Archives for July 2007

Ask, search, knock, Pentecost 9, Proper 12 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

Over the past few Sundays, the lessons have focused on what it means to be a disciple and a follower of Jesus. Today we look at the depth of that discipleship in relationships: between Abraham and God, between Paul and Jesus, and then Jesus teaches us how that relationship works through prayer.

People who claim to have a relationship with God often act as if they discovered it. But the truth is that God found them and led them to their creator. That is how it was with Abraham. Abraham would never have sought a relationship with a god who made such incredible demands and promises, but having been found and led by God, he began to trust enough to accept God’s promise of a child to Sarah in last week’s Gospel. In this week’s reading, we find him feeling confident enough in his relationship to plead for mercy for the city of Sodom.

Abraham’s experience with God teaches us how relationships with God develop, how they can lead us to new and exciting things, and how to ask for things on behalf of others.

Saint Paul, in the reading from Colossians, describes his relationship with Jesus as “rooted and established in the faith”; this is after he persecuted Christians and Christ. So he knows how much he is loved by God, and how much the mercy of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus means to him. Paul describes our relationship with Jesus as much more than mercy when he says, “He forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us.”

There are countless Christians who have experienced God’s forgiveness and the reconciliation in Christ’s dying and resurrection. Convicted felons on death row, white-collar executives who have broken trust with their companies, addicts, and just ordinary folk testify to the glorious new life that comes from this relationship.

As disciples of Jesus through our baptism, we are given the outline of how we should pray: the Lord’s Prayer. Many good books and sermons have unpacked this prayer that almost everyone knows by heart. It is prayed in many languages around the world, a continuous offering going up from the hearts of the faithful, and even from those who may not be sure about their faith.

Then Jesus tells his disciples, and us, through Luke, to take the actions expected of this relationship: ask, search, knock.

A few years ago, a woman found herself in a mess. Her husband died, and she was alone and horribly lonely. She was virtually friendless, in a large city, and her son lived many miles away. She began asking God what to do with her life. She forced herself to go to activities, to search; she even tried to join some support groups, to knock. It took a while, but one day she went to church and was greeted by a new usher, a man who appeared close to her age. Soon they were sitting together in church, and about a year later they married.

God does not intend for us to be lonely. God may use our loneliness to draw us closer to him, sometimes directly and often through others. People who have experienced God’s mercy are seldom lonely. They know the joy of a relationship with God that keeps them anchored and available to be disciples with and to others. They seek partnerships with other disciples to do their work, to learn more about their faith, and to grow.

A wise therapist once said, “You can’t be well on your own. You need other people to complete who you are.” God knows that, and God knows how much we need to be loved, forgiven, and accepted. God planned it that way, so that in needing a relationship with our creator and redeemer, we would find it in others as well as directly with God.

Asking, searching, and knocking are actions disciples should take every day. We should say the Lord’s Prayer, then get up and begin our day with action. Saint Paul learned this and became a world-traveling missionary, comfortable wherever the Spirit sent him.

Be a disciple, pray the prayer our Lord taught us to pray, then search for the things God has in mind for you. As Abraham discovered, you will find them, because we worship a God who always keeps promises.

Written by the Ven. Ben E. Helmer
The Ven. Ben Helmer and his wife Jane are currently living on Guam where he is serving as archdeacon for the Episcopal Church in Micronesia, which includes churches on Guam and Saipan. E-mail: bhelmer1247@msn.com.

Live and love, Pentecost 8, Proper 11 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Amos 8:1-12 or Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 52 or Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Jesus had special friends. Among them were Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. Some modern scholars think that Lazarus was “the Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel and the Epistle, and the disciple at the foot of the cross. We won’t really know until we are in the next life. Then we can ask!
The story of Mary and Martha and their encounter with Jesus is much loved. In the days when church task forces were called guilds, many a parish had a SS Mary and Martha Guild. Whether the members were asked which saint they wished to follow is an open question.

Mary wanted to know about Jesus, to get to know him and to learn from him. While she was doing this, Martha was left with the household chores, including hospitality to this journeying teacher who had arrived on their doorstep. You can imagine Martha preparing the bedroom, fussing in the kitchen, grumbling and mumbling to herself that she has to do all the work while her sister plays up to their famous guest. Finally Martha can bear it no longer. Imagine her bursting onto the scene to the surprise of Jesus and her sister, and then letting loose her resentment about her sister’s laziness to Jesus, not caring what impression she was making.

