Archives for August 2007

Keeping Sabbath, Pentecost 13, Proper 16 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6 or 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Of all the issues facing the church 120 years ago, one that was considered so pressing that it was addressed by bishops throughout the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888 was this: the observance of the Sabbath.

The bishops at that conference issued a report including these statements:

“The principle of the religious observation of one day in seven is of Divine and primeval obligation, and was afterwards embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The observance of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, of worship, and of religious teaching has been a priceless blessing in all Christian lands in which it has been maintained. The growing license in its observance threatens a grave change in its sacred and beneficent character. … The increasing practice on the part of some of the wealthy and leisurely classes of making the day a day of secular amusement is most strongly to be deprecated. The most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which on this day is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.”

The language is a bit dated, but in 1888 we clearly see concerns that have grown in the past century or so, concerns over the Sabbath becoming a day of amusement for those with means, and concerns that people who have to work for a living are not getting a day of rest.

Although the Sabbath may not be at forefront of concerns as we head toward the next Lambeth Conference, is it still pressing enough for the bishops gathering in 2008 to address? What might they have to say now, in today’s fast-paced, technological, consumer-driven society, about the subject of Sunday observance? What might they have to say about the keeping of any day of the week as a day set aside for rest, worship, and religious teaching? Might not this issue be more pressing in the lives of more Anglicans than some of the others that will undoubtedly capture the headlines?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus argues with his opponents who criticize him for healing on a Sabbath. Jesus counters that in healing the woman, he is actually setting her free from bondage to Satan, and just as anyone would untie an animal to show it compassion, how much more appropriate is loosing someone from the powers that work against human health, wholeness, and freedom?

Well, who wouldn’t agree with that? Surely showing compassion and working for the dignity of every human being is appropriate on every day of the week. We applaud Jesus’ opposition to a legal view of the Sabbath. We applaud him, and then we turn the page, thankful that we’re not weighed down by faulty and outdated interpretations of scripture that may prevent us from doing the things we really feel are important to do.

And perhaps this is where we run into trouble. Are we too quick to place a check mark by this story, thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about this subject”? Do we fail to engage seriously the gift that God intends in his commanding – commanding, not suggesting – a Sabbath?

In Jesus, we are set free from a legal observance of Sabbath, but what are we set free for?

Are we simply free to add ten more hours to our work week? To work every day so that those who work for us never have a day during which we have not added something to their list of things to do? Are we free simply to participate every day in our consumer culture, every day making purchases, acquiring, accumulating? Are we free so that our children’s lives can be structured every day, fully scheduled, so they never miss a chance to compete, excel, keep up, or add an activity to a college or scholarship application?

Of course work, the ability to acquire the things we need, our children’s activities, and well being are all good things in and of themselves. But is there a price we pay in never designating one day in seven, any day, as a day of Sabbath?

Apparently, people of God have long struggled with how to keep this commandment appropriately. In our first lesson, we hear the prophet pronounce these words of the Lord: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.”

Perhaps this ancient reading still shines light on our path. The problem for Isaiah’s audience was that people were pursuing their own interests, not God’s; honoring their own purposes, not God’s. It’s no accident that the prophet connects their faulty observance of Sabbath with issues of justice, such as feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the afflicted. Sabbath, it seems, is also a justice issue. If we ignore God’s purposes for Sabbath, just as if we ignore hungry people, all will not be right in our world.

So what does God intend for Sabbath? If we’re free from the law, what are we free for?

We are free for rest. We need it. We all need it: adults and children, executives, bus drivers, students, teachers, nurses, homemakers. All. We are mortals, and resting reminds us that we are creatures with real bodily needs to stop, replenish, and rest. This rest is a justice issue because we need an economy in which people can make a living wage, so that no one needs to work every day of the week in order to make ends meet and provide for the needs of their households.

We are free to remember our dependency on God. Sabbath reminds us that God is God and we can stop trying to be God. We can rest, worshipping the one God, and learning about the real God.

We are free to worship, to immerse ourselves in God’s eternity: in a place and time set aside; in an activity in which we produce nothing but praise; where we are valued, not because of what we make, do, earn, deserve, know, contribute, or achieve, but because we are created by God, loved by God.

If, as our reading from Hebrews states, our God is a consuming fire, then worship gives us a place in which all that seems so needful during the rest of the week can be burned away, and we can rest, simply and wholly, in the presence of God.

The woman cured by Jesus on that Sabbath must have experienced all this in gaining her freedom. She experienced rest from the physical stress of her deformity. She experienced reliance on God in the reminder that God alone has the power to bring healing. And she experienced true worship, in praise that issued forth from her lips for what God had done, not what she had accomplished.

