Archives for October 2007

Do you love me?, Pentecost 22, Proper 25 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32 or Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 65 or 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Every person who is born into this world, who lives and learns and grows, who works and worships and plays, who grays and grows old and dies, has one fundamental question that underlies his or her whole life: “Do you love me?”

We are created for connection: connection with others, connection with the universe, and connection with God. Being hardwired for relationship, we seek communion and reconciliation with all people, with the cosmos, and with God. This desire is the search for love. All of human life is a quest for love.

Unfortunately, the fundamental question “Do you love me?” is soon transformed by genetics, by socialization, by original sin, by whatever, into a different question, “Am I worthy of being loved?” or even more tragically, “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”

With these distorted questions the unfortunate soul soon seizes upon answers provided by family or society or even the church: I will be famous, I will be rich, I will be powerful, I will be elected, I will be esteemed, I will be ordained. In the process, we manage to convince ourselves that we will be happy if we achieve these goals, and by happy we mean that we will be loved.

The funny and sad thing is that humans continue to persist in these delusions even after experience repeatedly has shown them to be false. Maybe the next promotion or the next home or the next prize will bring true happiness. Throughout our lives, we continue to make the same mistake of trying to find in the finite and limited things of the world the response that is found only in the true object of our desire. Tragically we make idols of our strength, our money, our fame, and our power. Perhaps most tragically we make idols of our religion. We latch on to the things that should be pointing us to God and make them into idols.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In the form of a parable, Jesus presents the central theological conviction of God’s justification of sinners and the ultimate futility of self-righteousness. Two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stands by himself and he really is quite impressive.

Although centuries of Christian interpretation have led us to think of Pharisees as the bad guys, this is not fair. They are often presented as Jesus’ opponents in the gospels, but we need to remember that they were society’s good people. They were dependable, honest, upright, good neighbors, contributors to the community. Quite frankly, they were the type of folks we would all like to have as members of our parishes. The Pharisee is a man at home in the temple. He says his prayers. He gives more than he has to. Although the tithe on income was standard, he tithes on everything he has, and many people would have benefited from his generosity.

He stands in the correct posture for prayer in the temple, arms raised and head lifted. But – and this is a big but – in his prayer, he has nothing to ask of God. He’s basically giving God a progress report. As far as he can tell, he’s got it all under control, and he’s happy about it: “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, unrighteous folks, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.”

Meanwhile, standing off at a distance, is the tax collector. He has got nothing to show for himself, and he knows it. He earned his living by working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people. For years he has collected high taxes from his Jewish neighbors to give to the Roman government. He gives the Romans their flat rate on every head, and makes his money by charging an excess and keeping it for himself. Basically, he is a crook, a traitor, and a lowlife. He is guilty and he knows it.

He keeps his head lowered as he comes into the temple. We don’t know why his guilt has got the better of him today, but there he is in the temple, full of remorse, beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He doesn’t even promise to shape up. All he does is ask for God’s mercy.

The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, who gives a wonderful performance in the temple, goes home empty. He came asking nothing of God and he goes home getting nothing from God. The tax collector, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty handed asking for God’s mercy, and goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God.

We may hear this parable as a lesson on humility: don’t be proud like the Pharisee; go home and be humble like the tax collector. And just like that, we fall into a trap. We take a parable about God’s amazing, unconditional grace and acceptance, and turn it into a story about how we can earn or merit God’s love. We’ve got the answer now. If we can just be humble like the tax collector and not be puffed up with pride like the Pharisee, then God will accept us and love us. We may even find ourselves praying, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.”

The trap here is that we ask the wrong question of this parable. It’s that distorted question “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”

The Pharisee in the parable asks this question, and he thinks he has the answer in his religious observance. He fasts, he prays, he tithes, he lives an upright life. The tragedy and the irony is that in the very act of demonstrating that he is worthy of love, he is cutting himself off from his neighbors and from God. The tragedy and the irony of trying to make ourselves worthy of love through our supposed virtues, even the virtue of humility, is that we end up casting a sideward glance at others and measuring ourselves against them. If I need to earn God’s love, then I will have to be better than the other guy. In the fire of God’s love even our supposed virtues need to be burned away.

But if we ask the right question, the question “Do you love me?” then the parable gives us an answer. To the question “Do you love me?” God replies resoundingly and forever “Yes.”

