Archives for May 2008

There’s no bargain here, Pentecost 2, Proper 3 – 2008

[RCL] Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” At first sight the lessons today seem to give us confusing messages. On the one hand we are called by Saint Paul “stewards of the mysteries of God.” On the other hand Jesus tells us not to worry or at least about anything long term. Indeed, in another passage in Philippians, St. Paul instructs his hearers not to worry about anything but instead to pray. That all sounds very pious, but reality seems different.

No one needs to tell us that worry and stress are the blight of our lives. What makes it worse is that whereas once we had an extended family with which to share worry and stress and to receive comfort and help, all too often today we seem to be on our own. In a recent poll, a huge number responded that loneliness was one of the negative aspects of life. It’s all very well, we may be thinking, for us to be told to be like the lilies of the field or even the birds of the air. But we live in today’s world.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about all by ourselves, our television sets daily, even hourly, suggest other worries and stresses. If the proverbial person from outer space sought to evaluate human life by watching television advertisements, the impression would be that we are chronically ill and dysfunctional.

If the pressures and cares of daily life are not enough, today’s readings bluntly inform us that the Kingdom of God is our first concern. We are “stewards” of the “mysteries.” What on earth does that mean? It sounds suspiciously as if this is an excuse for the stewardship committee to start telling us to increase our pledge or support the MDG project. No doubt we will shortly be urged to give money to the poor, use less gas, make our homes “green,” and find a way to combat global warming. It’s as if paying the mortgage, college tuition, affording gas for the cars, dealing with illness, the trials of being young or old, are not enough. Don’t we go to church to get comfort?

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Now that sounds better. Maybe, we think, that’s a bargain we can keep. God seems to like us to worship and sing all those strange hymns, give a bit, support our parish when we have time; and in return, God will give us all we need.

That is exactly not what Jesus is saying. God doesn’t bargain with us. Jesus starts this section by telling his hearers to get their priorities right. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus is using one of the most demeaning institutions humans can experience or impose on others to tell us the facts of life. Slavery was a reality in first-century life. Jesus doesn’t condone slavery, but he uses something frightful to demonstrate total goodness. A slave belonged to an owner and was forced to serve that owner exclusively. In one of the most extraordinary passages in the New Testament, St. Paul reminds the Philippian Christians that although Jesus knew of his relationship to God, he emptied himself and became the equal of a slave and gave his life. In that self-emptying, Jesus demonstrated just who he is. He is the one to whom every knee shall bow.

As an old Anglican collect puts it, it is when we serve God that we discover our freedom. Stress, compulsive worry, unacknowledged bitterness and resentment easily become our owner. We can’t serve two owners. Sometimes whole communities, parishes, even larger Christian groupings become enslaved to anxiety, to fear of loss, and to dysfunction. Those destroying demons become alternative owners. “No one can serve two owners.” Ironically, what Jesus calls “wealth” can be a wealth of troubles to which we cling and which define us and the way we live our lives. In our loneliness, such a wealth of troubles may well own us.

In our baptisms we were called out of such ownership. The fellowship of the church is given by God to enable us to share together the wonder of God’s love experienced in community. The community of Christ supports us as we learn to offer up the dreadful things that capture and own us, and love takes their place. This isn’t a “once and for all” process. We don’t give our lives to God and all becomes lovely. We give ourselves to God daily, hour by hour, and God gives us what the Prayer Book describes as the “means of grace and the hope of glory.”

In community, as stewards, servants of God and God’s world, we are strengthened in the Holy Meal. And we are strengthened as we read and hear God’s Word to act out love toward all whom we meet, and to take responsibility for a world God made, a world God said was “good” and a world which God intends to restore.

There’s no bargain here. Life will continue to be tough. Tragedy happens. Suffering is real. The difference is that, as Christians, we face these dreadful realities, these “crosses,” knowing that God in Christ has “been there, done that” in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and that together, in Christ, we are enabled to expose and overcome those dreadful owners we allow to dominate our lives.

Who on earth wants to construct an alternative God called “worry,” “stress,” “loneliness,” “bitterness,” and “fear”? The picture of such a dreadful idol would be fearsome. Such a God, such an owner, debilitates us. When we seek the Kingdom of God first and yearn to be “right” with the God of love, everything we need together to be useful and fulfilled servants is provided freely. We see the true God “in the face of Jesus.” So we seek first the Kingdom of God and accept with joy the things God adds to us. “The trials that beset us, the troubles we endure” will remain real, but that reality becomes transformed and made glorious as we serve God and do God’s will.

