Archives for June 2008

How is God testing you?, Proper 8 (A) – 2008

June 29, 2008

Genesis 22:1-14Psalm 13Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

Today we read a story that can chill one’s soul, especially a parent’s. However, if we focus only on the topic of parent and child, and the emotional and precious quality of that relationship, we lose the profound heart of what the story of Abraham and Isaac is really about.

The Book of Genesis contains the Abraham cycle, a group of stories between chapters 12-22 about Abraham’s call, journey, and relationship with God. The entire cycle is worth reading at one sitting. It takes us into a life that seems hopeless, is filled with promise, results in a journey that is full of dangers and Abraham’s folly – at one point he betrays Sarah rather than admit to Pharaoh that she is his wife – and concludes with this monumental account of a genuine test, one in which even God does not know the outcome.

The entire cycle of Abraham stories is about a covenant. Early on, God chose Abraham. The question is, will Abraham choose God? And that is the elemental question facing each of us. God chose us, long ago. Yet, like the psalmist in today’s psalm, we often ask, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

God still challenges us as God challenged Abraham. Everyday we are beset with perplexing questions: Why do natural disasters kill so many people? Why are hatred and terrorism such dire threats in our world? Why are economic forces beyond our control forcing us to cut back, go without, or cause others to lose jobs and be hungry? These may not be as personalized as Abraham’s test with Isaac, but they are tests nevertheless. And God does want to know where we stand. God has chosen us. Will we choose God?

Today in the church calendar is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, but it is transferred to tomorrow, since Sunday’s lectionary takes precedence. These two apostles are examples to us of people who chose God, despite adversity in their lives. Peter, having denied Jesus three times, now becomes the articulate preacher proclaiming the Good News of Jesus. Paul, who had persecuted Christians with great rigor, now confesses Jesus as Lord and goes to the ends of the known world to proclaim the Good News. God chose these people; and in the end they chose him. A covenant bond existed between them, a bond so strong that nothing – not persecution, prison, shipwreck – could break it.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is the conclusion of a great story about ordinary people invited by God to do extraordinary things in God’s plan. It seems the invitation always comes with a test: will those invited say yes?

Now, a word about today’s Gospel from Matthew. Anyone, it seems, can be welcoming. But righteous people who welcome are the ones in whom God is interested. Righteous people are the ones who give cold water, not out of duty, or because it’s fairly easy, but because they truly love God who gives us all things. Jesus has been teaching us this all through the readings from Matthew this month. Righteous people are not “holier than thou.” They are people in a covenant relationship with God. They are tested, and they have said yes, often many times.

In Jerusalem there is a memorial park to remember non-Jews who protected and helped Jews to escape the Holocaust. Each person is remembered with a tree and plaque. They are sometimes called the Righteous Ones. That is because, chosen by God, they said yes, even when they knew they might lose their lives by doing so. They knew, as Abraham did, that God always keeps promises.

How is God testing you? God has already chosen you. Now God wants to know, will you choose God?

 

— Ben Helmer is an Episcopal priest, currently serving the congregations of the Episcopal Church in Micronesia. He and his wife live on Guam.

Jesus refused to be scandalized, Proper 7 (A) – 2008

June 22, 2008

Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 (or Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69: 8-11 (12-17), 18-20)Romans 6:1b-11Matthew 10:24-39

According to the gospels, a big part of the ministry of Jesus was that he refused to be scandalized.

First, he refused to be scandalized by garden variety sinners. Indeed, he was often seen in company with them: prostitutes, who sold their bodies, for example; or tax collectors who ripped people off. He knew full well what they were up to; he didn’t countenance their behavior, but he didn’t reject them.

Nor was he scandalized by victims, by the losers in his world. These included the handicapped, the marginalized, all the literal and metaphorical lepers who were shunned by self-proclaimed “good people,” sometimes for reasons that appeared religious. With such victims he kept company, and he did what he could to help them.

Jesus wasn’t scandalized by any of these people. So, as a result, some people were scandalized by him. These were the authorities, the big shots, the self-proclaimed “good people.” They resented very much his refusal to be scandalized. For, you see, their world depended on some people being dismissed as rejects so that others could enjoy huge advantages. It was very much a win-lose system.