This is not an unfamiliar scene. We’ve all been chided for shirking our duties, often by a partner, or parent, or child. What is odd is the reply Jesus gives to the irate Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Some years before the careful historian St. Luke wrote this account, St. Paul wrote to the infant church in Philippi telling them “The Lord is near; do not be anxious, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”

You may well be thinking by now “easier said than done.” It is so easy for us to relegate the difficult parts of faith into the “other-worldly” compartment, that section of our memory where we store quaint ideas and strange phenomenon; things we don’t think we will experience in everyday life. We follow Martha.

“You are worried and distracted by many things.” Aren’t we all? Certainly life is a good deal more complex than it was two thousand years ago. Computers and the Internet open up to the youngest members of our families a world of discord and a multitude of influences, many of which leave us feeling distracted and lost. Mary’s answer, to go and spend time getting to know Jesus, listening to Jesus and learning from Jesus, seems suspiciously simplistic, particularly to Episcopalians. After all, we fancy that we are sophisticated, educated, and in the know about most things.

Consider the way that St. Paul fleshes out the “don’t worry” advice Jesus gives to Martha. “Do not be anxious,” he writes to Christians who are misunderstood, reviled, and even persecuted for their faith. He writes to men and women who try to work out the practicalities of living the faith in a hostile world, among, for the most part, gentiles, to whom religion is rather like crossing one’s fingers or not walking under ladders. Worshipping a pantheon of gods who play with humans and are unreliable guides at best, the neighbors of the Christian community in Philippi looked askance at these members of a Jewish sect who believed in a moral God, a faithful God, and a redeeming God.

Neither Jesus nor St. Paul advised worried people to make the sign against the evil eye, cross their fingers, or avoid walking under ladders. Jesus tells Martha that she has things back to front. Mary has the better part because she first goes to Jesus. St. Paul reminds the PhilippianChristians that “The Lord is near.” It means the same. If together our hearts are fixed where true joy is to be found, if “we make (our) requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving,” the peace of God will be ours.

An old revivalist hymn tells us to “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” An old image that can be helpful is that we are to nail our hopes, joys, fears, and worries onto the cross, where they die to all that complicates them. Having died, behold they live anew.

This reference to the cross brings us to the “thanksgiving” St. Paul mentions. That word is the root of the word Eucharist. The Eucharist takes us in a time machine, backward, to the Upper Room, to Calvary, to the Empty Tomb and Resurrection, to the Ascension, and then forward to the end times when the nations of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord Christ. In other words, every time we join in the “thanksgiving,” we are reminded that God is in control and that God’s purposes are working out as year succeeds to year. The Church, the churches, and we, the people of God, are in God’s hands, in God’s purpose, and in God’s pleasure.

When we despair because of what happens in the church, in our parish, in our homes, in effect we “do a Martha.” We rush around in mind or body trying to get things done, trying to fix things, as if God has left it all up to us and retired! Instead we are called, with Mary of Bethany, to live “in” Christ, to get to know him, corporately and individually; to learn from Jesus and to live in Jesus, in whose face we see God. We are to bring to God all we are and all the complexity of life and begin there. Above all, in our thanksgiving, as we eat and drink with God, we are to be renewed, to gain confidence, to live and love and rejoice, because underneath are the everlasting arms.

It is in intentionally “practicing the presence of God” that we receive “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” Our Presiding Bishop concludes her letters with the word “Shalom.” The word means “peace.” Our peace is not the absence of discord, worry, or sickness. Rather God’s peace enables us to “live and love” despite “the changes and chances of this fleeting world” as the old collect puts it. Mary was right!

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
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. E-mail: anthony.clavier@gmail.com.

Consider each step, Pentecost 7, Proper 10 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Amos 7:7-17 or Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 82 or 25:1-10; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

In the story of the Good Samaritan that we just heard, where do the different characters end up?

The robbers have done their foul deed and have walked off stage with whatever they stole from the traveler they attacked.

The priest and the Levite have each continued on the way to Jericho after overlooking the half-dead traveler lying beside the road.

That traveler is recovering at an inn, where the innkeeper has been entrusted with his care and has received a down payment on whatever it will cost.

The Samaritan has resumed his journey, promising to return to the inn and settle up accounts for the traveler’s expenses, someone previously unknown to him.

But where are we left, you and I, who hear this story? We listen to it together with an unknown lawyer, the one who wants to know where his neighborly obligation begins and ends.

Together with the lawyer, we hear this command of Christ, “Go and do likewise.” We are given as an example of neighborliness this Samaritan, who at inconvenience and risk to himself, helps a half-dead stranger.

This story would seem to open the floodgates and drown us beneath the troubles of the world. For, truth be told, we have needy neighbors in every direction. It’s hard to know what to do. Can we keep our souls from turning numb in the face of the wholesale sorrows that surround us? How can we avoid ending up exhausted, adding ourselves to the list of those aching for attention? Is there a way to sidestep compassion fatigue, so that the fire of concern within us does not flare up and then burn out?

Let’s consider the story again, specifically the actions of this Samaritan.

First, he sees the wounded traveler. Second, he is moved to pity. Third, he does what he can to help. Each of these steps is essential if the Samaritan is to prove both compassionate and effective.

Let’s consider each step in turn.

First, the Samaritan sees the wounded traveler. He does not turn his eyes away. He does not glance at the victim and then look elsewhere.

Nor does the Samaritan see the wounded traveler and then dismiss him. He doesn’t say to himself, “That man must be Jewish, and we Samaritans are enemies of the Jews.” He doesn’t say, “That man was mugged because he dared to travel this dangerous road alone. Serves him right!”

Instead, the Samaritan recognizes the wounded traveler as a fellow human being, someone like himself, a child of God. He looks down upon this broken one and acknowledges the best and most important aspects of who he is, not other features which are secondary at best. Although the traveler is a stranger, somehow the Samaritan recognizes him.

As a result, the Samaritan is moved with pity. The word here in the original Greek of the New Testament means he is “moved to the depths of his bowels with compassion.” We might say that the Samaritan feels it in his gut, feels for the broken traveler as deeply as it is possible for him to feel.

The Samaritan recognizes a bond between himself and this stranger who lies half dead beside the highway. Such recognition comes at a cost, for the Samaritan identifies with the wounded stranger and as far as he can, feels his pain, his abandonment, his fear.

This Samaritan, who was moved with pity all the way down to his gut, stands as a portrait of God as God appears in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Prophets. For the God of whom these prophets speak is not unmoved by human pain and sorrow, but somehow suffers along with his people. The sorrow felt by the people becomes the sorrow felt by God.

The Samaritan’s fellow-feeling gives way to action. He does what he can to help. That turns out to be quite a bit – enough to make the difference between life and death.

What he does first is anoint the traveler’s wounds. He uses oil and wine for this. Here there is irony. Oil and wine are used in worship at the Temple. The priest and Levite handle them there, but for their own reasons, they pass by the wounded traveler out on the highway, providing him no relief. It is left to the Samaritan, someone hated by the Jews, to engage in true worship, to make an acceptable offering of wine and oil, and to pour them out on the altar of this broken human body.

Most people who travel the steep and curvaceous road from Jerusalem to Jericho do it on foot, but this Samaritan is fortunate enough to have a mount, perhaps a donkey, and he places the half-dead traveler on the animal’s back for the slow trip to the inn.

Once there, he opens his wallet and gives the innkeeper a significant sum for the traveler’s care and promises to return and cover whatever further expenses are required.

The Samaritan recognizes quickly what must be done. He does not hesitate to put his resources to use. Clearly, he is the right person in the right place at the right time.

In a world where we have needy neighbors in every direction, how can we keep from numbness of soul, exhaustion, or the extinction of our internal fire of concern? The actions of the Samaritan provide us with a pattern to follow.

First, we must see the wounded stranger. We cannot dismiss this person or rationalize her suffering. We must, in a real way, recognize this suffering one.

This is not easy, especially in today’s world, where we are bombarded by far too many images of all kinds, so that it becomes hard to take them seriously.

Only a few images can command our attention. Only a few circumstances, at most, can be the basis for our deep reflection and lead us to recognize the strangers there as real and similar to ourselves. But a few is all we need.

If we truly see the wounded of this world, then we will be moved to pity. We will feel their situation in our gut. At least initially, we cannot do this often; we lack the capacity. But we can do this on occasion. And doing so will enable us, not to fix the entire planet on our own, not to help everybody, but to help somebody.

When this happens, we will not be acting on the basis of obligation or guilt or compulsion. Instead, compassion felt deep down will motivate what we do and give our action a reality accessible in no other way. Our response will have to it something of God, for this is the way that God is moved.