The tax collector’s humility was not a virtue that earns him God’s love and acceptance. The tax collector’s humility is a posture of openness in which he is able to receive God’s love. Ultimately, the Pharisee and the tax collector are the same. They both need God’s love. The difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it and the tax collector does. The tax collector goes up to the temple with nothing to show for himself. His hands and his heart are empty and he knows it, and therefore he has room to experience the gospel and the good news that there is nothing we need to do, nothing we can do, to earn the grace and love of God.

The love that moves the sun and the other stars, the love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?”

The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love and return it. Everything else is a veil before our eyes, thrown up by our culture, our career, and our churches. All self-flattery and self-importance and self-righteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness, and I will fill it and I will fill you with my melting love.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano
The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, MD. He received a Ph.D. in Theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee WI.

To us and for us, Pentecost 20, Proper 23 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 or 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 66:1-12 or Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Do you sometimes get turned off by “religion talk”? Or do you think that the vocabulary and jargon used by many Christians somehow makes an ordinary idea so religious that it doesn’t apply in day-to-day living?

Such a word is “grace.” It sounds so pious and out of reach. So when a prayer, one of those lovely compact “collect” prayers, talks of God’s grace going in front of us and behind us, we sort of shrug, say “fine” but really don’t think it means very much at all.

The prayer – collect – today is a reminder of the story about God’s glory in visible form, as a great light, which went in front of and behind the children of Israel as they escaped Egypt and went in search of the Promised Land. Yet escaping from Egypt and looking for a Promised Land seem so very far from our experiences at work, or at home, even in church. Surely, sometimes we would love to run away. Maybe we pray that one day we will go to heaven. After all, why else would we be in church today, singing those hymns and saying these prayers? God seems to like that sort of thing for some unknown reason, so we do them. Perhaps we get some comfort and some hope. But as to the practicality of all this, perhaps some of us or most of us reserve judgment.

The readings today try to give practical examples of what “grace” means. Inevitably they are stories about, or reflections on “grace” set in a very different world than ours. No cars, no supermarkets, no global warming, no politicians – it all sounds wonderful! But what have two stories about lepers and one bit of advice to young Bishop Timothy have to do with high blood pressure, a fight with the teens or our parents, and mortgage payments, or even job insecurity?

Leprosy was once the scourge of all illnesses. It was incurable. Those with it were shunned and shunted off into separate places, ostracized and feared. Some people with AIDS feel that way. Even the word “cancer” or admitting one has that disease installs an irrational fear in some people. So the condition then may well be translated into our feeling alone, misunderstood, helpless, and perhaps actively shunned. Feelings of being alone and helpless surely attack most of us at one time or another. Feeling misunderstood often happens in the classroom or the office – and frequently at a vestry meeting! While the scene recounted in the Bible stories today may be unfamiliar, there are plenty of modern equivalents and experiences.

General Naaman’s problem was that he thought his condition and status required a dramatic response, a unique form of treatment, not merely a dip in a foreign river on the orders of a prophet who hasn’t even the courtesy to come out to meet this important dignitary. The lepers whom Jesus heals have a different problem. They take a miracle for granted, and all but one shrugs and gets on with life. Only one is thankful.

In both cases, we see that what gets in the way of grace, of receiving a gift, is pride in one form or another, that deadly sin. We think we are the only person with our problem. No one has had this problem before. To suggest that God has a universal answer, something as simple as merely doing as one is told and accepting a simple gift in a simple manner is just too much of a stretch – or should one say a stoop? Merely accepting, as Timothy is told to do, that Jesus is sufficient, that:

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself.”
Merely accepting is the clue to wholeness and a life lived within God’s gifts.

In a few minutes perhaps you will leave your seat and go to God’s table to receive promised gifts, the grace that goes before us and behind us, guiding and keeping us in the midst of everything. How on earth can a crumb of bread and a sip of wine address my extraordinary needs and problems? Or perhaps I will reach, take, and get on with life without a thought of “thanksgiving,” the word from which “Eucharist” derives.

Almost all healing is not the result of being “zapped” by God, but the result of being given an opportunity to anchor oneself in that which has been given, and an opportunity to live life with a new and different perspective. I accept the bread crumb and the sip of wine as a promise that I died with Jesus in baptism and rose to life, eternal life – something that starts at the font and not at the death bed.

