Archives for July 2008

Have we understood all this?, Proper 12 (A) – 2008

July 27, 2008

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?”

Without hesitating, the disciples respond, “Yes!”

Now that “Yes” coming from the very same disciples who only back in Verse 10 were asking, “Why do you teach in parables?” has to strike us as somewhat unbelievable. Add to that 2,000 years or so of church history with extended periods and frequent episodes in which we, the church, quite clearly have not understood all of this, and one can begin to sympathize with Paul who appears to get it just right: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We do not know how to pray as we ought. A tiny book called Prayers and Graces of Thanksgiving, by Paul Simpson McElroy, includes this prayer by an anonymous writer:

“Lord of the Universe, I am a simple man, an ignorant man. Oh, how I wish I had the words to fashion beautiful prayers to praise thee! But alas, I cannot find these words.

“So listen to me, O God, as I recite the letters of the alphabet. You know what I think and how I feel. Take these letters of the alphabet and you form the words that express the yearning, the love for Thee that is in my heart. Amen.”

Have we understood all this?

If we are honest, we might say, “No, not really.”

Years ago, long before becoming Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, Tom Shaw, spoke to a group of clergy and addressed one of the Parables of the Kingdom, “The Pearl of Great Value.”

Bishop Shaw began by saying that our God is a very frugal God and does not waste one iota, not one jot or tittle, of our life experience. Each moment we live and breathe on this fragile Earth, our island home, God values and savors who we are and what we are doing – especially the work we do for God’s kingdom.

A hidden truth embedded in the Good News of Jesus, and hidden in these parables like yeast in dough, is that at the end of the day each one of us is the Pearl of Great Value. Through our Baptism, we are made God’s beloved. To show how much our God loves us, he sends his only Son to walk among us, dwell among us, to show us the way of the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

So much does God savor our life experience that he did not let us get away with killing his Son, his only Son whom he loves, but returned him to us, so that wherever communities of Christians gather in his name, Jesus himself is in the midst of them, calling us back to the God from whence we come: We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. We are God’s beloved.

Bishop Shaw urged us to think of ourselves as Pearls of Great Value, hidden in this world, for which God was willing to pay a great price: the ultimate price. He sold all that he had to obtain us, to retain us, to bring us home to him.

So precious are we in the eyes of our God, said Bishop Shaw, that we really need to take time each day in our prayers to allow God the time to thank us for what we have done for God today. Every day we are to sit in silence in our prayer time and allow ourselves to feel God thanking us for all that we do for God in this world.

Are we really capable of believing and knowing that God loves us that much? Can we feel like Pearls of Great Value? It is central to the life of faith to accept and receive God’s love – to know how much our God values us and everything that we do.

This is why all these kingdom parables are so important to us. They each point to the hidden-ness of God’s reign in our midst. They each suggest that the life of faith begins with something as small as a little bit of yeast or a single grain of mustard seed. And like the yeast, this faith of ours often remains hidden and unseen – unrecognized.

This is why the disciples ask Jesus for more faith before he sends them out into the world to continue the work of the kingdom. But Jesus replies, “You just need a little bit of faith. With just the smallest amount of faith you can move mountains. With just a little bit of faith you can raise the dead. With just a little faith you will do the things that I do, and greater things than these will you do!”

We do not need to do big and heroic things. Though in truth, as God’s own pearls of great value, every little thing we do brings a smile to God’s face. And the more we let God thank us for what we can do for God, the more confident and empowered we become as God’s own people. And soon the people around us and the people we meet begin to feel like pearls of great value as well.

It does begin with faith. But all we really need is faith as small as a mustard seed to make the whole creation new. To give new life to our own tired bodies. To put a smile on the face of a stranger. To plant seeds of God’s love throughout the neighborhood in which God has made his home.

How ought we to pray? Like the anonymous author of the alphabet prayer, we can recite the letters and leave it to God to put our thoughts together for us. But as Pearls of Great Value to God, we would do better to be still, and know that God is with us. In the stillness and in the silence, give God the time to thank you for who you are: God’s Beloved with whom God is well pleased. And allow God to thank you for what you have done for God today.

