Archives for February 2008

The Church is no exception, 3 Lent (A) – 2008

February 24, 2008

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42 

“Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.'”

It is not often that we find anyone in the gospels giving Jesus advice or telling him what to do. He is after all the Lord – the one who tells others what to do. Jesus does not need anyone’s advice. Even his mother, in the story of the wedding at Cana, simply announces to him, “They have no wine.” She leaves the rest to him. She does not tell him what to do.

So it is surprising, and touching, to find the disciples in our gospel account today, telling Jesus to “eat something.” Jesus was “tired out by his journey” and perhaps by his dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well. Taking note of his weariness, the disciples urge him in no uncertain terms to get some nourishment. Take care of yourself, they seem to say. We might almost expect them, like over-solicitous parents, to tell him next to wear comfortable walking shoes, get plenty of rest, and save for retirement.

Beyond their genuine concern for Jesus, the disciples are probably also at least a little fearful that he will burn himself out, use himself up, and in the process, leave them in the lurch, bereft of his strength and presence. So, “Eat something,” they say, no doubt offering him the food they had just brought from the city.

But they need not have worried.

“I have food to eat,” Jesus responds, “that you do not know about.”

The disciples at first fail to understand. With a note of puzzlement in their voices, they say, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” But Jesus explains, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” He reminds the disciples – and us – that we are all on a mission; that the one who sends us forth is also the one who provides for us; and that in doing the will of the Father we ourselves are fed and nourished.

Doing the Lord’s will nourishes us still. It brings us together in community for prayer and fellowship, and it impels us out into the world and among those in need of the Lord’s comfort and care. That is why the Lord tells the disciples, “The fields are ripe for harvesting.” In an age of ninety-nine cent burgers and supermarket efficiency, it is sometimes difficult to recall the harvest – difficult to remember the sowing and the reaping; more difficult still to remember that it is only in the harvest itself that we are nourished and fed. Without the harvest, there is no food. There is no life.

Food not only keeps together body and soul, it knits together families and communities. And the Church is no exception. Indeed, the primary worship service at most of our churches, the Holy Eucharist, is itself a ritual meal in which bread and wine become the body and blood of our Lord. In this sacred meal we are preserved for the journey ahead. But if we in the Church feed only ourselves, we can never truly be nourished. We will always hunger for more. We will starve to death in the midst of God’s bountiful harvest. As followers of Christ, we are called to bring spiritual sustenance to a world still starved for God. “Then only we live,” wrote Lucy Larcom, a nineteenth-century American poet, “when we feed one another, as we have been fed.”

The people of Samaria, having heard the testimony of the woman at the well, come to Jesus to see for themselves if he is the Messiah; to see for themselves if he can bring them living water and food that will assuage their inner hunger and thirst. And as the Gospel tells us, “many more believed because of his word.” People still come today to be nourished with “his word.” We are among them.

“Rabbi, eat something.” The disciples were undoubtedly thinking only of physical nourishment and the strength it brings. They did not yet grasp that it is Jesus himself who feeds us all and strengthens us with his word and gospel – but only if we ourselves are willing to “eat something;” and only if we enter the harvest and feed others as we have been fed.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar, California. 

Transfiguration, Temptation, and Trust, 2 Lent (A) – 2008

February 17, 2008

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 

One could summarize the past two Sundays and today with a three-word theme: Transfiguration, Temptation, and Trust. On the last Sunday of Epiphany we went to the mountaintop with Jesus and witnessed the Transfiguration. On the first Sunday in Lent we reflected on his temptation in the wilderness at the start of his public ministry, and today we have the subject of trust embodied in the patriarch, Abraham, the writing of St. Paul, and in a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Abraham is the ultimate “trust in the Lord” kind of person. He’s asked to leave everything behind and go to a new place, unknown to him, and begin a new life with God. For a person whose identity was grounded in land, ancestry, and family, this was a risky endeavor. Yet he leaves country, kindred, and his father’s house to go to a new land with the promise that he will found a great nation. If somebody announced God had called them to do that today, we’d put them on tranquilizers!

