Archives for January 2007

On his way, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2007

January 28, 2007

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30)

Most Episcopalians know that when a rector leaves a parish to accept another call or perhaps to retire, the parish itself, with the assistance of the bishop, must find a new rector. Most folks also know that this can be a long and sometimes arduous process for the parish community. Because of this, the bishop will often send a seasoned priest to serve as interim rector or pastor during the transition, providing reassurance and continuity, and preparing the parish for new pastoral leadership and the changes that it will inevitably bring.

The church has come to recognize the value of interim ministry as well as the difficulty and challenge faced by clergy who engage in it. After all, the interim rector does not stay in one place long enough to form the kinds of lifelong relationships most people cherish in their churches and communities. In interim ministry, no one church is home for long. Sometimes jokingly referred to as faster pastors, interim clergy are seemingly always on the move. Pastoral relationships are telescoped in time, and priests and people are constantly aware of the fleeting nature of their work and task. But in that, they are also reminded of the transitory nature of life itself.

A skilled interim rector can help parishes achieve things they might never accomplish on their own. An honest look at the parish’s history, for example, can reveal its strengths over the decades as well as its vulnerabilities. Likewise, opportunities for mission and ministry may be discovered in places long overlooked or never before explored. Pastoral transitions also provide an excellent opportunity to challenge old ways of thinking that may no longer work and to reaffirm the parish’s commitment to the ministry of the wider Church beyond its own parish boundaries.

Of course, some people resist change no matter how sorely needed. They feel threatened by innovations and new ideas, while tradition and long-standing custom provide them comfort in a world of constant flux and instability. Newcomers and strangers – including interim rectors – may end up disrupting decades of routine in a particularly close-knit and enmeshed community.

Today’s account from the Gospel of Luke continues last Sunday’s story of Jesus’ sermon preached in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus starts out just fine. “All spoke well of him,” we are told, “and were amazed at his gracious words.” But it is not long before he gets himself into trouble. His references to the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners and gentiles, serve to infuriate Jesus’ townsfolk. For these episodes imply to them the need for a change of attitude and an acceptance of those who are different. And the people of Nazareth are emphatically not ready for that. We read that they “drove him out of the town.” Jesus barely escapes with his life and sums up, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Rebuffed at Nazareth, Jesus hits the road, traversing ancient Palestine and preaching a Gospel of repentance and forgiveness to anyone who will listen. Some settled pastors and rectors might well identify with Jesus’ frustration as they minister year after year to people who have perhaps become inured or even oblivious to the Gospel message of mission and proclamation. The temptation might be to move on. After all, Jesus himself seems happier in itinerant ministry than in the settled life of a long-term pastor.

Following Jesus requires changes in accustomed ways of thinking about the world and about home. It requires a readiness for transformation and a new Spirit that embraces the exile and the outcast as cherished members of the family. Jesus himself was homeless — exiled from his own land. As he says in another Gospel passage, “Foxes have holes, and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Home is an elusive concept, of course. After all, it is hard to think of the people of Jesus’ village as the sort one would really want to be at home with in the first place. Their self-serving expediency is not a family value anyone would cherish, then or now. No wonder Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Most of us readily identify with the sentiment expressed in proverbs and sayings such as “there’s no place like home,” and “home, sweet home.” But amid an epidemic of violence at home and in the streets of our towns and cities, we also recognize that for many people nowadays there is nothing at all sweet about that place called home. Even poets and writers of our own age are ambivalent on the subject. “Home is the place,” Robert Frost tells us with a note of irony, “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Thomas Wolfe, the great American novelist of the last century, says simply, “You can’t go home again.”

The old expression, “home is where the heart is,” perhaps best expresses a Gospel outlook, for it recognizes that our true home is not a house or a town or a dot on the map, but a dwelling and abode found only in our hearts. No matter our connections to our place of origin or current physical surroundings, it is only the geography of the human heart that matters. As Jesus reminds us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Ultimately for followers of Christ, anyplace and everyplace can be home. The early Christians sensed this as they referred to their newly embraced faith not as home or shelter or even castle but as the way or the path. As Christians, we are all spiritual nomads, bathed in baptism at the Jordan, making our way out across the desert of the soul, and seeking acceptance and welcome at the nearest oasis or village. We offer in return the Gospel message of life and freedom.

Presiding bishops, rectors, interims, and priests-in-charge come and go. But as our children grow up and move out, as jobs and other commitments take loved ones far away, and as our friends depart from us, we remember where home really is. We remember that we are still people of the way. Even if we never leave home, we are all interim lay people, wayfarers who have come together for a while in the Lord’s presence to be nourished for our journey.

And because we are all guests, we must learn, in turn, to welcome others as we ourselves would wish to be welcomed. Together, let us now strike camp and set out yet again on our journey, seeking our true home with the God and Father of us all.
— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California.