The life of faith begins with accepting God’s love into our hearts, minds, and souls. Without that, we are nothing. With God’s love poured into our hearts we become Pearls of Great Value.

 

— 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. 

Who are your people?, Proper 11 (A) – 2008

July 20, 2008

Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 orIsaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17); Romans 8:12-25Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Who are you? Who are your people? Who are your kin?

These are questions we’re asked in many different ways every day. Culturally, in the South, “Who are your people?” is an essential question – usually the first question a new person in town, or a new boy or girlfriend is asked.

Think about it. We ask this type of question in so many different ways of just about everyone we meet, that it’s become habit. We assume the person we’re talking to has a family, a place to belong, to talk about, and we’re often taken aback or don’t know how to respond if a person says, “I don’t know, I was brought up in foster homes,” or “My family doesn’t care about me anymore, I just got out of drug rehab.”

If we’re caring people, we feel for people who find themselves adrift and alone for whatever reason, because that sense of belonging is so important to us as human beings.

You remember the old song, “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” But if we’re honest, hasn’t each one of us has had a time in our lives when we felt completely alone – cut off even from family and friends?

What happens to us when all we see or feel is darkness? What happens to our sense of self if we feel that the darkness is our own fault? What happens when it is our own fault – a bad decision, sin, deliberate selfishness? There’s no one there to reach out to.

Have you ever felt that way? It’s really hard. What do we do? Some despair, others stay wrapped in anger, others hang in with hope. How do we choose?

Lots of questions. These questions may be overwhelming or they may be questions we’ve never really thought about, but the mere asking makes us think about some of our more difficult days.

Are they unanswerable questions? Not at all, because all of our readings today give us a reason to hope. All of our readings today give us ways to have relationships with others, even when we’re not kin.

Being part of a family is what each reading today is all about: God’s family. Paul gives a wonderful definition of how we belong to God’s family.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

There we have it! None of us ever need to fear being completely alone even if we don’t have an earthly family. We all are part of God’s family. We can cry “Abba!” We can be absolutely sure that, as the spirit of God is within every single one of us, we are brothers and sisters of Christ and heirs of God’s glory. Paul also reminds us that this family connection doesn’t break down when we suffer. Christ suffered – we suffer, but we are not left alone as he was not left alone.

But then we wonder about suffering, don’t we? When people get sick or we see that people’s suffering is not of their own doing, we often hear things said like, “God never gives you more than you can handle” or “This suffering will make you a stronger person.”

But think about how some folks react to suffering they think is brought on by a person’s bad life choices. A homeless person asks for some change, a single mother with children is getting welfare, a young man who’s just gotten out of jail can’t find a job – that’s their problem, isn’t it? We often hear some folks say, “It’s their own fault,” or “They’re lazy,” or “My hard-earned taxes have been supporting that bum in jail, he doesn’t deserve a break.”

If we’re really honest about it, it’s hard to imagine a loving God living in us, calling us children, and yet deliberately giving us something to suffer in order to test us or make us stronger. If we’re honest about it, the homeless and poor and those who have made bad choices are still children of God, our brothers and sisters, and we must be willing to love them and reach out as we’re able.

What Paul shares with us is that God is with every one of us through whatever happens in our human lives, whether we acknowledge God’s presence or not. Thomas Keating in his teachings on Centering Prayer says that God is present no matter what and waits for us to say yes to that presence. God is a very patient and loving God.

Now we might be thinking that this all sounds too easy, that we don’t have to worry about anything but knowing God’s spirit is within us and we’re all set. Of course, we know better.

The wonderful symbolism found in Jacob’s dream in Genesis gives us a place to start thinking about our responsibility as children of God:

“He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”

What a wonderful dream! Jacob realizes what a powerful message was in that dream and so he set up a pillar – set up an altar – and gave it a name, Bethel, setting that place aside as a holy place. Jacob received his own message from God in that dream, the promise of a family that would reach far and wide, even down through generations. The promise of family was as important then as it is for us today.