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Father Tony Clavier is the ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia and priest in charge at St. Thomas a Becket Church in Morgantown, WV. He is the editor of LEAVEN the journal of NNECA, Visit Father Tony’s blog at

A wealth of meaning, Trinity Sunday – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8 or Canticle 2 or 13; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Let’s begin with an excerpt from The New Yorker magazine, from an article by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about, of all things, automobile safety – or the lack of it – and one man’s tragic automobile accident, now more than a decade ago.
Quote: “Robert Day’s crash was not the accident of a young man. He was hit from the side, and adolescents and young adults usually have side-impact crashes when their cars slide off the road into a fixed object like a tree, often at reckless speeds. Older people tend to have side-impact crashes at normal speeds, in intersections, and as the result of error, not negligence. In fact, Day’s crash was not merely typical in form; it was the result of a common type of driver error. He didn’t see something he was supposed to see. His mistake is, on one level, difficult to understand. There was a sign, clearly visible from the roadway, telling him of an intersection ahead, and then another, in bright red, telling him to stop. How could he have missed them both?”

You see, even though visibility was perfect and the roadway dry on this bright, clear spring day, he missed a stop sign, and drove 40 miles an hour through an intersection in New Jersey to his death.

Quoting again: “From what we know of perception, though, this kind of human mistake happens all the time. … Intuitively, we believe that we ‘see’ everything in our field of vision – particularly things right in front of us – and that the difference between the things we pay attention to and the things we don’t is simply that the things we focus on are the things we become aware of. But when experiments to test this assumption were conducted recently … a psychologist at the New School found, to her surprise, that a significant portion of her observers didn’t see [a particular] object at all: it was directly in their field of vision, and yet, because their attention was focused [elsewhere], they were oblivious of it. [She] calls this phenomenon ‘inattentional blindness.’”

Now let’s not be frightened into abandoning our automobiles, or cajoled into more rigorous use of seat belts and avoidance of distractions such as cell phones while driving – although these are good habits. No, but there’s a point here that translates into the spiritual realm.

You see, many people today are hearing a sermon about the holy Trinity – understandably, as this is what we call “Trinity Sunday.” A lot of congregations are listening to some theological discourse on the inseparability of the three distinct persons of the Trinity – about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit being one God. And good priests, pastors, and preachers all over the world are trying desperately to make sense of the creation story – the lengthy creation story – while encouraging us all to go forth and make disciples of all people.

Now, Biblical study, or philosophical discourse, and theological inquiry are all fine things. But when we turn our attention to matters of form, or of doctrine, we miss what lies beyond them: the greater reality to which they point.

For instance, we Christians argue about whether the God we proclaim as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit really must be referred to only as what some jokingly call “two boys and a bird.” We proclaim sometimes-helpful insights, such as the notion of a God who exists in relationship – not alone or apart from everything and everybody else, but in conversation, both serving and being served, accountable. And we come across delights of Trinitarian theology over the ages, like the notion that the three persons of the Trinity loved each other so much that they became one. To Christians who have any sense of tradition, the doctrine of the Trinity is undeniably an integral part of our faith.

One God in three persons: we can debate and discuss and reason, trying to understand more of this mysterious paradox. Yet there is another strand of thought, one that follows from the likes of Justin Martyr, that seeker for the truth who died in about the year 167. Justin tells us that anyone who thinks God even can be named is “hopelessly insane.” And, just so you don’t think he’s hopelessly insane, consider this: no less venerable an authority than St. Augustine of Hippo in his own treatise on the Trinity, cautions against those who “allow themselves to be deceived through an unseasonable and misguided love of reason.”

So, instead of the usual treatise on the foreshadowing of the Trinity in the Old Testament – you know, those three men who appeared to Abraham under the oak at Mambre, and whom Abraham invited in and entertained in the plural, but went on to speak of as one, in the singular – instead of that kind of thing, let’s focus on perception.

When we try to sort out things like the holy Trinity, when we try to establish and fix exactly what it means – we forget that our ruminations are but theories, mere projections of what we would like God to be. “No one has ever seen God,” the blessed Apostle tells us – but that does not stop us from trying, does it? And in our determined search to understand the ineffable, to find out the truth, to know all things – we tend to fall prey to a spiritual kind of inattentional blindness.

