Archives for June 2007

Restored to Unity, Pentecost 4, Proper 7 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a or Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 42-43 or 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Last December, after a Fort Worth, Texas, policeman was killed in the line of duty, his family spent a gut-wrenching week, planning and attending the funeral and having many conversations with those whose lives had crossed that of their loved one. When all was said and done, this young officer’s mother realized that one story moved her more than any other. Two days after his death, one of her son’s colleagues working his old beat arrested a crack-using, trouble-making, small-time crook who was well-known by all of the police who patrolled there. Cuffed and standing in front of a patrol car, the arrested man said he had heard that one of them had been killed and asked who it was. After learning his name, the man fell to his knees sobbing. After he finally regained control of himself and was in the car, the officer asked what was wrong with him. He cried, “That cop was the only one who ever showed me any respect.”

The character of this police officer mirrors the value of respect for all others to which St. Paul points in today’s Epistle reading. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We are saved and freed by God’s love, graciously poured out to us, despite our being sinful and undeserving. It is God’s gracious love that unites us with Christ. It is our union with Christ that unites us to all other human beings. It is this union that dissolves the potential divisiveness of human distinctions. It is this union with Christ that breaks down whatever walls of separation we arbitrarily create among people.

The young police officer knew that the distinction between law enforcers and law breakers did not prevent the power of God from uniting them as human beings, each with respect one for the other. He knew what Paul teaches us – that living in Christ, united with Christ, makes us a different kind of people, joined in an understanding of humanity that can destroy the natural tendency to separate.

The early church was not exempt from distinctions. That is why Paul addressed the Christians in Galatia so forcefully. He knew that divisions had to stop if Christ were truly to be followed. He illustrated our union with and through Christ by playing off a common prayer of Jewish men of his day: “Thank you Lord, for not making me a foreigner, a slave, or a woman.” Paul rejected and reversed this view by declaring that these distinctions amounted to nothing in the eyes of God and those who would follow Jesus.

Paul’s words surely affronted first-century Jews steeped in a religion that fostered exclusion as a way of maintaining purity of faith and protection from outsiders. Looking at their history, it is no wonder they feared those who were different. But Jesus had something more expansive in mind. And Paul followed him by undercutting natural tendencies, cultural prejudices, inherited temptations – forces that divide people.

We suffer these tendencies still. Too often we separate from others out of fear. Superficial comfort can result from surrounding ourselves with the familiar, from disdaining and avoiding those who are unfamiliar and different. In our confusing and complicated world, it is tempting to try to define ourselves by what we are not, rather than what we are, and to attempt to remain separate from those who are different. But such behavior leaves us diminished and fails to fulfill our potential.

The young police officer knew what we avow in confessing that the “mission of the church is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.” What is at work in understanding and applying the principles of today’s Epistle is this task of reconciling. It is the work we have inherited as ones united with Christ and one another through Christ.

The meaning of today’s Epistle is not that there can be or should be no distinctions among us, but that there can be no superiority of one over another or exclusion of one by the other. We do not submit to others, but only to God.

Differences bear no ultimate significance in the values of God. Male or female; rich or poor; young or old; married or single; educated or unschooled; leader or follower; black, white, brown, red, or yellow; white-collar or blue-collar worker; gay or straight — racism, culturalism, sexism, and nationalism have no place among the values of God.

The power of God’s love, freely given, when used by us is sufficient to overcome the human tendency to separate as a result of our distinctions and differences. Through this love we can have a collective unity – a single identity as children of God. It is the power of God’s love that can give us courage to move beyond fear and separation into integration, cooperation, interdependence, and mutual respect.

This truth is rooted in the fact that each individual has been restored to unity with God by the loving, self-giving action of Christ. In so being restored to God, we can be restored to unity with one another in Christ.

It is this truth that the young police officer lived out as he respected the dignity of every human being. He knew, as did St. Paul, that respect does not begin with a conclusion that the other is worthy or deserving or similar enough to get the respect. His life helps us remember that respect begins with each of us who does the respecting. We treat others with respect because this is how our Lord teaches us to behave toward others, simply because they are human beings and because we are united to them through God’s love.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, TX. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.