Listen with understanding, 3 Epiphany (C) – 2007

January 21, 2007

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

On this, the third Sunday after Epiphany, we are presented with images of two public readings from the law and the prophets. These images are highly dramatic, and in visualizing them, we need to also feel some of the emotion of the context in which they were read and some of the excitement of the persons listening to the reading.

In the Book of Nehemiah, which appears only twice in our lectionary, Ezra, the scribe, is reading aloud from the Mosaic law to the returned exiles who are gathering at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. He read from early morning to midday, the book tells us, and the listeners included both men and women. The writer emphasizes repeatedly that the people heard with understanding, and that the readings were interpreted for them, from the ancient written language to the spoken contemporary language they could understand.

At a time when the Bible has become an idol for so many of our compatriots, this note is important – listening with understanding. Referring to the Bible as the ultimate truth without knowing what is in it, how it was written, who wrote the various books, under what circumstances, without being aware of the context of each story, does no honor to our beloved Scriptures. We cannot allow words to enslave us; we must pray that their truth will liberate us. To cling to a verse in order to defend a position that justifies our personal bias and prejudice is tantamount to idolatry.

In Nehemiah’s time, the people hear the law and they weep. They are so deeply moved to hear again what they consider their legacy from Moses that they fall on their faces to worship the Lord and they continue weeping. But the scribes and priests and their governor, Nehemiah, remind them that this is a holy day and a cause for joy and celebration and for sharing with those who have nothing. It is too bad that the 12th verse is not included in this first lesson because it is significant: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

This is the first image from today’s readings. The second comes several centuries later. The people are no longer exiles but they are under the yoke of the Romans. Their longing for Messiah has not abated. They do the customary thing and go to the synagogue to hear the prophets and the law read to them. The location this time is Nazareth. Jesus has been baptized by John, has called his disciples to his ministry, and has wrestled mightily with the tempter in the desert. Triumphant after defeating the temptations of earthly power, of easy miracles and magic, he returns home to Nazareth. He knows who he is and what his mission from God is. He also knows that the people hearing him remember him as the son of their own Mary, of Joseph the carpenter, the brother of several men and women who live in their midst. With the assurance of a prophet, he chooses to read from Isaiah, those powerful, familiar passages of the Servant Song. He proclaims his mission, here in the town where he grew up: he has come for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.

The categories fit the poor people of Nazareth as they fit the poor people of captive Palestine under the Romans and their collaborators among of the higher clergy. It is an electrifying moment when he says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Twenty centuries later these words cause cold chills to run up and down the spines of those of us who understand their import. What must it have felt like to hear them from the mouth of the one who was convinced of his mission to the poor and the oppressed?

At first the listeners are complimentary: How well he speaks! And he is one of our own!

But Jesus, as will be made clear throughout his ministry, does not flatter, does not give the people only what they want to hear, but challenges their closest-held beliefs. He finds that he cannot do miracles in his hometown. The people’s doubts, suspicions, and lack of faith form a wall that even he cannot break through. He tells them that they are not the only ones who are chosen by God – that certain ancient prophets ignored the chosen in order to heal specific individuals, foreigners, who, though not of the house of Judah, were people of faith nonetheless. Jesus’ listeners don’t like this turn in the lesson. They revel in their choseness by God. How dare he doubt their righteousness? A moment ago they were praising him; now they are ready to do him harm. Having foreigners, non-Jews, included under God’s mercy is not welcome to their ears. It somehow insults their own righteousness.

Jesus, the supreme master at laying bare the subtle sins of the human heart, continues to challenge us today as he did his own people on that first day in Nazareth. What are our own assumptions about the scriptures?

The passage from Isaiah that Jesus makes his own is not only the ministry of our Lord on this earth but also the mission of the church. Our presiding bishop keeps emphasizing the mission we are called to do in the world. How liberating it would be in this season of Epiphany to focus on the mission to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed instead of arguing about interpretation of certain biblical passages.

Both Nehemiah and Jesus call us powerfully today to listen with understanding. And St. Paul urges us, together with the Corinthians, not to break up the Body of Christ. “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Amen.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.

Behold, I am doing a new thing, 2 Epiphany (C) – 2007

January 14, 2007

Isaiah 62:1-2; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

There is something almost mystical about the beginning of a new year. It is exactly what Epiphany calls forth – with the coming of Light, with the announcing of the coming Kingdom of God, and the revealing of the well-beloved Son at his baptism, we enter into a new year, a new season of hope. All will be different, we pray, and this will be a better year than the last. God only knows how desperately we need this hope in our troubled world; last year was a tragic year for so many people caught in the misery of war and of poverty. So much has gone wrong. But even with this awareness, we human beings cling to hope. We always think the new must be better than the old, and we enter each new year hoping.