We miss seeing that which is right in front of us, just as surely as Robert Day did that fateful day back in 1994. And – in an ironic twist – as a result of Mr. Day’s inattentional blindness, he now knows what we can only speculate about and experience fleetingly: the full presence of God. Do you wonder if Robert Day regrets that he was so focused on his destination that he failed to enjoy the journey? Or if he is glad that, while he lost his life in that crash, his 10-year-old son was spared? Or could he simply be amazed and thankful that he now sees clearly what was right before him all along?

There is not one meaning of the Trinity, or one means of describing that reality – but a great wealth of meaning. That assertion also comes from Augustine. And the doctrine of the Trinity, the very human idea of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and all our language about God – these are but symbols of a greater reality. Augustine reminds us that when we think about the Trinity, “we are aware that our thoughts are quite inadequate to their object, and incapable of grasping him as he is; even by men of the caliber of the apostle Paul, [God] can only be seen … ‘like a puzzling reflection in a mirror.’” Our thoughts and words mean nothing in themselves, if we cannot look through them, beyond them, and because of them – to something else.

That something else is a vision of peace and harmony that Jesus proclaimed is very near us. That something is a place of rest and refreshment the likes of which we have not dared to imagine. That something is a time of joyful reunion with all our departed loved ones – and indeed, all the company of heaven. A house with many mansions, a lamb that was slain and who reigns forever, a death unto eternal life.

This is the meaning of the holy Trinity: that there is a God, who made us and loves us and cares for us, who beckons us all home to live with him for ever, who calls us now to a new life of justice, freedom, truth, peace, and – above all – love. In our human state, we are subject to a chronic bout of inattentional blindness, in which we sometimes focus our attention elsewhere, and miss seeing the vision of heaven that God has placed right in front of us – each of us, and every day.

May God the holy and glorious Trinity grant that the scales may fall from our eyes, that we all may see what lies in front of us with the eyes of faith. Amen.

Written by the Rev. J. Barrington Bates
The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation, Oradell, New Jersey.

Gifts of generosity and hospitality, Day of Pentecost (A) – 2008

May 11, 2008

Acts 2:1-21Psalm 104:25-351 Corinthians 12:3b-13John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

The family arrived on a warm June day: a mother, grandmother, and five children ranging in ages from 17 to 3. As they scrambled out of the van, it was apparent just how tired they were. Some time ago this family had traveled from a refugee camp in Cameroon to Darfur, Sudan. There they caught a plane that flew them to Paris, then to the United States. The littlest ones were teary-eyed and clingy, hanging on to the bone-thin hand of their grandmother. The mother and older children had that glazed look that comes from extreme fatigue. This family, refugees from war-torn Rwanda, was being placed by the local resettlement agency. A house had been acquired, but necessary renovations were still in progress. So for the next few days the family would live in the church.

The church had spare rooms not being used over the summer, rooms that had been hastily converted from Sunday school rooms into bedrooms and a living room. Downstairs was a full kitchen, and the bathrooms contained showers. The family would be comfortable and have a relative degree of privacy in their temporary home.

The afternoon of their arrival, members of the church greeted the family and gave them a tour of the church. The family spoke a native dialect of Rwanda and a little French, but no English. A translator, a former refugee from Rwanda and now an employee of the resettlement agency, followed the tour, interpreting for the family. “Here is the kitchen. This is a gas oven. You light it this way. Be careful. Here are the pots and pans and dishes. Watch the children outside, do not let them run off the property; cars will zoom by fast, they could be hurt. There is food in the fridge; don’t eat the rabbits in the yard or the birds.” It was clear that this family was in a whole new world. Before the tour was over, most of the family members had found and claimed a bed and fallen asleep.

Over the next week, the family fell into a rhythm with the life of the parish. During office hours the family was usually still sleeping, their biological clocks still set several time zones away, on the other side of the world. Later in the afternoon they would rise and begin their day. Slowly over the week their hours shifted. By Sunday they were able to worship with the Korean Methodist Church that shared the building with the Episcopal congregation. It was an amazing sight: a Methodist service spoken in Korean, held in an American Episcopal Church, attended by Rwandans in full African attire.