It’s too bad they acted that way. Besides doing harm to others, they did harm to themselves: they missed out on a blessing.

Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel we hear how John the Baptist, while still in prison, sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was indeed the expected messiah. It seems that John was starting to have doubts. Jesus sent the messengers back to John. They were to tell him what they had found out. Jesus was not scandalized by rejects; he was busy helping them. He met this messianic requirement. Then he added that blessed indeed is anyone who takes no offense at this, anyone not scandalized by what he was doing.

Jesus was not scandalized by sinners and victims. More than that, Jesus was not even scandalized by the victimizers. He knew what they were up to. He publicly criticized it, and he watched his back, but he was not shocked or surprised. He recognized that, like their victims, these victimizers lacked freedom. Their power, their prestige, their pride may have kept them ignorant, but they were enslaved by their own injustice. They have crashed, they have burned, but they simply did not know it.

Jesus refused to be scandalized. This scandalized others. They launched a conspiracy that carried Jesus to his death – and to resurrection.

What about his disciples – both his first followers and us? Jesus invites us not to be scandalized by anyone. And he warns us that by living in this way, we will scandalize other people, those who draw dividends from an unjust world.

Admittedly, Jesus is asking a lot of us. He tells us to buck the system big time. We are not to become players in the world’s most popular game, where people become either victim or victimizer, the one who rejects or the one rejected. Or to put it differently, the world lives in fear. They fear their enemies. If they appear to have none, they manufacture some. The game must go on.

Jesus tells us not have enemies. If others see us as theirs, that’s their problem, but we are not to treat them as enemies, as opponents, as effective threats. We are not to be scandalized by them. We are not to play that game.

Thus we do not permit others to define who we are. We refuse to travel this way of fear.

Instead, we accept the identity that comes to us from God. We are his children; we are of infinite value; we are free from the scandal system. And whether or not they know it, this identity is available to everyone else as well.

Accepting this is not easy. We have to die to the old way, the old identity, governed as it is by scandal and fear and death. We make this escape by being baptized into Christ. We live a life loyal to our baptism as we die repeatedly to the world’s way, to our old identities, to the trap of scandal and fear. We live in a way oriented to God, the One who sees us as his children, who graces us with life. This is the way of the cross: dying to the world of death that we may live the abundant life for which we exist.

To some, this life, with its demands for forgiveness, sounds impossible. Others imagine it as unbearably weak. The truth is just the opposite.

Forgiveness contains the strength of God. Forgiveness means we refuse to be imprisoned in the scandals of this world. We refuse to be remade by the evil done to us. We reject the stifling identity a win-lose world would thrust upon us. We accept instead our identity that comes from God. Because we are God’s children, manifesting the divine image and likeness, we are free not to be scandalized. We are able to forgive others, that they too may be free.

None of this is easy. But it’s the only way out of the darkness. It’s the only way into the light that waits to welcome us all.

What we are here for, on this Sunday morning in June, is to renew our commitment not to be caught by the scandal system, not to allow the world to define us. We are here to renew our discipleship.

It’s all quite subversive, of course. Today we celebrate how victimization and force do not have a future, that death doesn’t reign here any more. We rejoice, today and always, that we are beloved daughters and sons of the God of life, children of the resurrection.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do, Pentecost 5, Proper 6 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) and Psalm 116: 1, 10-17 or Exodus 19:2-8a and Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

“Jesus went about all the cities and villages.” — Matthew 9:35
Scripture is replete with images and stories of journey. We could site, for example, the epic journey of Abraham and Sarah from Ur in present-day Iraq – the center of ancient civilization – to what was to become the promised land of Israel. Later, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt, trekking for many years through “the wilderness of Sinai” on their return to a promised homeland, which likely none of them had ever seen. And in the New Testament, Paul makes his way across the Mediterranean world, spreading the good news of the gospel and proclaiming, in the profound words of our second reading today, “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It sometimes must seem as if the people of the Bible cannot sit still. They are always on the road. But these are not tourists or sightseers on holiday. There is purpose behind each journey recounted in scripture. Each crossing comes with promise and proclamation. “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant,” the Lord tells the Israelites in our first reading, “you shall be my treasured possession … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” The journey will have a purpose. It will be worth the effort. Israel must only keep “all these words” that the Lord has commanded. In response to the Lord’s challenge, the people proclaim – perhaps a bit too enthusiastically – “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” As the Israelites were to discover – and as we ourselves know only too well – that is often easier said than done.