The point, of course, is not that Abraham is deluded or demented. His developing relationship with God has led him to this trustful action. The Abraham cycle in Genesis has to be read as a whole to understand how this relationship grew from one of doubt into trust.

St. Paul, in Romans, recalls Abraham as our ancestor and as one “who without works trusts him”. There is, in Paul’s mind, a great reward for those who trust in God without evidence, or in the face of doubt. Trust comes out of a relationship that grows and flourishes amidst hardship and suffering. Abraham is not rewarded for being good, but for being faithful, trusting that God knows what God is doing, and God knows how to use him as an agent for the plan of salvation. For Paul that is enough. Is it enough for us?

Nicodemus, a righteous man, comes to Jesus deeply troubled. Something in him is stirred by what Jesus is teaching, but the little voice behind his ear keeps saying, “Be careful now; don’t get taken in.” You can feel the tension in their conversation. John, the Evangelist, uses this conversation as a platform for his famous phrase, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And after hearing that, Nicodemus is treated to a revelation: God is not interested in condemnation, but salvation. People who trust in God are saved. Life in the Spirit is living in trust, even in the midst of despair. And the Spirit blows the breath of trust into us at the times we most need it.

A middle-aged man, afflicted with aggressive cancer, continues to pray regularly for whatever God will do. His treatments have left him weakened and uncertain; but surrounded by his family, his trust that God will deliver him in some way keeps him faithful, even to the point of asking for prayers for a fellow patient who has been given only a few weeks to live.

A woman sits shattered as her husband tells her he wants their marriage to end. What will happen to her? But she tells her pastor she knows God has something in mind for her future, that there will be life after the death of this relationship.

Experiences like these are faced by people every day – job loss, sickness, being a victim of crime, losing loved ones – all these events confront us with the question: Can we trust in a God who allows these things to happen? No easy answers here. There is, however, the journey of Lent to teach us about trust. If we make the journey that ends at the foot of the cross on Good Friday with Jesus’ cry of despair, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” then we are ready to discover that God always keeps promises, whether we trust God or not.

The empty tomb at Easter is the powerful affirmation, but it does not make sense unless we first make that Lenten journey with Abraham and Jesus. Make the journey of Lent. Come to the liturgies – all of them – and you will experience a growing trust in God through the ministry and passion of our Savior. As Abraham discovered, trust comes from a growing relationship with God. We can experience that same relationship in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is currently serving as archdeacon to the Episcopal Church in Micronesia with four churches on Guam and Saipan in the Western Pacific. 

The realities of sin, 1 Lent (A) – 2008

February 10, 2008

Psalm 32; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11 

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” or “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.”

Whichever version of the Lord’s Prayer you say, the request is the same: we ask God to be our strength and guide when we’re faced with temptation and sin. In our Collect, we just prayed: “Almighty God, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.” The realities of temptation and sin are very apparent in each of our readings today.

In Genesis we have one of the most well-known, often quoted, and unfortunately usually misunderstood Old Testament stories. We’ve heard this since our Sunday school days. A serpent who is more crafty than any other wild animal, the passage says, tricks Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – and to add insult to injury, Eve gets Adam to take a bite of the apple too. And, oh my gosh, the result is that instead of dying, as God proclaimed would happen, all that happened was that Adam and Eve realized they were naked. Of course, we also know that they eventually got kicked out of Paradise. If only they had obeyed God, we would all still be living there and life would be perfect. It’s all Eve’s fault.

Honestly, haven’t we all at one time in our lives heard this passage played with this way? At least as children in Sunday school, didn’t we think it was completely unfair that we have to suffer for what Adam and Eve did? Or let’s be honest, Eve started it, so the guys can feel a little less guilty, but still, why do we have to suffer for their sin?

Unfortunately, some adults never learned anything different as they became adults. There’s that nagging feeling of “if only.” But there are a number of problems with this.

To begin with, where did we get the idea the fruit was an apple? Nowhere in this Genesis story is “apple” mentioned. And oddly, this forbidden apple is often seen to have something to do with sex. Sex gets the label of being evil in many traditions. Today of course, we may smile to ourselves and say, “certainly not.” But deep down, many people wonder if just maybe that’s what this story is all about. This shows how images and stories change through history, and that should make us realize how important the careful study of scripture is.

Then we have the problem of Adam being duped by Eve. This passage is too often used to show that women are the “sinful” ones, and they have been under suspicion ever since.

These issues that come from reading this passage literally can blind us to what we need to learn. Adam and Eve aren’t two historical figures who destroyed our chance to live in Paradise. Adam and Eve are us – all of us, from time immemorial!

This story teaches us that temptation and sin are part of human nature. They’re part of our nature because we’ve been given the gift of free will. There is that bit about the tree in the middle of the garden, you remember. With that gift of free will comes the responsibility of choice. We can choose to do good or evil, and even if Adam and Eve were historical figures, human nature being what it is, at some point they would probably have chosen to do wrong. We have to admit we all would have at some point. We all do; there’s no getting around it.

The mention of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil brings up another interesting point. Notice that it says “good and evil”. It doesn’t say “good or evil.” Scripture scholar the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Wright describes this very subtle difference in a most interesting way. She says:

“The knowledge referred to is not limited to moral knowledge; rather, it is the tree of infinite knowledge, of knowing all that it is possible to know. The point is not that trying to discern between good and evil is somehow wrong or at least prohibited, but rather that trying to have all knowledge is a grasping to be God, to be without limit. That may be what God is warning the first gardener.”

Words that might come to mind here are pride or self-sufficiency. When we think we know so much that we don’t need others – or worse, that we don’t even need God – then “knowledge,” which is a very good thing, becomes an occasion of sin.

It would be a good meditation for each of us to go back and re-read this passage from Genesis when we have time to look at each image, maybe with the help of a good biblical commentary, and consider carefully what each image is pointing to on a deeper level. This whole story is so much more wonderful when we understand what the story is really saying to us. Then of course we need to consider our other readings, lest we think that the story ends with “and they knew that they were naked.” Where’s the good news?

Well, the good news is the Incarnation. In Jesus we find our model, our guide in how to resist temptation for one thing, but even more importantly, that when we do sin we are always given the chance to repent. The gospel passage from Matthew is another of those really well-known and often told stories about Jesus. This is a favorite from Sunday school days because it’s so visual. We can picture the desert and Jesus being almost dead after 40 days of fasting. The tempter tries to get Jesus to turn stones to bread. That would be a great trick. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do that! We can picture the tempter coming and taking him to a pinnacle of the temple. We might wonder why people didn’t see him up there. But again, Jesus doesn’t give in. What Jesus does is remind the tempter that God is the authority, that God has the true power. Only God is worthy of humankind’s worship. The temptations that the tempter offered Jesus weren’t, in truth, the tempter’s to offer.

There are many things both these passages teach us, but we might focus today on faithfulness. If Adam and Eve had been faithful to what God asked of them, like Jesus, they would have been able to resist the temptation to sin.

The consequence of their sinfulness was that they saw very clearly their nakedness, their humanity. If we’re honest, when we sin, don’t we know deep down and quite clearly our own weakness – our frail humanity? That’s when we must not lose hope.

Yes, the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to lose the garden. Our sinfulness causes us to lose our balance, our peace of heart. Jesus came to show us how to live. His ministry was to call us back to faithfulness – to show us how much God loves us. God loves us enough to become like us, to die to redeem us, and to rise to bring us back into a loving relationship with Him. We see in Jesus a comrade, a model, someone who knew in a human way what our struggles are.

Lent is a wonderful time to re-read these Scripture stories, to remember what we’ve learned and what they still teach us. Lent is a time to pray for metanoia, the Greek word for a change of heart and life, a renewal of faith. “Happy are we whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”

 

— 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.

Seeing the glory of God, Last Sunday After the Epiphany/World Mission Sunday (A) – 2008

February 3, 2008

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Episcopalians get it about glory; that the glory of God is the hidden flesh-and-blood truth about everybody, everywhere. Therefore proclaiming the glory of the incarnation is the business we are in. Which is to say that we – every parish, diocese, province, person – are in the business of healing, and feeding, and serving, and loving, and respecting the dignity of every human being in God’s glory-haunted world.
Anglicans have always gotten it about glory, at least on our better days. This is our charism: to know that glory is the deepest truth for everyone, everywhere. Glory is the wonder-filled transfiguring end of all people and all creation, not just a platitude to sing about or an unimportant side product of a guilt-ridden religion. We live into that transfiguring, glorious truth one particular person and place at a time.

One particular Mount Sinai, one particular glory place, is the International Community School in East Atlanta. Half of the kids are from red Georgia clay. And half of the kids are refugee children from every war-torn country you can think of.

Here’s what occurred there on one particular afternoon. It looked like some kind of glorious game of red rover; red rover with two lines of kids facing each other across a beaten-down, bare-earth playground. The winter sun lit every little face, the glowing beauty of dark, and dusky, and pale, and every shade on earth, for the children are from thirty-plus countries. They were giggling in every language you can imagine, and it was clear they understood each other. Every one was jumping up and down and flapping their arms enthusiastically like those guys who stand signaling in front of planes. Almost every shirttail was flapping, too.

The Bosnian teacher, a former refugee, grinned and said again and again, “WONNNE, DOOOOO, TREEEEEE,” and one child and then another raced toward the other line of kids who stood there cheering, and clapping, and calling him in until he joined them, whooping, and dancing, and now somehow a part of the other line.

It was hard to figure out what the point of the game was, since plain old American red rover is supposed to be about standing with your arms locked keeping the “other” out of your territory. But here – on this tiny campus for 350 children – a dream for children of otherness has come true. In the dream of the International Community School, over and over, you let the other in and it looks like everybody from everywhere wins. Glory be to God.

Here’s the story of one of the people behind the transfigured red rover game.

Barbara Thompson is a founder of the International Community School. It may not have been her life plan to found a school for refugee kids, but after long years of friendship with her, it’s obvious that she has moments when the glory comes glimmering, and she follows.

She started out as a freelance writer. For years she would do articles or books for people or businesses about some subject that they wanted to spread around. She would go through her days, writing well, being a good citizen and friend, living a fairly useful and responsible life, an orderly writer’s life. But every once in a while she would say to herself, “You know, I have this funny feeling. I think my life is smaller than I am. I just think my life is smaller than I am.”

And somehow she got stuck on the story about what happens to kids in war – in Uganda or maybe Nicaragua. And that relentless and sickening old story just kept coming back – the brutality of family displacement, and the maiming and killing of children in national and international power plays. The story just would not go away; it stayed in her head and troubled her at night and she would question, “Why is the world like this? What possible reason could be right enough to have as a collateral the killing of children and the destruction of families and communities?”

In the ’90s she went to Bosnia while the war there was still raging, chasing this same story of children of war. Then she came to Georgia to interview Bosnian refugee children and teenagers for a national magazine article. She was working on a tight deadline on this article, and she had given her number to the kids she interviewed in case they thought of anything else they wanted to say. Sure enough, she was working and writing when the phone rang. It was a young girl’s troubled, soft voice, twisting around unfamiliar English words, and the girl asked “Could you come meet my family?”

Barbara said, “Well, you see, I’m working on this very important article. You know, the one about children of war. And so I’m very busy. I’m really very, very busy.”

And there was a pause. An intense quietness.

And somehow there was a moment. And a glory light glimmered. And Barbara knew to look up from her article and arise and follow the girl’s invitation.

She went to a dark little apartment, which some understaffed refugee resettlement organization had found for the family and then just left them there: little food, one light, no table, no chairs, no bed, no extra clothes, the adults with no English. Just a totally lost and demoralized Bosnian family: a grandmamma, and a mama, and a daddy, and their little child, and two teens – all of them sitting on the bare floor, since there was no place else to sit.

And the writer sat there with them on the floor, even though, you know, she was on deadline for this very important article on children of war. And they talked haltingly, and they smiled together, and something began to glow. She saw whatever it is we see in people that makes them real, and deep, and beautiful, and worth troubling over. I believe it is that we see the glory of the face of Christ in them.

And she made some calls on her cell phone. And you know what happened.

Gifts came from her friends and her church, gifts of furniture, and food, and light, and love, and friendship for the strangers, for the aliens. You have seen the glory of this gifting in your church and your diocese. It happens everywhere, through everyone in the Episcopal church. You could name a dozen glowing moments in your own congregation and diocese. Surely that is the best reason why we join together.

But back to this particular story. From that one evening, Barbara and her gang helped refugee family, after family, after family, after family get on their feet and find jobs and even buy homes in this bountiful land, where almost all of us – except the ones who came in chains – came from some place that wasn’t safe for us or where we weren’t particularly wanted or needed.

The years went by, and Barbara handed off the refugee resettlement ministry, though she kept the friends. And she went back to a simple, orderly writer’s life. But every once in a while she had that little nagging thought again, “I think my life is smaller than I am.”

And one night she went to Columbia Seminary to hear Walter Brueggemann, and the class was getting ready to start, and there was one seat left in an auditorium of 120 seats, and it was next to her. A man sat down, and they listened to one of Dr. Brueggemann’s amazing lectures, and they spoke a little bit at the break. She found out that the man was the principal of a well-known private school. When the break ended, they went back to listening to the lecture, and when the lecture was over, the man went to head out one door, and she headed toward another exit. And he turned around in the door and looked back at her, and she looked at him, and there was this glimmering moment.

What hidden possibilities of glory did they see to make these words tumble out?

Barbara said, “By the way, if you are ever interested in starting a school for refugee children let me know.”

And Bill Moon said – standing backlit in an exit doorway on his way out – said, “For twenty-five years I’ve been wanting to start a school for refugee children.”

And they looked at each other in the glow of the light of Christ. And their lives were transfigured in a dazzling moment of the eternal Yes.

And they did start a school: the International Community School. Kindergarten through sixth grade, an amazing place, with teachers from public schools and private schools and college volunteers, and adult refugees – classroom assistants who were dodging bombs and burying their dead all over the world in years gone by. Barbara, along with her chance companion, then joined by a nun, and then many others, brought their histories together and their anguish for the children of the world, and a new thing sprung forth. They knew that their love for children everywhere has to find its incarnation in some particular place with some particular children. And a miracle for refugee children and their families has happened in Decatur, Georgia.

Because that’s the way glory works isn’t it? In a God-given moment that you didn’t expect and couldn’t have planned, your life opens up and up, and out and out, and you find yourself following the glimmering of some holy light to a glorious place you never knew – where you can give your gifts and receive the holy gifts of others – by the Love of God, through the Grace of Christ, in the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

You never know. There are these moments glowing with glorious possibility, of transfiguring power – for each of us, if we will just notice. You never know when. You never know where. For though it is true, the glory of the Lord is everywhere, human beings need to see it somewhere in somebody in particular.

And when we do see the glory of the Lord gleaming in somebody, then everybody else we see has glorious possibilities as well.
— The Rev. Martha Sterne, associate rector of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Ga., has authored two collections of stories and meditations, “Earthly Good” (OSL Publications, 2003) and “Alive and Loose in the Ordinary” (Morehouse Publishing, 2006). Before arriving at Holy Innocents’ in 2007, Martha served as the eighth rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Maryville, Tenn., and as associate rector of All Saints’ Church, Atlanta.