For many it starts with a kind of partying that reveals only desperation. For others it comes quietly, maybe in regretful loneliness; for those of us who delight in God’s steadfast love, as today’s chosen psalm affirms, we prefer to study and pray, to savor the season of Epiphany with its many-layered meanings.

The Gospel of John is quite different from the synoptics, and there is something absolutely fitting in the story he chooses to tell of the first sign that ushers in the public ministry of Jesus. It happens at a marriage feast. So many hopeful firsts come together in this story.

Of course a marriage is the beginning of a new life for the couple. Some very special guests have been invited: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her firstborn son, Jesus, who has assembled a group of followers. It is the beginning of a ministry that will change the course of history. But no one knows this at the time of the wedding celebration. The first hint of it will come during a peasant wedding party in a peasant village. The kingdom of God is at hand.

Creative energy surges through this story, like the energy of new hope that greets the beginning of each new year. Nature’s process of the cultivation and fruition of the vine is abbreviated through the creative power of the One who has been here from the beginning, as John says so eloquently in the prologue to his gospel: “All things came into being through him, and without him no one thing came into being.” Every sign that John recounts in his gospel is explained by this one statement. So Jesus turns the water into wine and the word goes out that this particular guest is not ordinary.

On many occasions throughout his intense, short ministry, Jesus will try to avoid the use of miracles; at the beginning of this occasion he does resist his mother’s insistence that he do something about the lack of wine. We cannot know what caused him to change his mind, to show that “his time has come” at least in partially revealing his glory. The only ones at the wedding feast made aware of his tremendous interference with nature are the servants and the small group of disciples. They are the ones who matter now. “Jesus did this, the first of his sings in Cana of Galilee and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” From now on they will stay with him through both the glory and the pain, and later, they will remember, they will understand, and they will proclaim the kingdom which they witnessed being ushered with this sign.

Years later, the apostle Paul will try to interpret miracles as gifts of the Spirit to the hard-headed Corinthians. He makes it quite clear that nothing of value happens to the faithful community without the power and intervention of the Holy Spirit. In today’s epistle he says clearly: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The common good: looking at today’s story told by St. John we may wonder, What is the common good in turning water into wine in a particular home in an obscure peasant village?

There may be no definitive answer to this question, but there is a truth that shines through, a reality that makes the hope for this new year beginning for us even more significant.

Jesus did enjoy life and wanted others to enjoy it to the fullest also. He is not a gloomy guide but a joyful friend. He tells us in fact, “This is who I am; follow me.” There is goodness in life and in the meaningful occasions of our lives. We all have emerged from a season of companionship with family and friends, a season of feasting and music. As we enter into this new year of our lives, let us remember that the Lord of life contributed to the joy of a wedding feast, blessing it with his presence and blessing nature with his gift of abundance.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing.” May everything that is new and good and whole be revealed to us in this season of Epiphany as a gift of the Spirit so that our joy may be complete.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.

You are my beloved, 1 Epiphany / Baptism of Our Lord (C) – 2007

January 7, 2007

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What does it mean to be God’s chosen? What does it mean to be God’s Beloved? The four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism a bit differently, but a core truth emerges from all of them: that Jesus is God’s chosen one, God’s beloved son. A voice from heaven belonging to God or God’s Holy Spirit declares about Jesus or directly to him: “You are my beloved.”

Mark and Luke report the voice speaking directly to Jesus: “You are.”

The Gospel of John says that John the Baptizer saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain upon Jesus as witness of a promise given to John: this is the Beloved, this is the chosen one in whom God is well pleased.

Matthew uses the same assurance in the third person: He is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

In any version, this is an affirmation, an acknowledgement, and the tender approval of a son by his father. It is also, as the scholars tell us, an act of will – to be beloved – not an evidence of feelings.

We can dare surmise that either Jesus reported this event to his disciples or that there were eyewitnesses, like John the Baptizer, who saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, or who also heard the voice saying these remarkable words of affirmation and approval.

But why did it take so long for Jesus to make this decision to become public with his understanding of the character of God? In that first century, which afforded a much shorter life span, thirty years was a very long time.

All the gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the Jordan river. Even his cousin John is shocked that Jesus wills to be baptized by him. A careful reading shows us that this was a momentous decision and that Jesus must have prayed about it for a very long time before appearing on the bank of the river and asking John to baptize him.

The story also reveals that John knew that he was destined to be a pro-dromos, the marvelous Greek appellation for John: the one who goes ahead on the road to open the way for another person, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” as Gabriel had promised to John’s father Zechariah. Yet even John did not know exactly who was more powerful than he, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. He had no idea it would be his very own cousin. Oh, it is very possible that his mother and father had prepared him, but the wondrous events of these two men’s births – John’s and Jesus’ – were in the distant past. People forget the stories they hear in their infancy and childhood. Reality has a way of interfering and making the stories appear as myths or as the fantasies of loving, partial mothers.