Jesus is also on a journey in our gospel account today. He travels “about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” There is a note of urgency in his travels, for our Lord knows the anxieties and helplessness of the people. “The harvest is plentiful,” he observes poignantly, “but the laborers are few.” And without the harvest to feed them, the people will starve. Jesus commissions his newly minted apostles to enter the harvest and to journey to the people with his message of the kingdom. His instructions to the apostles, direct and insistent, begin with one word: “Go.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Just go. And, “as you go, proclaim the good news.” Avoid, for now, gentile and Samaritan alike. Make a bee line instead for those in need of the Lord’s comfort, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

To these “lost sheep,” the apostles are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To those who are infirm or anxious, they bring the healing and hope of the kingdom. And to those without means, they are to “give without payment.” This is indeed good news. The apostles travel afar to proclaim that the kingdom “has come near” – not a kingdom of territory and frontiers, but a moveable kingdom accessible to those who yearn for it, a kingdom where the fearful are welcomed in, where everyone sooner or later belongs. No immigration problems ever.

Unlike earthly kingdoms, which are subject to war and dissension, the kingdom the apostles proclaim brings reconciliation and peace. Yet this kingdom of the heart is not pie in the sky. It is the promise and proclamation made anew to each generation of God’s people. It is the fulfillment of covenant. The kingdom is still near to those who seek its comfort today. It is not bound to this earth any more than we are. Its gates are opened wide in spite of – or perhaps because of – our sin and despair.

We have a share in this kingdom, as God’s people by adoption. If the crowds of Jesus’ day were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” as our Lord describes them, the people of our world are hardly less anxious and fearful. Two thousand years may have come and gone, but the human heart has not changed all that much. Our communities are still fractured by mistrust and suspicion. Violence and war tear us apart. Diversity and distinctions among peoples and individuals do not bring joy and wonder at the greatness of God’s work among and within us but become instead stumbling blocks to understanding and harmony. But in the midst of human misfortune and pain, the kingdom has still “come near” to each of us.

The harvest of which our Lord speaks is full and ready to be gathered in. Then as now, it is not so much a harvest of grain and grape as it is of spiritual nourishment and the sustenance found in the nearness of God. The laborers are still few. But “go, and proclaim,” commands our Lord nevertheless. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” No small task, but then we need not travel far to find those in need of the good news of the kingdom. They are as near to us as is the kingdom itself. In fact, they are the kingdom. For our part, we need only brave our fear, and with the Israelites of old zealously proclaim, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Heeds
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California. He welcomes your comments at frankhegedus@hotmail.com.

Dwell in faith, Pentecost 4, Proper 5 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 50:7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

The lectionary for today is filled with so many themes that one is overwhelmed with riches. There is old Abraham, the ancestor of the promise; the tax collector Matthew, Jairus and his dying daughter, and the woman Jesus encounters, as if by accident, on the way to heal Jairus’ sick child. And in the Epistle, there is St. Paul, commenting on the meaning of trust that fills and spills over in all these people.

The Greek word for faith, “pistis,” is the same root contained in the word for “trust,” which really means to dwell in pistis/faith.

So let us look at the trust all these people put in their God and, later in the Biblical story, in Jesus, the Incarnate God.

One must listen to the story of Abraham with the trust of a child and ask the questions a child asks when first hearing this story: How did God speak to him? Why did God choose Abraham? How could Abraham, at a time when travel was so terribly difficult, take his whole family and his animals to cross to another land without knowing what he would find there?

We can only guess at the answers to these questions, but of one thing we can be sure: Abraham was convinced that God called him, that God made promises to him, and that God would keep these promises even when it seemed that it was utterly impossible that they would be fulfilled. Remember the story of the sacrifice of Isaac?