What about us? How shall we keep Sabbath in our own day?

Written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano and the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette Univeristy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His wife, the Rev. Amy Richter is missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. She is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament theology at Marquette University. The Sunday for which this sermon was written, August 26, 2007, happens to be the seventeenth anniversary of their marriage.

Ready to be set on fire, Pentecost 12, Proper 15 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 23:23-29 or Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 1-2, 8-19 or 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12: 49-56

As it says in today’s reading from Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Or as it says in the Sanhedrin: “As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.”

Perhaps this Talmudic interpretation of Jeremiah gives us some purchase on Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire upon the earth. … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

We might naturally wonder just what these statements from Jeremiah and Luke have to do with one another. We read them out loud and conclude, “The Word of the Lord,” after which we dutifully respond, “Thanks be to God.”

Just why do we give thanks for fire, division, and splintering rock?

In a time when all kinds of people both inside and outside the church are showing great interest in “The Word of the Lord,” perhaps it is worth stopping and looking at just what that is. What is the word of the Lord?

The very first time that phrase is used in the Bible is in Genesis in the Abraham saga from which we have heard recently. The operant phrase in the Hebrew Bible is “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” It’s all over the Old Testament, mentioned several hundred times. The word of the Lord comes to people in and out of visions – which makes it sound as if the word of the Lord is difficult to pin down, for it is somehow in transit; it is always coming to us. And as it comes to us born on the winds of the Spirit, Jesus says in John 3 :“You do not know whence it comes or wither it goes.”

Curiously, the word of the Lord always seems to come to the prophets in the form of poetry. The words of the prophets and Psalms and Revelation may be the most carefully hammered-out words in the Bible. Writing poetry takes time and meticulous working and reworking of the text to get it just right. Poetry is also open to endless meanings and interpretations.

The rest of the Bible tends to be an eclectic collection of sayings and sagas endlessly told and retold in oral tradition and variously remembered in written traditions. It’s then later retold and edited by so-called Biblical witnesses.

For example, the book of Revelation is popularly believed to be the dream or vision of someone named John– some suggest of John of Patmos – or a direct revelation from God. It turns out that of the 400 some odd verses in Revelation, nearly 300 are direct quotations or references to stories in the Old Testament. That is, someone has carefully re-edited and re-worked existing Biblical material with some added connective tissue.
Then you get things like the Noah’s ark saga. In Genesis 6 we read that God instructs Noah to take two of each animal, one male and one female. Then in Genesis 7 it is suddenly seven pairs of each animal. So which is it? Modern scientific folks that we are, we want to know which verse is “right.”

We quickly see how difficult it can be to read the Bible literally. And when it comes to poetry and visions, it becomes even more demanding.

When God’s word is like a hammer on a rock, splitting it into many pieces, those pieces render many different meanings. This makes us uncomfortable.

And that seems to be what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. Jesus says he did not come to bring peace to the earth but rather division. Depending upon whether we choose to get with the Good News of Jesus or not will leave us divided, redistributed. Jesus does not come literally to divide, it will just be a natural consequence of his coming and the subsequent distributing of God’s spirit among us.

The word of the Lord comes to us. We know not whence it comes or wither it goes – where it will find us and where it will take us. When the word of the Lord comes to us, we are called to do something new, be something new, to see all things new. We are called to co-create with the God who says, “Let there be … .”

The word of the Lord in the person of Jesus is an invitation to stand in the midst of the fire of God’s utterances throughout time.

The word of the Lord is like a hammer on a rock, reverberating throughout the ages with endless readings, endless tellings and re-tellings, endless remembrances. From age to age each verse, each word, each letter gets re-examined, re-thought, re-told, newly uttered, newly acted upon.

Looking at the world, our country, and even our church, one can readily see the kinds of divisions Jesus describes. Is it any wonder that Jesus wants to kindle the fire of God’s word?

Is it any wonder that God’s word wants to be a hammer to break our rocks – the rocks of our flinty, fossilized, and rigid beliefs, understandings, and misunderstandings – into little pieces so as to make them all new?

As it says in Hebrews, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account.”

Are we ready to be set on fire? Are we ready to let our current understandings be smashed to pieces? Are we ready for the word of the Lord? When we say, “Thanks be to God,” we are saying, “Yes, Lord, send your word to me here and take me someplace utterly new! Give me your fire, and splinter my rock. Bring me closer to the life of your Kingdom.”

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, 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. E-mail: kkub@aol.com.