So, as St. Paul reminds us, we are given the extraordinary gift to endure, to get on with life, a life made new and special because we are able to be thankful. Endurance doesn’t sound like much fun, but Christianity isn’t about fun, it is about cross-bearing, self-sacrifice, self-examination, admitting one’s faults and sins which get in the way of our vision of God. Yes, endurance made splendid, because we are given the gift of thanksgiving, of gratitude that we have been placed in the company of those who have gone before us in patient endurance; in the company of those who walk with us in joy. And we are given the gift of gratitude to be in the company of those who will come after us and who will endure as witnesses of the Christ who came, died, rose again and ascended into heaven and who restores everything and makes all things new.

Accepting simple gifts as the answer to what seem to be complicated needs takes humility. Accepting simple gifts when they work with thanksgiving takes a good deal of humility. Humility and being thankful are two sides of the same coin – a coin if you will, given to us by Jesus, who is equal with God but who empties himself to us and for us.

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Father Tony Clavier is the priest in charge at St. Thomas a Becket Church in Morgantown, WV, and the editor of LEAVEN, the journal of National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations (NNECA), http://www.nneca.org/.

How much is enough?, Pentecost 19, Proper 22 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6 or Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 or 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

How much is enough?

This is a fundamental question for all of us: How much is enough? Especially at this time of year when words such as “stewardship,” “pledge,” “proportional giving,” and “tithe” are in the air.

Luke has told us in no uncertain terms that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus talks endlessly about the life of discipleship. He talks about hospitality, welcoming and helping strangers, seeking lost sheep, visiting prisoners, lost coins, prodigal sons, the rich man, and Lazarus. Then he lays it on in Chapter 17 by saying if you cause anyone to sin, may you sleep with the fishes with cement overshoes on! And you must rebuke those who sin, and forgive those who repent seven times a day.

Is it any wonder the disciples cry out, “Increase our faith”? They are being asked to assume major leadership positions in the community of Christ. And no one wants to end up in the proverbial sleep with the fishes.

For much of the gospel, Jesus has questioned the faith of the disciples. “You have such little faith,” he says often. “Where is your faith?” he asks on the stormy sea. So it is only natural that they cry out, “Give us more. … Give us more faith. … Increase it, please, so we can succeed at all of this.”

It is a familiar cry. Whenever the church is faced with challenges, we say we need more: we need more resources, we need more planning, we need for people, we need more, more, more of everything before we can possibly do what Jesus calls us to do.

We all know just how the disciples are feeling. We put off leading Bible study until we know more about the Bible. Or we put off increasing our pledge until we are making just a bit more money. Just tap into those feelings of need more before listening to Jesus’ response.

His response exemplifies what is wonderful about Jesus and his method of training us and developing our discipleship. Hear what he says. Jesus says you do not need to increase your faith; you just need the tiniest bit of faith imaginable. A grain of mustard seed’s worth of faith can empower you to do great things. Which is to say, unless you have no faith, you already have enough.

You have enough! What you have is sufficient.

As it says in our catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we are to bear witness to Christ wherever we may be, and “according to the gifts given us, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” This is the definition of lay ministry in the church. For this we were baptized.

This acknowledges that we have all been given gifts and resources. As Saint Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthians, we do not all have the same gifts, but we all have gift necessary to do the things Jesus does. And most astonishing of all, in the fourteenth chapter of John, he tells us, “and greater things than these you will do.”

Pause. Try to take this in. We are promised by Jesus that with the gifts we have been given, we will do greater things than he does. What an incredible assertion. What a promise!

Jesus goes on to say that, at the end of the day, when you have used the gifts you already have been given, you may still feel as if you have not done enough – that you do not have enough to give. You will still feel unworthy somehow. That it is only your duty to have done these things Jesus calls us to do.

This is only natural, because you are so filled with the love of God, so filled with the Spirit of God, so perfectly created in God’s own generous and giving image that you will always want to do more for God’s sake and our neighbors’ sake.

Trust what you have – what you have been given. Trust what you have to give. It is more than enough. You can uproot trees. You can move mountains. The lame will walk, the blind will see. Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed everyone. As you sow, you shall receive. As you follow Christ, you will begin to lead. If only you have faith as small as a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is at hand. We can reach out and touch it, feel its nearness, participate in its fullness. If only we have the tiniest bit of faith, God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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.