St. Paul gives Abraham credit for having this utterly convincing faith. It was not adherence and obedience to laws that made this possible for Abraham, he tells us; it was Abraham’s complete trust in the God of promises that made him leave his home in order to become the father of not just one nation, but of nations.

A similar kind of trust propels the persons in the New Testament stories. Here is Matthew, a tax collector, who obeys the call and becomes a disciple. The tax collectors were despised in the day of Jesus because they collected taxes for the enemy, who in this case was Herod Antipas. The tax collectors were lumped together with the sinners by the Pharisees, in that same suspect category that they placed the other people who were attracted to and were welcomed by Jesus’ love. It is most probable that Matthew and Jesus had seen each other as the rabbi passed by the market place of Capernaum, there by the Sea of Galilee.

On this day Jesus utters an invitation to the tax collector who sits alone in the booth, despised and avoided by the other citizens. “Follow me,” Jesus tells him, and without any recorded question or hesitation, Matthew gets up and does just that. But he doesn’t stop there; he invites Jesus to eat with him.

The houses in Capernaum were open during the day, and anyone could look into the main rooms. So the passers-by and all the curious who heard the exchange between Jesus and Matthew gathered outside or in the courtyard towatch them eating while reclining around a low table. Some of the Pharisees got close enough to talk to one of the disciples, men who were also there, reclining and picking up the offered food with their fingers. The Pharisees asked what they will repeat on many other occasions: “Why does your teacher do this? Why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?”

A Pharisee, conscious of his moral superiority and high position in the community, would never do this. Eating with someone meant acknowledging that the person is not inferior to you. Of course Jesus heard the question; he was meant to hear it. He offers an answer that comes from well-known prophetic Scriptures, something the Pharisees knew well, not something that tradition dictated. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It is how you treat one another that matters to God, not the rituals that you keep, he tells them.

The conversation continues, but is interrupted by a man who has an urgent need. This is not one of the despised; this man has authority and is respected. But he kneels before Jesus to ask him a favor, not for himself but for his beloved daughter. The request to follow is now reversed. Jesus doesn’t ask the man, whom we know from the other evangelists is Jairus, to follow him. It is Jairus who begs Jesus to come to his home – not to cure the sick child, but to bring her back from the dead!

Jesus immediately responds to the pain and trust of this father and starts on the way to Jairus’ house. All three of the synoptics tell this story: Jesus is once again interrupted by a woman who, in her turn, is following him. When she touches his cloak he feels power leaving his own body to heal her. By touching his garment, she is cured of a long-term illness. Jairus, the father, has an astounding amount of trust in this teacher and healer he has just met, and the woman with the hemorrhage has an enormous amount of faith that this holy man can help her if she can only get close to him. What an astonishing trust these two people show. And they are not disappointed.

Both the woman and the girl are given new life. Jesus rescues them from sickness and death.

Abraham, Matthew, Jairus, and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak show profound trust in someone beyond themselves, in the Creator of life.

Despite the taunts of his neighbors and maybe the complaints of his relatives, Abraham abandons everything that is familiar in order to obey a God who calls him to a new place.

Despite the derision and dislike of those who know him as a sinner, Matthew obeys the call of the teacher he had heard from afar and changes his life forever.

Despite her despair and shame, a woman ventures into the public in order to touch the man from whom love and power emanate and heal.

Despite his religious position and respectability, a distraught father approaches a man who eats with sinners and begs for the life of his child.

Jesus responds to all of them because he is of the Father. He knows that he has come for the sick, not the healthy; for those who recognize that he is filled with mercy, a power much more compelling than external sacrifice, adherence to empty religious ritual, and mere tradition for the sake of tradition. Always going to the heart of every problem that is brought before him, Jesus sees what is in people’s hearts and responds with mercy and wholeness. May our trust in him find such a response.

Written by Katerina K. Whitley
Katerina Whitley is a writer who has dealt in depth in her books with the persons of Abraham, Jairus’ daughter, and the woman with the hemorrhage who touches Jesus’ cloak. Her new book, From Darkness to the Light is due out in August 2008. Visit www.katerinawhitley.net.