Coming to terms with shadows, Pentecost 3, Proper 6 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Psalms 5:1-8 or 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Shadows can be both fun and frightening. Do you remember when you were a child, marveling at your shadow, especially in the late afternoon when shadows are long? Or making shadow pictures by holding your hands certain ways? Then there is the other side of shadows. Like the uncertainty of who is approaching you in the shadow either at night or back-lit by the sun. Children can imagine many things about shadows cast on their bedroom walls in the middle of the night.

Today’s readings are about coming to terms with the frightening side of shadows. We hear of three people who did just that: David, Paul, and the unnamed woman in the Gospel. They were genuine sinners who overcame the shadows of their past to know the bright sunlight of God’s forgiveness. The connecting thread between these three people we’ve heard about is their authenticity.

What makes Paul real is his consistency to a life of faith in the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul said, “For me to live is Christ.” Life was not in the law, or the system of rituals it required.

The woman at the house of Simon has a ring of authenticity. She has no illusions about her past, but it doesn’t prevent her from making a deep and direct encounter with Jesus.

David from the depths of his heart can proclaim with all the power of his kingship, “I have sinned.” He repents, and God’s response is spoken almost immediately by the prophet Nathan: “God has put away your sin.”

These scriptures today help us to look at the subject of sin. It is a subject we tend to avoid or even ignore altogether as if there were no such thing as sin. Sin has not gone away, but we have other ways of talking about it.

One way we talk about it is in psychological terms with words like “persona” and “shadow.” Our word for person comes from the Greek word “persona.” Persona means “mask” and the word comes from the mask worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman drama. Modern psychology uses the word “persona” for the mask we wear when we go out to face the world and other people. The persona has a socially and psychologically useful function. You may be feeling perfectly rotten on a particular day, but as you go about your various tasks and encounter other people you may not always want to let your vulnerability be seen.

The problem comes when we identify with the persona too much. When we think we are that person we are putting on, then the persona is being misused. When we identify with a persona it leads to artificiality, falseness, and shallowness of personality. This was one of the reasons Jesus complained about the attitude of the Pharisees like Simon in the Gospel today. The Pharisees seemed to think they had no sin. Jesus called them “hypocrites,” which in Greek means “actors.”

A common psychological problem is that when there is over-identification with the persona, our contact with the shadow side of our personality is certain to be lost. The shadow as a concept in psychology refers to the dark, feared, unwanted side of our personality. Our conscious personality is shaped by ideals that come from society, parents, a peer groups, or religious values. Society tells us we cannot steal, murder, or engage in other socially destructive behavior without being punished.

Most of us conform more or less to this requirement, and we deny and repress the thief and murderer within us. The Christian moral code goes further, and tells us that we must be loving and forgiving. So to conform to that ideal, we reject the part of us that gets angry and is vindictive.

But why would it be necessary to have commandments such as “You shall not steal,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not kill,” unless it was likely we might do these things? Our spiritual traditions recognize that we all have within ourselves the whole spectrum of potential human behavior. We simply exclude some of those possibilities for the sake of developing a specifically conscious personality. If we follow the Ten Commandments, we can be sure that those tendencies forbidden are included in the shadow personality.

In the Gospel passage we have the contrast of two characters, Simon and a woman of the street whom the writer calls a sinner. Simon, the public religious figure is disturbed that Jesus would allow this woman to touch him, let alone show such extravagant devotion. Jesus says to him that the great affection and love she shows him is because she has had so many sins forgiven. “But he who is forgiven little loves little.”

The implication is that Simon is a sinner too but he doesn’t know it. Simon’s love is reflected in his scant hospitality to Jesus. In terms of what psychologists would say, Simon has developed his moral ideals to the point of denial of his sin. He has put his trust for salvation in his ability to fulfill his moral ideals.

The woman, on the other hand, realizes that her moral works cannot save her. All she can do is throw herself on God’s mercy. And what has that done for her? It has brought a profound transformation. It has released the deep wells of love and devotion in her. The woman’s extravagance is a picture of the extravagance of God’s grace.