At the lunch that followed, a few members of both the Episcopal and Methodist congregations were able to speak with the family in sparse French. It seems French was a common language in the refugee camp and now a common language shared among this diverse group of Koreans, Americans, and Rwandans gathered for a meal.

Members of the church dropped by during the week to bring the kids some things to play with: soccer balls, used bikes, tennis rackets and balls, and sidewalk chalk. The kids were delighted, and ran gleefully off to play. Laughter filled the air, another common language that knows no boundaries.

Six days after their arrival, the house was ready, and the family prepared to move out of the church. A large van arrived to take their few belongings, three suitcases for seven people. Plus seven beds with bed linens, two scooters, two bikes, and a few balls donated by the church. The sum total of their possessions.

Members of the church helped them pack. As the family loaded the last of their things, the daughter turned and offered the priest a few gifts – a small wooden picture with strands of colored wheat, and two coasters with psalms inscribed – gifts a nun had helped them make in the refugee camp in Cameroon. A family with virtually nothing, and yet they came bearing gifts of gratitude. Thankfulness, another common language shared.

One parish member and his son drove the van and helped the family move into their house. With the family gone, the church seemed quieter than ever. Lingering aromas from the fragrant meals remained, but otherwise all was quiet. The church learned a profound lesson that week, a lesson about giving, sharing, and living in an abundant yet simple way.

Despite all the differences of language, and culture, and food, and customs, a bond was formed. Regardless of the inability to really speak to one another, the church members and the family members were able to communicate a shared compassion for one another and a common love of God. It was truly an experience of the Holy Spirit moving in and through them all.

Our reading today from Acts points us in this same direction. We hear that the disciples have all gathered in one place, people from all over the region, people all speaking different languages. And then a rush of wind, unlike ordinary wind, energized and fiery as only the Holy Spirit can be, comes and fills them with a sensation that changes them forever. Suddenly they have the ability to hear and understand one another. The room is electric. They stand confused, astonished, and conscious of what has happened, God was in that wind. What an awesome experience it must have been.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In his departure Jesus has let loose the Holy Spirit. The disciples describe this experience as a wind, as tongues of fire. Hildegard of Bingen has a slightly different way of describing the presence of the Holy Spirit. In this translation from Stephen Mitchell’s anthology of poetry, “The Enlightened Heart,” we hear her description:

Holy Spirit,
Giving life to all life,
Moving all creatures,
Root of all things,
Washing them clean,
Wiping out their mistakes,
Healing their wounds,
You are our true life,
Luminous, wonderful,
Awakening the heart
From its ancient sleep.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is given to us as a constant reminder that God is with us. The Holy Spirit comes not just to comfort us, but also to change us; for the love of God will do that – change us from the inside out, and awaken us in new ways, even when we do not understand how or why. Through the incarnation, in the person of Jesus, we are taught that God intends to be active in the lives of human beings. In giving us the Holy Spirit, Christ conveys the idea that God intends to work in and through us to bring forth the hopes and dreams of a living God. This God of ours continues to create in ways beyond our understanding.

So, whether you know the Holy Spirit as a fiery breath of wind, or a presence that awakens your heart, or in becoming familiar with a strange new land, Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to us.

Given to us in baptism and honed by a life of faith, the Holy Spirit imbues us with gifts that are intended to be shared – gifts of generosity and hospitality offered with God’s help. Our baptismal covenant reminds us that the acts of caring and sharing enable us to participate in God’s creative worldwide energy.

With gratitude for the God who has given us life, the Holy Spirit beckons us to open our hearts to the world around us, offering hospitality to those we meet, friend and stranger alike.


— The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is the rector of St. Francis-in-the-Valley, Green Valley, Arizona. She works with the Office of Women’s Ministry to host a feminist theology blog:

Protect them for me, 7 Easter (A) – 2008

May 4, 2008

Acts 1:6-14Psalm 68:1-10, 33-361 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11John 17:1-11

Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Alas, because so few of us attend weekday feasts, most parishes celebrate the Ascension on this Sunday following the feast. Because we celebrate the major feasts of the church with hindsight and developed reflection, we miss the intense emotions that those events caused for the ones who initially experienced the events. Immediate experiences are often full of raw emotion that time mitigates. We soften the reality of the initial experience.