On the basis of this seeing and feeling, we can take action that is worth taking. We can do what we can to help. This means putting our resources to intelligent use and recognizing that we have more to offer than we realized at first. We may discover ourselves to be someone who’s the right person at the right place at the right time, an agent of divine compassion. And what better role can any of us ask for than that?

When Jesus closes the parable of the Good Samaritan with “Go and do likewise,” he is not imposing a single strict way to respond to travelers who have ended up in trouble. His intention is far larger and more practical, something that applies to countless circumstances.

We are truly to see somebody in need. We won’t be considering every needy person on the planet, but we will be recognizing somebody with whom we have life and hardship in common.

The sight of that person will not lead to compulsive activity or obligation or guilt. Instead, we will be moved to pity. We will feel for that person in our gut, as deeply as we can feel.

This will lead us to action. Because we have truly seen and truly felt, there is reason to believe that the way we use resources will be wise and effective.

Thus we will find that, by grace, we have turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time.

And later, when still another needy neighbor lies broken beside the highway, we will be better able to see, to feel, and to act in a way that reveals us as a neighbor to that person. For the answer to our question, “Who is my neighbor?” will appear there before us, as plain as day in the one who awaits our action.

Written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker
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). E-mail: charles.hoffacker@gmail.com.

Find rest, Pentecost 6, Proper 9 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm: 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her,” it says in Isaiah 66:10.
Shortly after the American Revolution, the newly constituted Episcopal Church of the United States devised a special set of prayers and lessons, called “propers,” to commemorate the Fourth of July and the newly won American independence from Great Britain. The Church encouraged the use of these propers each year on the Fourth of July.

Yet within a very short time they had fallen into neglect and were eventually abandoned by the Church. Why? Well, with few exceptions – Washington and Franklin come to mind – members of the early Episcopal Church were anything but enthusiastic about the Revolution and the break with England. According to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, a modern compendium of propers and commentaries, the majority of the Church’s clergy had, in fact, been loyal to the British crown.

Staunch royalists, these clergy apparently would have sooner prayed for a tyrant king than for someone with the inelegant and business-like title of president. So rather than aggravate matters, the Church quietly shelved the new propers. It was not until the publication of the 1928 Prayer Book that a liturgy was again introduced for the Fourth of July. And the Church has ever since provided prayers and lessons for this important national celebration.

Issues of church and state have a long and complex history. In many cultures, realm and religion have been inextricably woven together into the very fabric of everyday life and thought. Such was surely the case with the people of ancient Israel, who understood themselves to be the Lord’s own chosen people. We today share their covenant conviction but have come to recognize that all nations have a part in God’s favor. We pray in the words of today’s Psalm, “Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.”

Our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah calls upon us to “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her.” Jerusalem is, of course, the city of David. It is at the very heart of Israel’s faith and worship, and it comes to represent the core of the covenant itself. Even medieval cartographers centuries later instinctively put Jerusalem at the center of their maps, making it, in a sense, the omphalos or “navel” of the known world.

It should come as no surprise then that Jesus, in our Gospel account today, is on his way to Jerusalem. He sends the disciples on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intends to visit. But these seventy are no highly paid advance men. They are to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” For it is not political barnstorming that Jesus is up to here. He has come not to take up the duties of kingly power and authority but rather to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

There is a big difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God, although politicians of all ages have too often mistaken their own cause for the Lord’s. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard. Some still wrap themselves in the mantle of religion to curry favor and win votes. Nothing new there. The footnotes of history are filled with patriotic would-be messiahs ready to save their nations from all manner of perceived ills and threats.

Throughout Christian history, nation after nation has had the hubris to identify itself with the Israel of old and presume to think itself unique or more blessed than other peoples. But this kind of exceptionalism is a dangerous thing. The Roman and Byzantine Empires, in spite of their great splendor, are no more. America is not the Promised Land either, nor are we the Chosen People. Washington, for all its brilliance, is not the holy city of Jerusalem.

These quieter days following the Fourth of July celebrations of this past week may be as good a time as any for us to reflect on the state of our nation and to pray for God’s blessing upon our land. After all, our cherished separation of Church and state has never stopped us Americans from singing boldly, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.”

Paul tells us in our second reading that we should “bear one another’s burdens.” It is “the law of Christ,” he seems to imply, that we should care for one another, no matter our differences or background. This is equally an apt mandate of our civil compact as a nation. We are all in it together. The burden of one is the burden of all. “Whenever we have the opportunity,” Paul continues, we must “work for the good of all.”