It is similar to the story of David that we hear of in the first reading. David is able to face his sin and admit it. How easy it is for us to try to excuse ourselves in the face of every wrong doing. We always have a good reason, and extenuating circumstances. The first characteristic of the authentic person is the ability to admit being wrong – not just begrudgingly conceding the fact after a barrage of excuses, but simply saying it out, without hesitation. In the face of that universal human tendency to make excuses, David has extraordinary courage. To the charges made by the prophet Nathan, David does not hedge; he doesn’t make excuses. He makes no attempt to downplay the grievousness of what he had done. His reply is simple, “I have sinned against God.”

As we hear these stories from scripture, we might hear God inviting us to acknowledge the sin in ourselves. That is the power of these stories. It is only when we can recognize this in ourselves that we can have that deeply felt knowledge of David and the woman at Simon’s house – the abundance of God’s love shown to us in Jesus.

Our sinfulness is as unique as our personality. Usually, we are simply working with a laundry list of deeds or thoughts that we know are wrong. What God wants to do is deal with a deep personal pattern – we might say, “the tapestry of our sin.” We must pray that God would reveal to us the mystery of our personal pattern, the deep-seated, consistent recurrence of pride, envy, lust, or whatever has a hold over us.

The Good News is that God in Christ has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. You can see why Paul called this “gospel,” or “good news.” So often, we see religion as the bad news that you have to believe really hard, or think really deeply, or act very righteously or else there is no way for you to be right. This kind of religion leads ultimately to exhaustion or disappointment when we are forced to admit that we can’t get it all together on our own. We can’t do it right every time, and all our efforts to save ourselves fail.

We come to church, sing these hymns, pray these prayers, read this scripture, listen to this sermon, try to live good lives, not in order to get somewhere with God but rather because we have already arrived. God has already acted on our behalf. Christ has done for us that which we could not do for ourselves: made things right between us and God. That means that religion as something we do, is over.

The only thing required of us is the openness to receive. As we saw with David, this is not necessarily pleasant or easy. It involves a change in attitude and ultimately in our actions.

Remember the woman’s extravagant actions. She “stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping and bathed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with ointment.” These words tell us that grace is highly personal. God calls us each by name. And God’s forgiveness, love, and acceptance opens up deep wells of love within us.

Written by the Rev. Barry Turner
The Rev. Barry Turner has been rector at St. Stephen’s in San Luis Obispo, California since 1996. He has served as chair of diocesan stewardship commissions in NoCA and ECR since 1986. He is married and has two teenage children.

A place for the Trinity, Trinity Sunday (C) – 2007

June 3, 2007

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

According to those who study such things, there are well over five hundred parishes in the Episcopal Church named after the Trinity, making it, along with Christ Church and Saint John’s, one of the all-time favorite names for our parish communities.

Episcopalians seem to know instinctively the importance of the Trinity in defining their faith as Christians, and they are proud to bear its name. They proclaim the Trinity week after week in the Nicene Creed, and they often begin what they do and pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” After all, that is how they were baptized. Belief in the Trinity is the main thing that sets Christians apart from others – such as our Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors – who also believe in one God.

The word “Trinity” does not appear in scripture, although it can be inferred in many passages, such as in today’s readings, which speak respectively of creation, grace, and spirit. Down through the ages, the Trinity has often been the source of confusion and dissension. Its actual formulation as a distinct belief came only with time as heresies were suppressed and eminent scholars wrestled with its significance. The Creed of Saint Athanasius – found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 864 – describes in fine theological detail and precision the authoritative meaning of the Trinity for all time, although few Christians today would turn to its words for insight or spiritual solace.

But it does tell us, among other things, that it is the Trinity that defines our common, or universal, faith. “The Catholic faith is this,” the Athanasian Creed begins, “that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”

We might well ask: What is it about the Trinity that puts it at the very center of our Christian faith but yet remains so elusive to our everyday understanding? Does the Trinity have any spiritual meaning for us today?