Faith is a process, Pentecost 11, Proper 14 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 or Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

As it says in today’s reading from Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Have you ever noticed that so many of the words Christianity uses are little words? Little words packed with big meanings. Words like God, Christ, love, sin, and the word for today: faith.

Words like faith often have a “churchy” sound to them; maybe they even sound boring or irrelevant. But in reality, they are rich words that point to vital realities. While even everyday words can have a spiritual dimension, just as the ordinary events of our lives can speak to us of holy things, a word like “faith” points to the realm of mystery and depth that lies beyond our ordinary experience, perhaps in the land of “beyond-words.” Words alone cannot convey their power.

There are many things in life that are indescribable: the power of music or art, falling in love, the death of a friend. As Frederick Buechner writes in his book, Beyond Words: “How can we begin to describe such things other than to say that they are ultimately indescribable? You can know them only by experiencing them for yourself.”

Even things that are really beyond words can still be talked about. The words we use might not encompass the subject, but they help us to get a handle on it, to look at it from various angles in the hope that we might gain a little understanding. So here goes.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Did that line make you think, “Huh?” or did you just let it blow past? Did you notice that even the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wasn’t very clear on exactly what faith is? He throws out that one-liner and then treats us to a recital of actions by the faithful men and women of old. If we were to look up these stories in the Hebrew scriptures, we would notice that there is almost no reference to faith as a moving force in the lives of the characters. It may be implied, but it is rarely there for us in black and white.

The author of Hebrews uses the word “faith” in a variety of ways. Sometimes it will indicate trust or belief, and sometimes it will refer to the quality of loyalty or faithfulness. One thing is clear: as used here, faith cannot be severed from hope. The lives of our ancestors are important to the author because those men and women lived lives of faith. The brief sketches we read and hear are to be read and heard as God’s testimonies about their lives.

When we think about having faith, we often mean assenting to intellectual propositions. Do we believe there is a God? Do we believe that God is the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of creation, of humanity, of us? Do we believe this or that about the Bible or the teachings of the Church throughout the ages?

Faith, as used by the author of Hebrews, is much more than belief that there is a God. Rather, it is trust that God rewards those who seek God. Faith has a long memory and profits from the experience of those who have gone before us. Faith also hopes, looking beyond the immediate to God’s future and our part in it. Faith is tenacious and enduring, able to accept promises deferred in the conviction that even death does not cancel out God’s promises. Faith is indeed the conviction of things not seen, a conviction firmly held, but it is more: it is the substance, the essence, the very being of things hoped for. Faith is not the permanent state of once and for all, but is often fragile and elusive.

God entrusts us with a holy freedom; people of faith always have the option of returning to “the land that they had left behind.” We know that land; it is the one we always view with the rose-colored glasses, the one that the Israelites in the wilderness longed for, the land with the leeks and the garlic, forgetting they were slaves in that land.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Our God is a God who is always calling us into new life, into the future. Faith is future-oriented, trusting that God will keep God’s promises. In a nutshell, faith and hope are one, and the life of faith is pilgrimage, a journey. As an example, the author of Hebrews reminds us of Abraham and Sarah. The author focuses not on God’s call, but on Abraham’s response. Abraham’s response is expressed in obedience; Abraham sets off for the place God has promised, not knowing where it might be. Even when he gets there, the place is not his to claim. Indeed, he and his children and his children’s children sojourn as foreigners in the land of promise. Abraham anticipated a city with sure foundations even though he spent his life living in a tent, a city with a river flowing through it, even though he lived in a desert.

The God who calls us into new life gives us a vision of the homeland we seek. Such vision enabled Abraham to remain faithful to the elusive, unseen God who called him. Such vision enabled him to live as a resident alien in the new land, and to see with fresh eyes the goals, values, and relationships of the society encountered in the new land. The faith of Abraham and Sarah was more than right thinking; it also involved right acting. It involved not just their minds, but their whole beings.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

If you’re thinking, “This is all too much for me on a warm August morning,” I want to offer you another way of thinking about all this, about faith.

Have you made pancakes lately? Or muffins? Anything that involves a batter containing a leavening agent like baking powder? The batter doesn’t look like much, does it? Before they are baked, yeast breads give us a hint at what’s to come after their time in the oven. But it’s the quick breads that really surprise us. There they sit, batter in a bowl. We old-timers know what to expect, so the miracle is often wasted on us, but make waffles with a young child, and you will be reminded of the miracle effected by a hot waffle iron and a little patience. Batter goes in, wait until the steaming stops, and voila! Breakfast! Slathered with butter and anointed with maple syrup, it becomes a feast!