We’re also offered a message in this reading. That ladder connecting heaven and earth is there for us. As those angels are going up and down, connecting humanity to heaven, so we who say we are Jesus’ followers, must be like those angels. We must be people who play a part in connecting the world with heaven by the way we live our lives.

Now that sounds like work, and of course it is. Being human, living in a very human world will have its hard days – lots of them – more, it seems, for some than others. If we’re serious about claiming to be Christian, then we must accept that angelic role.

What it means for us is that what sounds like work is actually our ministry. Each one of us has been given some talent, some gift of personality or ability that we can use as we travel up and down that figurative ladder between heaven and earth. Each of us is called to be a messenger of God’s love to others. That may be something like speaking to a homeless person, treating that person like the loved child of God he or she is. For some, doing missionary work is their gift. For others, it may be sharing a talent or offering hope to someone with problems. There are certainly millions of ways, each way pleasing to the God who lives within us.

Hard work or easy, whatever our gift, whatever our own suffering may be, we can be sure we’re never alone. God’s promise is all through both the Old and New Testament, but the way it’s described in Jacob’s dream is especially lovely:

“Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”

We might look at that land God promises us as eternal life. Here God promises to be with us and keep us. God promises to stay with us until we are with God in eternity. That’s a promise and a source of strength for us that’s as awesome as Jacob’s experience of God was for him.

We are all very fortunate because when someone asks us about our family, we can all say, “My family is all God’s people and we have God’s promise that we will never be alone.”

 

—  The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

God gives us all we need, Proper 10 (A) – 2008

July 13, 2008

Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112 [or Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14]Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Today’s gospel reading is very familiar – the parable of the four soils. Many of us learned it in Sunday school. Millions enjoyed the graphic enactment of the parable in the movie “Godspell.” For centuries, paintings and stained-glass art have represented it. Easy to remember because of the vivid description, we readily envision an ancient farmer striding through a rough field with a bag hanging on one side as he casts handfuls of seed on the other. We can also imagine a wider-angle view around the field – with birds flying over a hard-packed path, rocks among shallow earth, and thorny weeds growing menacingly.

At the same time, anyone familiar with a twenty-first century farming community will recognize that the parable presents an awfully peculiar and unproductive method of agriculture. Modern practices include a much more efficient operation – a neater, more productive one, with nothing but rich soil devoid of rocks and sprayed with weed retardant. Paths do not cross fields; tractors even plow within a few feet of farm houses and barns. Sophisticated implements plant seeds precisely and nothing is left to chance.

Jesus undoubtedly would be unimpressed, because he was not really interested in telling us about growing crops. He simply took a familiar activity of his time and used it to illustrate an important factor in human life. From this perspective, the lessons are as important today as they were 2,000 years ago. Though our agricultural techniques are much different from those of former centuries, our lives are not so different from those who lived in Biblical times.

We might pause to observe that in trying to apply the parable to our lives, the odds are against us: three kinds of bad soil and only one that is truly productive. Yet the Christian life is never free of challenge and our presence in church today reminds us that it is worth the effort. Today’s challenge comes from Jesus’ wonderful extended metaphor that can help us discipline our lives and provide helpful self-evaluation. If we have the courage to examine ourselves in light of the four kinds of soils, we can become more like what God hopes for us.

How can we clean out the rocks and the weeds that infect us? How can we avoid pathways that are useless? How can we turn ourselves into well-tilled, well-fertilized soil? What can we do to help God’s seed take root in us and empower us to produce loving, spirit-filled fruit? How can we so live that our story can become one with a more beneficial ending – one in which little that God gives us has fallen among weeds or rocks or worthless avenues?

What are the aspects of our lives that tend to be so hard-packed that God cannot enter? Where are our blind spots? What spiritual necessities do we tend to avoid? What psychological encrustations keep us from opening up so the power of the spirit can transform us? How often are we apathetic about the cries of human need? In what “sounds of silence” do we hear but not listen? What mind tricks do we play to protect ourselves from risking intimacy? What can we do to soften our hard side and open ourselves to letting God motivate us for the sake of the gospel?

