Archives for March 2007

Jesus was rich in friends, 5 Lent (C) – 2007

March 25, 2007

Isaiah 43:16-21Psalm 126Philippians 3:4b-14John 12:1-8

Quite a few of us grew up in evangelical churches and were raised on a diet of fiery preaching and gospel hymns. One of the most popular hymns of that genre is “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Jesus was rich in friends and found great joy in them. Indeed, his choice of friends attracted the criticism of his enemies. In Matthew 11, he was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. However, the most significant mention of friendship in the gospels occurs in John 15: “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends.” It is significant that of all the gospels only John remembers that at the Last Supper, Jesus declared his disciples to be not servants but friends. John seems to have been more interested in Jesus’ friendships than the other gospels, and this may be because the author of John was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend – the “beloved disciple.” We usually identify this beloved disciple as John, but in fact, the gospel does not give him a name.

John’s gospel is also unique in giving us two other stories about friends of Jesus. First, John tells us of the close friendship Jesus seems to have enjoyed with Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. Second, John passes on to us the somewhat disturbing story of Mary’s impulsive gesture of pouring expensive perfumed ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair.

Undoubtedly, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesus’ good friends. Jesus was in their home on at least two other occasions. In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told that a “woman named Martha opened her home to him” and that she had a sister named Mary. Even though Luke does not identify the village as Bethany or tell us that they had a brother named Lazarus, this appears to be the same Martha and Mary of whom John speaks. And of course, Jesus came when Lazarus died and raised him from the dead.

Friendship occupies a middle ground between familial love on one hand, and romantic love on the other. The common interests that help create friendship can make friendship an easier relationship than some of our familial relationships. The passion that brings together lovers can make a romantic relationship easier at the beginning, although this seldom lasts. Friendship is different from kinship in that we choose our friends on the basis of common interests or common experiences. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that while lovers long to look into each others’ eyes, friends stand side by side looking toward the common interests that drew them together and made them friends in the first place.

In families, we are conscious of our place and the complex relationships created by birth order, parenting, and so on. In romantic relationships, we may also be on our best behavior, hoping and praying that our love is returned by the one we love. In contrast, friends are people with whom we can be ourselves. They are willing to overlook our foibles and even find them endearing.

What are we to make, then, of Mary’s shocking gesture of pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair? Whatever this act meant, it was profoundly disconcerting then and now. John attributes Judas’ discomfort to his greed. In the parallel story in Luke, Simon the Pharisee is embarrassed because of the reputation of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. We may perhaps have similar reactions. Like Judas we may be outraged by the seeming waste of expensive perfume, or like Simon we may be concerned about the apparent impropriety of the gesture. But Jesus took the gesture in stride. It was an unusual gesture of friendship (to say the least!) but apparently that is how he took it. Jesus was so comfortable with himself and with Mary’s friendship that he was able to accept such a profoundly intimate gesture.

In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing truly worthwhile.” The Incarnate Lord has called us friends. In other words, he has invited us into a relationship. If we accept this invitation, our friendship with God in Christ will deepen. It will become intimate. We will be able to do things for God, such as spend an entire night praying at the side of a dying friend. We may even find God calling us to do things that are not only intimate but also dangerous, such as working with the hungry and homeless in a poor country of the Southern Hemisphere. But we will be able to endure the risk and the embarrassment because God has called us friends. And as our intimacy with God grows, it will become a fragrant offering, filling not just our house but the entire world with the perfume of love.

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.

In the end, it’s about bread, 4 Lent (C) – 2007

March 18, 2007

Joshua 5:9-12Psalm 322 Corinthians 5:16-21Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life for the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.”

In the end, it seems it is about bread. Which is only right, since in the beginning it was also about bread. Not just any bread, of course, but “true bread,” which comes down from heaven. If we could just get our hands on the right bread, Christ will live in us, and we will live in Christ. And one notes that as we pray, we acknowledge that this bread is bread that is given. We ask God to give us this bread, just as Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Those who live in Christ are those who depend on bread that is given daily.

In the Bible this is an echo of an earlier time when our ancestors in the wilderness did, in fact, depend on bread that was given daily: They called it manna, which in Hebrew roughly translates as “what-is-it.”

As our first text notes, however, once out of the wilderness and into the land of Canaan, the people no longer depended upon daily bread, and instead we are told “they ate the produce of the land.”

For the benefit of anyone who missed this, the text goes to great pains to repeat this assertion: “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.”

Now this might be seen as good news – good news that the people are now capable of being self-sufficient, taking their fill from the produce of the land. But we might note that the text makes a peculiar assertion that could easily be overlooked: the manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land. There is a suggested cause-and-effect here: self-sufficiency interrupts the bread supply.

Were we to read further into the Joshua saga, we would discover that self-sufficiency begets dangerous and dysfunctional behavior. For once the people no longer depend upon bread that is given, once they take from the produce of the land, once they wean themselves from a dependence on the grace of God, new problems set in – in particular the problems of covetousness and greed.

This is something God had warned them about back in manna season. One of the ten commandments, the tenth, and the only one repeated twice in the Exodus text is Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet.” But once the new-found freedom of self-sufficiency had set in, covetousness was not far behind.

Indeed, after success at crumbling the walls of Jericho, things begin to go awry, all because of one person’s covetousness. The Lord had decreed that all the silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron were to be deposited in the treasury of the Lord to benefit the entire community. Just as manna season provided enough for everyone, no one had too much. If you saved it and hoarded it, it went sour. The treasury of the Lord was meant to work for the benefit of the whole of God’s community.

Sure enough, come the next battle in chapter seven, things go poorly. A special prosecutor is appointed to find out why, and the way the special prosecutor worked in those days was to throw some dice. The special prosecutor determined that there had been some serious transgression against the Lord, and that the sin was in a particular tribe. Then rolling the dice again, it was determined that it was in a particular family in the tribe, and another roll of the dice revealed it was one man, Achan, who had held back some of the things that belonged in the treasury of the Lord. Achan had taken from the community goods, set aside his own little 401(k) or whatever, and this had caused the people to lose the next battle. One man’s sin caused the entire community to fail.

Because of Achan’s covetousness and greed, the life of the community was imperiled. What the Bible appears to be saying is that covetousness and greed kill. Withholding anything from that which belongs in the Lord’s treasury brings misery to God’s gathered community. Giving up dependence on bread that is given daily has its consequences.

Luke and Acts go to great pains to recreate manna season in the life of the early Christian community. What else are we to make of Acts, chapter four, verses 32-37, where we learn that “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.”

Which brings us to: What does it mean to live in Christ? It has something to do with a return to manna season. We might note in passing that among the principal characters in the story of the “Prodigal Son,” the servants provide an example of what it means to live in Christ. We might note with particular interest that at the father’s command, the servants evidently have free access to all the best in the father’s household: the best ring, the best clothes, the best food. And these servants are to administer all these “best” things according to the father’s wishes.

Now we might readily identify ourselves with the father, or the younger son, or even with the seemingly justified anger and self-righteousness of the older son – but the servants truly get at what it means to live in Christ. The servants are stewards of all the best in the household and are trusted to do with those things what the Father wants done.

Isn’t that who we are? Have we not been entrusted with all the best God has created – the earth and all that is therein? Look around and see the abundance and richness God has entrusted to our care. As servants in God’s household, we are stewards of all creation. Covetousness and greed, withholding anything that belongs to the whole community of God, leads to seriously bad consequences. Not much exegesis is needed to verify this.

Saint Paul says that being in Christ means that in addition to bread that is given daily, God gives us something else: a ministry of reconciliation. One suspects that these two things are related – a willingness to accept bread that is given daily and reconciling the brokenness of the world, a brokenness largely born of extravagant living, covetousness, and greed.

We are ambassadors for Christ, says Paul. God makes his appeal to the world through us. We are those people who pray for daily bread. May we also pray for the courage to be reconciled to God so that we might accept the ministry he so desires to give to us: the ministry of reconciliation. Our willingness to accept bread that is given daily has consequences for the whole world and everyone and everything therein.

 

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

The difficulty of being told we are wrong, 3 Lent (C) – 2007

March 11, 2007

Exodus 3:1-15Psalm 63:1-81 Corinthians 10:1-13Luke 13:1-9

Perhaps in a reaction to a period of history in which it was thought good not to overpraise each other, we’ve spent a generation “affirming” each other. It can be difficult, particularly when we are asked to affirm someone who has just bored us to death with the most awful twaddle.

Lent is a difficult time for those of us who are not used to being told we are wrong. As we follow Jesus to the cross, we notice that everyone seems to be judging him. He doesn’t seem to be cut much slack. There doesn’t seem to be much affirmation, save that of the fickle crowd that easily changes its tune from “King” to “Crucify.”

Moses was being very practical in his argument with God at the burning bush. God was telling Moses to go back to the place where he was wanted for murder and tell the tyrant to let God’s people go. Moses wanted to know by what authority he was being sent.

“My authority,” says God.

Moses then asks the crunch question. “Who are you?”

God answers: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

The whole theme of today’s prayer and readings is about the special relationship between God and God’s chosen people, and the responsibility the chosen people have toward God. Perhaps we have too easily said that God is love, and gives love to everyone, and forgives everyone – what was once called “cheap grace.” It is not that God isn’t all these things. It is that we are called to be more than all these things.

The first thing for us to note today is that we are the baptized members of the Kingdom. God has chosen us. God is with us and nothing can separate us from God’s love.

In the Gospel today, Jesus’ is being asked about justice. He is being asked about the sort of justice in which we are interested: the justice that affects us. “Why me?” we all cry. “Why do innocent people get hurt in an accident?” “Why do little children get killed in war?” “Why do I get cancer?” Were innocent people among those killed by the Governor Pilate? Were some of those killed when that tower fell down in Siloam good people?”

Jesus doesn’t give them an easy answer. That’s the problem.

We want a God who loves us unconditionally – and that really means we want a God who wants us in our own image. We want a God who lets us be unforgiving. We want a God who lets us write those dreadful e-mail messages we’re sometimes tempted to write. We want a God who lets us be dishonest at work. We want a God who lets us be disruptive at church. We want a God who lets us abuse our families. We want a God who lets us scream for our rights while denying others the same. We want a God who lets us judge, and divide, and moan, and behave as if we were spoiled children.

We don’t want St. Paul, miserable old man that he was. We want Jesus

And Jesus says: Repent.

That’s his answer to those who asked about Pilate’s massacre and the tower of Siloam. There’s no explanation; instead Jesus tells a story. He tells of a gardener who plants a fig tree that grows, is loved and cared for, but produces no figs. The gardeners suggest it should be pulled up. Some might have suggested that as it looked nice it should be left alone. But the owner gives it a year. After that permission is given to weed it.

Now that doesn’t sound very “unconditional.” God’s extraordinary love for us was bought at an unconditional price. Jesus responded to the Father’s unconditional love by abandoning everything. Jesus tells us elsewhere that if we are to follow him, we must be cross-bearers. Our response to God’s love must be to learn to be self-sacrificial, “to give and not to count the cost,” as the old prayer puts it.

All too often we grasp a “users’ faith”: “God loves me unconditionally, therefore in justice I should get …” Or “I got saved, therefore I should have money.” We want a God who takes us as we are, lets us become even worse that we are now, and loves us despite who we have become.

We want a God who gives. Do we want a God who dies?

 

— 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.

The casket at the social event, 2 Lent (C) – 2007

March 4, 2007

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18Psalm 27Philippians 3:17-4:1Luke 13:31-35

Today may we consider how sometimes the best prayer to God is a groan, a lamentation, or the voice of grief. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Maybe you have had this experience. You attend a visitation at a funeral home, and the place is crowded. People are gathered in small groups, engaged in animated conversation. It looks and feels like any other successful social event, except of course there’s a casket at one end of the room.

Or have you ever been with a group of friends, and somebody says that a particular couple, well known to all of you, is getting a divorce? There’s an awkward silence. Facial expressions turn serious. Then somebody brings up a different subject, and the conversation rolls along.

What’s missing in these two scenes is public lamentation. In one case, somebody has died. In the other, a marriage has collapsed. There’s acknowledgment of what has happened, but no public lamentation. People may feel bad, but heartfelt emotions remain inside.

In today’s Gospel, some Pharisees tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod. Are these Pharisees friendly toward Jesus? Should their warning be taken at face value, or are they trying to silence Jesus by making him afraid? It’s hard to tell.

But Jesus does not fear Herod or focus on him for long. Instead, his concern is for Jerusalem, and he vents his grief over that holy city with its history of killing the prophets sent by God. There in front of visitors and disciples, he bursts forth into public lamentation: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Perhaps these words spill forth from his lips, from his heart, at some place where the city’s skyline can be seen.

Today we often hear the question: What would Jesus do? The initials WWJD appear in many places as a reminder that Jesus is our great example. If he is, then consider: In this morning’s Gospel, we hear about something Jesus does. He laments. Perhaps we must do this sometimes.

How does Jesus expresses his grief over Jerusalem as a prophet-persecuting city? He leaves us with an unforgettable image, an image tender and gentle and surprising. Listen again to what he says: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Surprisingly, Jesus pictures himself as a mother hen, eager for her little chicks to find shelter beneath her soft, comforting wings. This does not describe the warrior-king many people are waiting for. Yet this is how Jesus presents himself, there in a moment of deep lamentation.

The picture may be striking and unprecedented, but in voicing his lamentation, Jesus builds on the tradition of his people. Consider the Psalms, which have rightly been called the hymnbook of the Hebrew Bible. In so many of them, we find a communal or personal lament. Something is wrong — whether illness, unidentified misfortune, or national disaster — and there comes an outcry, a turning of pain into speech. To pray the psalms is not only to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness, but also to groan along with a world broken and distressed.

Indeed, when he voices his lamentation over Jerusalem, the favored city, Jesus builds upon the foundational event of his people: their Exodus from Egypt. Back before the dividing of Red Sea waters, back before the ten plagues or even the call of Moses, we hear what sets the whole thing rolling: the Israelites groan under their slavery and cry out. From their slavery this cry for help rises up to God.

They cry out. They do not remain silent. They cry out with a mighty, heartfelt lamentation, and God hears their groaning, their outcry, the lamentation erupting like hot lava from their hearts.

So when Jesus laments over Jerusalem, he builds upon many of the psalms, brokenhearted hymns that reach out for hope in the midst of pain. He builds on the story of how his people became a people, through lamenting their slavery and crying to God for release. Now he looks out over Jerusalem, where slavery is not so much external bondage, but a freezing of the heart that cannot welcome liberation from the Lord when it looks them in the face.

In contrast to this tradition, public lament is an experience unfamiliar to us. Rarely is it heard at a funeral or when we learn that a marriage has split apart. There’s grief, but we keep that terribly private, we swallow so much of it, and let it eat away at our insides.

Public lament is an unfamiliar experience even in most churches. There as well, all too often, sadness stays private; we keep up appearances. We take away the cross and substitute a happy face. We hold back how we feel and call it Christian joy.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says mourners shall laugh; he never says they must not mourn. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with the rejoicing, but also to weep with those who weep. Christianity is not the practice of the stiff upper lip. It allows us to lament, even demands it.

Are there not places in this world, this country, this city, where Jesus still weeps and cries out? Countless Jerusalems cause him to lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

And if Jesus laments in these places, should we abstain from doing so?

Where we attempt to solve social problems by building still more prisons. Where we try to maintain control over the planet through increasing our arsenals. Where entertainment and advertising do violence to basic human dignity. Where differences of ethnicity or sexual identity turn into walls of separation and bitterness. Where you and I become small and mean and shriveled, unloving and unloved.

In all these places, and others like them, Jesus still stands and laments, calling out to us unashamed, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Lamentations such as these are valid prayer. Faith demands them. Lamentations such as these are heard by God. They ignited the Exodus from Egypt. Lamentations such as these are the audacious start of something new.

Jesus invites us to break free from the poisonous silence, from the culture of denial that surrounds us. He calls us away from mere grumbling and toward brokenhearted lamentation. He invites us to mourn that we may be blessed; to grieve, rather than deny the burden inside us.

For when we lament a broken relationship, it opens the way to healing. When we lament an injustice, it opens the way to transformation. When we lament a loss, it opens the way to resurrection. When we lament our shortcomings, it opens the way to unexpected change.

Such lamentations are not death rattles. They are the birth cries of a new world.

 

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