They both must have been told they were chosen by God for a specific ministry, but in that religious environment, most males probably were told the same thing. However, what we do know about them is that these two cousins never wavered from their chosen path. John grows up and chooses the difficult way of the desert and an ascetic way of life – he becomes a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus chooses a ministry that thrusts him into the midst of people and their suffering. John’s choice involves enormous humility. He says clearly, “I am not the one you are waiting for, there is one greater than I coming after me.” Jesus’ choice involves servanthood, a ministry of healing and of teaching, the proclamation of God’s kingdom in the midst of an occupation by the greatest earthly power, the empire of the Romans.

Both of their ways lead to violent death. Ah, the chosen of God, the beloved of God! What a terrible end awaits them. Did the two of them, on that day when one baptized the other, when a voice broke through the silence between God and humanity to proclaim love and favor, did they suspect that they would die violently – they, the favored ones, one calling for repentance, the other offering a new way to look at God and life?

If they did suspect, nothing in their few remaining years showed that they abandoned their chosen path in order to avoid early death.

John’s life is filled with courage. Some would call it madness, to criticize a king like Herod, but John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, had no choice but to call sin by its name and to stand up to a king and his family, unafraid. He was convinced that sin led to death for the sinner, and he didn’t have much sympathy for those who rejected his call to repentance.

Jesus’ life is supremely courageous in his challenge to both the religious leaders of his own nation and the power of Rome over his people. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was proof enough that he was not afraid of either powerful group. He starts his public ministry with the symbolic death of baptism by water and ends it with the actual death of his physical body.

What does this story say to us?

Jesus’ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism remind us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him. It is never too late for any of us to say “yes” to God.

The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed, even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity, but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words “With you I am well pleased.”

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.

The season of light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2007

January 6, 2007

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light. In fact the Greek church, in the language of the people, has called this season, Ta Phota: “the lights.”

In the Eastern church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. This liturgical season resides also in symbolism, something people in the east seem to understand much more easily than we in the West. The presence of water in Epiphany is as meaningful as that of light, perhaps reminding us that this was the preferred time for baptism in the early church. On Epiphany Day in every port city in Greece, the Orthodox bishop throws a cross into the waters of the sea and brave young men jump into the cold January Aegean to retrieve it. In offices and homes, round loaves of Epiphany bread are broken and shared. Light, bread, the cross, and water. The magi are hardly mentioned.

In the ancient world further East, in Persia and Babylonia, the magos (which is the singular of magi) was a wise man who specialized in the reading of the stars. In Israel, the king, as we heard in the Psalm for today, was expected to have qualities of the magos – there was a mystical association with the supernatural in the Jewish tradition. As it says in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

So when we tie all these symbols together, we enter into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away, or literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder, yes, even the good magic of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling that first thrill that ran through our little bodies when the story first entered our consciousness? The Eastern kings, dressed in many-colored robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them, leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem—these remain in our consciousness.

One wonders if the story came down to Matthew from someone who remembered it from the palace, who passed it on from parent to child. Maybe it was someone who recalled the bloodshed in that palatial, miserable household – how Herod, who had not wanted to leave his throne to anyone, was shocked with fear when he considered that an heir other than his sons would inherit it. How the Jewish chief priests and scribes trembled before Herod’s wrath when asked for the prophecy of the birthplace of Messiah. How frightened Herod was that the town mentioned by the prophet Micah was Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem and how he ordered his servants into a conspiracy of false hospitality. The story must have been told again and again until it reached Matthew years later, and it was such a marvelous story that Matthew could not resist it. It was a blessed choice for millions of readers and listeners through the centuries.

After months of traveling through the desert, the magi arrive first at the palace in Jerusalem – they were expecting to find a king, after all, so the first place they think of is the palace – and thus give the shock of his life to Herod who, cunningly, sends them on to find this child. When they reach Bethlehem, do they feel disappointment to enter a humble household? Matthew says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: they rejoiced with an extreme joy.

They see the child with his mother. She is holding him on her lap as they kneel and bend to touch their foreheads to the ground. What is Mary thinking when she sees the gifts they offer? Does she feel a premonition when she smells the myrrh, an herb used for burial? Later in her life, will she stand at the foot of the terrible cross remembering that beautiful visit and the premonition of his death?

We can only guess. We only know that something remarkable happened on that day when the far east and the near east came together. But the gift to us is that the visit of the magi reveals something else that has as much meaning for our lives today as it did in that first year of the first century. The rich and the poor mingle in harmony in this story. The rich don’t withhold from the poor; they offer not only necessities, but luxury and beauty. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim – peace on earth, good will toward all people, mercy to the poor – the acknowledgment of the full humanity of the poor, of women, and of children (which was an alien concept in the ancient world). The rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem.

May that image stay with us to give balance to our thinking, to our lives.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.