All of us have experienced death in one form or another. Some of us have even experienced the traumatic and violent death of someone we love. And in most instances, death itself is upheaval. Imagine the death of a beloved child or spouse or close sibling. Go through being with that loved one at the time of agony, being helpless and powerless to stop the pain and death. Imagine holding the loved one at the time of death, closing the eyes, a kiss good-bye. Image the drama and the trauma of the funeral process, the funeral home, the viewing, the church service, the burial.

Go home, and the next day awake to find your dead son or spouse or sibling standing there in the room beside your bed, not in some mystical imagining, but in real tangible, physical, touchable, talking flesh and blood. Imagine the shock, the confusion, the doubting of your own sanity.

Hear your loved one explain to you how much he loves you, how much you must do to honor his memory. Then he tells you he must leave you again forever in this life. You walk with him out into the backyard and suddenly the clouds part, and like a helicopter on lift-off, you see him ascending into the sky. Stunned, you lift your hand to wave, and at the same time you want to scream out, “No, no! Don’t leave us again. Stay.”

Ascension can hurt.

To let go of someone we love takes a great deal of courage, self-sacrifice, love. To let go of someone we love requires thinking of the needs of and benefits to the beloved more than to ourselves. In our natural state, we want to hold on, cling tight, never let go. The Ascension is a shocking feast of surrender, of being left behind, of letting the other go where we cannot, to wish the best for another even if it leaves less for oneself. In the course of our lives, we experience this letting go of love in many daily ways. It is allowing the other to be other and to not be for us. It takes a great deal of courage to live Ascension., to risk a new dimension of living.

Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them, but how could they possibly know what this could mean? They were raw, vulnerable people, still frightened from the horrors of the previous week. This final appearance and then disappearance must have felt like post-traumatic stress, a reliving of the life and death of their hoped-for savior. And, oh, how alone they must have felt as they saw the clouds part and their beloved Jesus taken into heaven, disappearing from sight.

Loneliness is one of the greatest sorrows we experience in life, and all of us have experienced loneliness. We can handle much physical suffering. We can handle much emotional suffering. But loneliness in its barren solitude rips out the floorboards. We stand in a cold draft with no one to surround us with warmth, left suspended with no one to share the pain.

And then Jesus comes and says to us, “I will not leave you. I will be with you, even unto the ends of the earth.”

What does this being with us mean, Jesus? You are just about to disappear into the clouds.

Not only does Jesus promise to be with us, this is a promise of the physical reality of Christ. Do not be surprised at this fiery order, says Peter’s letter, as though something strange were happening to you. Strange indeed it was to experience the violent death of Jesus, the stone-moving empty tomb, the upper room with Jesus in the midst. And now, this ascending disappearing act.

Yet the words repeat inside us, “I will not leave you. I will be with you. I must go, but my Spirit will come and be with you.”


And then Peter’s letter goes on to assure us of the Spirit of God resting upon us. The Mighty Hand of God is resting upon us and will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. Ponder those words: “restore, support, strengthen, and establish us”.

Ascension comes in the spring. Those words speak of the fragile life of the perennials, peeking up from the lonely winter soil, the bulbs established in the dirt, supported, strengthened, restored to new life, growing, blooming. There is hope and completion and restoration. Wood grows green again.

We are under the Mighty Hand of God, says Peter.

Place your hands upon your own head. Do so now.

Feel these hands as the Mighty Hand of God. Pause. Press them into you. Hold them there. Be silent under them. Be still under the Mighty Hands of God. Know you are not alone. Know there is no loneliness. Know God is with you, pressing down upon you, supporting, strengthening, renewing, restoring. Begin to feel this. Begin to believe this.

When you are afraid, feel these Mighty Hands of God pressed upon your head. When you are lonely, feel these Mighty Hands of God over you. When you need to be restored, supported, strengthened, established, feel these Might Hands of God reaching out and blessing you, touching you, healing, and renewing.

Know that Jesus is praying for us. That is an awesome thought. That Jesus himself is praying for us. Not a friend or a favorite saint, but Jesus. Jesus standing before God, praying for us.

“Protect them,” says Jesus to the Holy Father. “Protect them for me. Surround them with your Mighty Hands. Hold them, unite them with us, draw them into us, make us one. One.”


— The Rev. Sister Judith Schenck is a retired priest and a Franciscan Poor Clare Solitary in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana.