as exasperated with our demands and grievances as he was with those of the ancient Israelites. But the problem is not with God.

As always, the problem is our own fear and lack of trust, our inability as individuals, churches, and societies to live by faith, to be reconciled, to see in the good deeds of others the reflection of the love of our common Father in heaven. Perhaps the Lord needs to send seventy elders into our midst today, as he did among the people of Israel in the wilderness, to prophesy to us and bring once again order to our chaotic lives and compassion to our hardened hearts.

The Lord is still able to cast out demons. The welcome signs in front of our churches are a constant reminder to each of us that no matter who we are or where we come from, we are all capable of unimagined “deeds of power” if we but call upon the Lord’s name as did that someone in our Gospel narrative. That is where we stand in the Church today. There are plenty of demons left in the hearts of each of us. In the name of Jesus, we can cast them out. But we must begin our work with humility and reconciliation. We must begin within. For as the comic-strip character Pogo said decades ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 

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