We need to be faithful, Pentecost 3, Proper 4 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 6: 9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19; Psalm 46; or Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31: 1-5, 19-24; Romans 1: 16-17; 3:22b-28, (29-31); Matthew 7: 21-29

Well, this is a rough gospel passage, isn’t it? It seems as if an awful lot of people are going to be disappointed when they come to enter the kingdom of heaven. It sounds as if Jesus is saying that even though some people think they’ve been doing good things, Jesus is going to say to them, “I never knew you.” And worse than that, Jesus will call these people “evildoers.”

That just doesn’t sound like the Jesus we think we know so well in the gospels. Shouldn’t people who claim to prophesy in Jesus’ name and to cast out demons be pleasing to God? And what does this say to us about the things we do? Could we be in danger of being rejected when we say, “Lord, lord” but don’t live the way the Lord would have us live? It makes us squirm a bit.

Certainly we all need to squirm at times – to look seriously at ourselves – and that’s really the bottom line of this particular passage. But there’s a lot more to these verses in Matthew than Jesus giving somebody the hard line; these verses are just a short bit of a much longer lesson Jesus is teaching his listeners. And unless we take a look at the whole teaching, we miss a lot.

This section comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began his teaching with the well-known Beatitudes, the “Blessed”s. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the righteous. Sometimes we tend to stop after the Beatitudes, but Jesus actually kept on teaching for three chapters.

If we read through Chapters 5, 6, and 7, we hear Jesus getting even more specific. He told his followers that they were to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world. He reminded them about the commandments, that they should love others as they loved themselves, and that love included their enemies. He talked about not showing off when they prayed or fasted, not parading their religion. But he also consoled them by telling them not to worry, because God loved them and would care for them much more, even, than God cared for the rest of creation – and they could readily see how beautiful and abundant creation was because of God’s blessing. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,” he said, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”

Wonderful words. In those several chapters of Matthew, we hear Jesus being a real teacher. He offers them the Beatitudes, which are easy to remember but hard to do. He gives them specifics of how they should behave, he gives them the words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer, and he offers them the unconditional love of God.

So why, after all this, does he say, “Some of you will hear me say, ‘I do not know you’”?

He says that because even after all his teaching, even after all the things he did, some still didn’t believe. That’s hard to understand. These people saw him do miracles – they had Jesus in the flesh. What was the matter with them?

We might say to ourselves, “If I lived in that time, I certainly would believe everything Jesus told me.” But we mustn’t forget that those people were just as human as all of us. Isn’t it true that even today some folks miss the incredibly obvious? Some people – some of us, maybe – are so self -absorbed that they see very little around them. We read about lots of folks who were like that in the scriptures. Most often it’s the Pharisees and Scribes who get pigeon holed like that, but they certainly weren’t the only ones.

And it’s no different today. We don’t have to look far in our own society to find people who say one thing and do another, or even worse, who try to make us think they’re doing us a favor when they are really lining their own pockets. Jesus is saying to his followers – and to us – make sure your actions and your motives match.

Today’s gospel is a stern reminder that we can’t get away with appearing to do good while we pick and choose who it is we do our good deeds for. Jesus isn’t kidding when he says he won’t be pleased.

Jesus says over and over that all we have to do is hear his words and act on them, hear and believe, hear and obey. And the important thing is to remember that those early Jews already knew what they were supposed to do. Jesus wasn’t giving them a whole new set of rules to live by. He’d already reminded them at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that he hadn’t come to abolish the laws they already had, but to fulfill them – to help them live the life they knew more faithfully.

It’s the same for us. We know what we have to do. It’s just hard to do it all the time. Hearing the word of God, hearing what Jesus says to us, isn’t something we do once and then check off our list. We have to keep listening all our lives, learning more and more about how God would have us live.

We have our baptismal promises, we have the words and actions of Jesus, we have the commandments. What Jesus is telling us today is that we need to be faithful, that we need to examine our motives and make sure that what we do and say fits with the life God asks us to live.

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.