We live in a world in which scholars and scientists question the very existence of God, much less the Trinity. Noted zoologist Richard Dawkins, for example, writes of a “God delusion,” in his recent book of the same name, calling the God of the Bible, “a petty, unjust … capriciously malevolent bully” who should have no place in the contemporary consciousness. Journalist Sam Harris, citing terrorist acts committed in the name of God, argues that the time has come for “the end of faith.” And decades ago, Time magazine created a sensation with its provocative headline question, “Is God dead?”

What is a believer to make of this? Is it finally time to write God’s obituary and mourn his passing? Or are reports of God’s demise, like those of humorist Mark Twain over a century ago, “greatly exaggerated”? Perhaps critics of contemporary religious practice and belief have a point. God is too often blamed for what his followers say about him and do in his name. Perhaps what must die are false notions of who and what God is. As Anglican bishop and scholar J. B. Phillips wrote way back in 1952, “Your God Is Too Small!” Our notions of God are always too small, almost by definition. But that does not mean that God is dead. In fact, he is not even sick.

Of course, just referring to God as “he” and “him” in itself reflects one of the cultural limitations and prejudices that unavoidably make our God too small. There is always the temptation among believers to keep God under lock and key or on a shelf where we can keep an eye on him. But God – the real God – will have none of it. What some, like Dawkins, might see as God’s capriciousness is simply his unwillingness to stick to the script we have written for him. You cannot put God under the scientist’s microscope any more than you can grow a Shakespeare drama in a petrie dish.

But back to the Trinity. Medieval scholars, influenced by late classical philosophy, explain the Trinity in terms of an emanation – a kind of loving radiance that leads God as creator and Father to the divine Other, the “only begotten Son” of the Creeds. And from this relationship comes the order of nature that is sanctified and returned to the Father in the Spirit, completing the great cycle of creation, redemption, and renewal.

Some might again object to the male imagery of such ancient formularies. But nearly all believers can agree that God is not only alive and well but busily at work in our world and our lives today. As scripture tells it, “God is love.” That is the essence of the Trinity.

God creates being where there is none and at once transcends it. In breathing life into this world and redeeming it, God gives us a glimpse into divine life itself and into the meaning of our own lives. Because God loves us, we exist. Yet for all his care and intimacy with the world and humankind, God is never consumed or overwhelmed by the many loose ends of our untidy existence. God simply loves: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a fact of life. More than that, it is the fact of life. As paradoxical as it may seem, God is both unchanging and eternal and at the same time ever-changing and deeply involved in time and history. God can have it both ways because God is God.

Dame Julian of Norwich, a saint and a mystic of uncommon depth and insight, never approached the demonstration of God’s existence or the meaning of the Trinity in structured argument like the great theologians of her age. Yet in her visions and writings she came as close as anyone to understanding the God of love – the God of the Trinity.

Toward the end of her life, she penned this short but profound exchange: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning?” she asks. “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.”

It all comes back down to love.

So who is God today? And is there a place for the Trinity in our world? Dame Julian, in her day, found God in love, pure and simple. For all the complexity of our modern-day life, that is still where God – creator, redeemer, sanctifier – is to be found. God is as God loves. As Paul tells us in our second reading today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” In God’s eternal love, our own frail nature is finally and inextricably bound up in the very life of God, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge of Saint Alban’s (the twenty-first most common church name) Episcopal Church in El Cajon, Calif. 

Called to live, Pentecost 2, Proper 5 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24) or 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 146 or 30; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:11-17

What wonderful images we have in today’s passages. We have prophets, raisings from the dead, a never-ending supply of food, onlookers being both amazed and terrified. It’s the Easter story over and over – amazing and terrifying for the people of that day. We, of course, can still be amazed, but we’re not terrified any more. We know the Gospel passage probably by heart and we most likely know this wonderful passage about Elijah and the widow in Zarephath by heart, too. Stories of long ago, stories about an ancient people, stories from a time when miracles seem to have been taken more in stride than they are today – we might be tempted to think these stories don’t have much to do with us. We certainly aren’t able to raise the dead or provide through God’s intervention a never-ending supply of grain and oil. So, we can be amazed and praise God, but we don’t necessarily have to be motivated. Or do we?

We’re kidding ourselves if we say that these are just inspirational stories. Jesus constantly reminded his followers that they were called to live as he lived. Actually, their Torah called them to live that way.

Jesus was only reminding them to be faithful to God’s rule of life. It’s the same for us. Our Baptismal covenant is a promise to live as Jesus did, to be a people of God.

So, we look seriously at these stories to see what they have to say to us. There are several similarities between 1 Kings and the Luke passage. Both Elijah and Jesus are prophets. Both accounts center on bringing a child back from death. The widow is provided with a never-ending supply of grain and oil, and we know that Jesus will supply God’s people with a never-ending source of life in his own body and blood. Both stories show us that the ability to give life in various forms is proof that the person is a Godly person – sent by God. In both accounts there is an important connection between what Elijah and Jesus say and what happens. In Luke especially there is always a connection between saying and doing. It’s often the connections that give us the “a-ha” moments that excite us.

Consider what the people say when Jesus gives the young man back to his mother: “God has looked favorably on his people.” We hear those same words in the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. Elijah tells the widow that the Lord God of Israel will not let her jar of meal go empty or jug of oil fail. God looks with favor. It’s all through the Scriptures. God looks with favor, God looks with love, God looks with unfailing care on God’s people, especially in the readings today, on the widows.

Now, isn’t it interesting that we keep saying God looks with favor and God cares and God loves? Certainly there’s no doubt that God does all these things, but look at how often God doesn’t do it alone. Look at how often God uses God’s people to bring the message of this love and care to others. Here’s that connection again – a connection between heaven and earth.

Both Jesus and Elijah are a connection between God and God’s people. Neither of them works what we consider a miracle for their own glory. Their actions glorify God. All who witness these miracles give glory to God and acknowledge that God works through these two men. “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth,” the widow of Zarephath says. What a wonderful compliment.

The people who witnessed Jesus bring the young man to life said, “A great prophet has risen among us!” Another great compliment! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say that about us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people would see us being a connection between God and them?

The thing is – they should. One of the many lessons we might learn from both these Scripture passages is that what Jesus and Elijah did, we must do also. We’ll probably not literally raise people from the dead, but we are called to be conduits of God’s grace, and we are called to be prophetic. Being prophetic doesn’t mean that we have to be dramatic. We are prophetic when we are aware of the needs in the world around us and we speak the truth about it. The power of prophesy is in the truth of the words and the challenge those words offer people to change for the better.

But we also know that prophets often get in trouble. The Old Testament is full of stories about prophets being reviled, ignored, harassed – and sometimes killed. John the Baptist lost his head. Jesus was crucified. Certainly we’re not supposed to be prophets like that are we?

The thing is – we are. Each one of us is called to speak God’s word of truth in a difficult world. Each one of us – not just the Dorothy Days or the Oscar Romeros, the prophets of our time – each one of us has our times to be prophetic. Different situations will affect us in different ways. Often, when we’re most prophetic, we so love what we’re doing that we don’t see ourselves as prophets.

There’s a man in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who left a very lucrative theater job in New York City to join the Brotherhood of St. Gregory. He gave everything away – absolutely everything he owned – to follow a call to serve the homeless poor as a monk in that southern city. Brother Ron lives in the shelter with the homeless. He helps them find medical assistance and food. He counsels them. He lets them know that God loves and cares for them even when they feel most alone and hopeless. Brother Ron also shares the stories of homeless people with congregations, seminarians, and city officials. The interesting thing about Ron is that even when people could be amazed and impressed by the work he does, that’s not what people see first. Ron is a prophet. He speaks the word of God to a hurting world, and he does it with power and truth. People see the graciousness of God through Ron, and they could use the same words the widow of Zarephath said about Elijah: “We know you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

That sounds pretty extraordinary, but Ron isn’t all that different from you and me. Our vocations are unique. The ways we’re called to be prophetic are unique. Like any prophet, we only need to take our connection to God seriously. That connection might be through the Torah, through Baptismal promises, or through whatever our tradition holds as a means of being faithful to God. God will work wonders through each of us if we’re open. God’s word of truth can be in each of our mouths. What greater compliment could people say about us than that we are people of God?

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
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.