Just last year, the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City installed a monument to the great Jewish-American poet, Emma Lazarus, who seems in some ways to have caught the spirit of our nation as well as anyone before or since. In her poem, “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, she welcomes the immigrant to our shores: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” It sounds a lot like what our Lord himself might have had in mind as he proclaimed the kingdom of God throughout the land of Israel so long ago.

Our country today is much more diverse than it was at its foundation, and in this we are more blessed than many other nations of the world. Our Church too has become a haven to peoples of many cultures and assorted political stripes and views. The Lord welcomes and accepts them all. “Come unto me,” he bids his people in the familiar comfortable words from scripture and the Rite I Eucharist, “all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

To be poor and “heavy laden” in ancient Israel was not a curse, for the entire nation had experienced exile and privation. Indeed, the anawim Yahweh, the “poor of God,” were considered to be among God’s most beloved. Perhaps to the extent that we as a nation continue to welcome among us the “huddled masses yearning to be free” can we hope to enjoy God’s favor and find rest for our own too often rootless souls.

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California. He welcomes your comments at frankhegedus@hotmail.com.

The path, Pentecost 5, Proper 8 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:15 -16, 19-21 or 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 16 or 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Today’s gospel reading doesn’t make Jesus look like a very good recruiter. He’s turning away willing volunteers! What’s more, at first he seems to be discounting the value of home and family, the very things we hold most dear.

“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Does following Jesus really mean becoming rootless and homeless?

“Let the dead bury their own dead.” Could Jesus really be asking us to neglect our basic human instinct to honor our deceased?

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Could Jesus really be saying that following him means not giving so much as a backward glance to the ones we love?

How different Jesus’ admonitions seem from the story of Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 19. Elisha literally has his hands to the plow when Elijah calls him as a prophet by casting his mantle over him. Elisha does look back, and asks to kiss his parents goodbye. Elijah doesn’t reprimand him, but allows him to return.

But look at how Elisha goes about his farewells: he slaughters his oxen, and burns the yoke and plow to cook his parting feast. What he is doing is sacrificing all the implements of his old life and career. He’s bidding farewell not only to his family, but to his entire former role and identity.

Elisha understands that the prophet’s mantle is not only a new garment, but a new life, calling, and identity. He grasps the total commitment involved in following the path of the Spirit, of walking in the way of the Lord.

Jesus is trying to convey to his followers a similar understanding of total commitment, and perhaps his stern-sounding words at first make it sound like the sort of commitment that is born out of a grim sense of obligation. Is Jesus’ mantle really so much weightier than Elijah’s that one cannot turn aside from following him even for a moment?

What at first sound like harsh rebukes, however, also turn out to be teaching moments about the nature of God’s kingdom. Look at the contrasts that Jesus draws, and you will learn more about what is so valuable about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first key comes in Luke 9:60: “Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is not something that can dwell on death or even be slowed down by death. The kingdom is about life abundant, life always new, life that transforms everything so that our old concerns are swept away. Not to be focused foremost on proclaiming the kingdom is to be like a dead person oneself. Setting out truly to follow Jesus, means leaving behind all fears of scarcity and finitude, limitations and death.

Next, consider the words that make Jesus sound so much less flexible than Elijah: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The kingdom, Jesus tells us, is not something you would ever turn aside from, if once you truly caught sight of it. Even the things in this life that seem most important and have the most call on our attention will pale in contrast to the promise of a life infused with God’s healing and grace.

Jesus also says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There is a restless energy in the kingdom of God, an energy that seeks constantly to make all things new. That energy sends people out with missionary zeal to all corners of the world, and it cannot simply be content to look inward towards a secure home.

If Jesus doesn’t sound like a good recruiter, that’s because he isn’t just seeking a following for himself. Rather, he’s seeking followers on the path that he himself is walking. That path can be hard indeed. It can keep you restlessly on the move; it can call you to a new life’s work; it can lead you unflinchingly to death itself.

Nevertheless, the path that leads to the kingdom of God is the way that leads to true life in fullness and abundance of the spirit. The fruit of that Spirit, Paul tells us in the letter to the Galatians, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The psalmist sings to God that “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

With that sort of path to look forward to, who can look back?

Written by the Rev. Cole Gruberth
The Rev. Cole Gruberth is a recent graduate of General Theological Seminary and a newly ordained deacon. He is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.