So the next time you are trying to wrap your mind around faith, or worrying that you don’t have any or enough, just think about making waffles and trust that what comes out of the waffle iron will look and taste better than what went in. Frederick Buechner reminds us: “Remember that faith is more of a process than a possession, on-again-off-again than once and for all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.”

Written by the Rev. Mary K. Morrison
The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, California. E-mail: mkmorrison@stlukeslg.org.

Powerful truth, Pentecost 10, Proper 13 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Hosea 11:1-11 or Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 107:1-9, 43 or 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Jesus had just said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, someone in the crowd shouted to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
Someone had not been paying attention. Someone’s mind had been somewhere else. Someone in the crowd was very worried – worried about money.

Jesus’ story of the rich and foolish farmer is framed by the commandment “Do not worry.” Just before the story of the farmer, Jesus told his listeners not to worry about what they would say when they were brought to trial for his sake. Just after the story, he said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” And in between, he told a story about one of the things we worry about most: money.

We can empathize with Jesus’ anonymous listener. We live in a prosperous country and the economy is robust, but we probably worry about money at least some of the time. Some time ago public television broadcast a program entitled “Affluenza.” The point of the program was simple: the more money we make, the more we want, and the more we spend. Our wants always outpace our income.

So when Jesus’ listener asked him to command his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus responded, “Take care! be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Human beings are greedy. Older translations use the word “covetous” instead of greedy. The two things are different: greed is wanting more than we need; covetousness is looking at what someone else has and wishing that we had what they have. There’s nothing wrong with wanting and having a nice car or house or clothes, but there is something very wrong when we feel incomplete if we don’t have all the things that we would like to have. Yet, our economy is largely based on creating in us the desire for things we don’t want. Advertisers base their appeals on our insecurities. Drink this kind of soft drink! Use this deodorant! Buy this car! It will make you happy, attractive, fulfilled.

In 1931, Alabama’s bishop, William George McDowell, said that the cause of the Great Depression was “the general extravagance in the recent era of so-called prosperity. This is an economic term for presuming on God’s providence. The vicious circle is something like this: our desires are inflamed by clever advertising till we feel we must indulge them for the things we want. We delude ourselves into thinking we must have the things we crave and that we can afford them.” They were prophetic words, as applicable now as then.

Many years ago, renegade Baptist minister and all-round troublemaker, Clarence Jordan, rendered the gospels into the idiom of the modern South. Here’s his translation of today’s gospel from his book The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts:

“A certain rich fellow’s farm produced well. And he held a meeting with himself and he said, ‘What shall I do? I don’t have room enough to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my old barns and build some bigger ones in which I’ll store all my wheat and produce. And I will say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve got enough stuff stashed away to do you a long time. Recline, dine, wine, and shine!’ But God said to him, ‘You nitwit, at this very moment your goods are putting the screws on your soul. All these things you’ve grubbed for, to whom shall they really belong?’ That’s the way it is with a man who piles up stuff for himself without giving God a thought.”
One reason that I like Clarence Jordan’s translation of the story of the rich but foolish farmer is that, alone among all the translations of the New Testament in my library, Jordan translates the story correctly. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” But that is not what the Greek text says. Rather, it says, “They have demanded your life.” Who were the “they” who demanded the life of the farmer? His things, of course. He no longer owned his possessions; they owned him. Or in Jordan’s words, “Your goods are putting the screws on your soul.”

Somewhere deep inside, we all know that Jesus was stating a powerful truth. Everything we own also owns a little bit of us. If we own a house or a car, then we are under an obligation to earn money to pay for the house or car; we have to take time to see to it that our house or car is cared for. We are no longer quite as free as we were before.

The rich farmer made the mistake of believing that he really possessed his great wealth, although Jesus said that the reality was that it possessed him. Movie magnate Sam Goldwyn, on being told that he couldn’t take it with him, replied, “Well then, I just won’t go.” But that is not an option. We can’t take it with us, nor can we refuse to go when it is our time. And neither can we really possess, only hold in trust. Today’s possessions become tomorrow’s garage sale treasures.

So, Jesus concluded his parable of the rich farmer by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” He had stored his wealth in earthly barns, even though he had had the opportunity to store it in heaven.

I want to reiterate this: Wealth is not wrong or sinful, but it is problematic. The spiritual problem of wealth is that it anchors our hearts too firmly in this world, rather than in God’s kingdom.

The rich and foolish farmer tore down his barn and built bigger barns. He opened more bank accounts and invested his money in high-tech start-ups. Nothing wrong with any of that. But God invites us to invest our money and ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.

The story is told that at the funeral of the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis, one of the mourners turned to another and said, “How much did he leave?” And his friend replied, “Everything. He left everything.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn
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.