Where do we find in ourselves spiritual and emotional shallowness? In what ways do we lack commitment to God and the values of God? When do we tend to speak big but act little? How have we been “flashes in the pan” without cooking anything up for the good? How often do we grab hold of a new cause that comes along without following through with it? How often have our well-intended promises failed to materialize?

What can we do to reach a greater depth of character and find the integrity of our faithfulness to live up to the values of the Baptismal Covenant and Ten Commandments?

And, woe unto the thorns and weeds of our lives! What distractions do we allow to keep up being about the work of God? How does our busy-ness with one thing or another keep us from following the steps of our Lord? What banality saps away our spiritual energy? Which “weeds” choke us out? What temptations stand between us and God? Materialism? The drive for power? The desire of popularity and success in the eyes of others? Putting ourselves first?

What can we do to destroy parasites that feed off of and destroy the good, allowing us to follow through on the command to love God completely and to love our neighbors as ourselves?

How well we examine ourselves and clear away the impediments to growth will determine how much of the “rich soil” our lives entail. Still, there is more to do if we continue following this metaphor of suitable soil. To produce an abundant crop, we can further extend the imagery of agriculture. To increase the value of the inner environment of our lives, we need to do what farmers do after planting seed: tilling, fertilizing, pruning, providing the proper balance of acidity and alkalinity.

Envision how this process can work in making your Christian life richer. Let your imagination go; search for ways to apply the metaphorical examples. Think about plowing and hoeing, for example. Loosening soil and exposing it to air might remind us to keep a fresh perspective and constantly expose ourselves to new ways of understanding what God has in mind for us in every situation.

Fertilizing? Can anything better illustrate how much we need to have added to our consciousness? Read and understand the Bible. Hear and understand stories of the saints of old and the committed examples of contemporary Christians whom we admire. Emulate them and follow in their steps.

Pruning? It’s a matter of priorities, isn’t it? Keep and nurture the portion of our spiritual growth that is most in keeping with God and cut away what is less productive.

Supplying the proper ratio of acid to base? It’s almost always about balance, isn’t it? For instance, it’s not a matter of worship and prayer verses good works and social action, but attending to both, letting each inform the other. Finding the right priority for the given moment, emphasizing what love most demands at a certain time, can produce the most abundance when we keep the many aspects of our Christian lives in proper balance.

God created us good and with every potential to find fullness of life. God gives us all we need to well receive the seed – the seed that represents God’s love and the values of God’s realm.

Finally, consider what lies far beyond anything we can do in making the “soil” of our inner lives the most receptive for God to work in us. Let us not forget that only God produces the miracle of growth, the wonder of creation. God gives us all we need for love to grow and for us to put it to use, enriching ourselves and those around us.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas. 

Let us come to God through Jesus, Proper 9 (A) – 2008

July 6, 2008

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Come to me, take my yoke, learn from me; I am gentle, humble in heart; you will find rest for your souls.

Hearing these readings on a day when many are still engaged in celebrating American Independence Day certainly brings to mind the symbolic freedoms associated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Along with these celebrations there is a time for rest. It is a long weekend – three days of rest rather than the usual two-day weekend. This weekend brings to mind picnics, fireworks, and parades with patriotic overtones. Even though our country is made up of a diverse mix of people, nations, cultures, and languages, these readings and this holiday challenge us to engage in a full understanding of power and a complete surrender to God. They challenge us to question where our loyalties lie, but more importantly, we are challenged to understand that sin sometimes comes from inaction as surely as it comes from action. On this day we might even say that we are being challenged to free ourselves from the sinfulness of the world and to declare our lives in dependence to our God.

How often have we felt like Paul did in his letter to the Romans? No matter how hard we try to live according to the great commandments, to love God and love our neighbor, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

This is not because we are horrid, retched creatures, but because there is sin in the world. And sin is powerful. It is so powerful that sometimes we just withdraw from action and words, and we allow whatever is happening to happen. Our inaction becomes the sin, especially when we know that an injustice is causing suffering and causing separation between people and God.

Paul sounds like he is exhausted and in his desperation is unable to do any more to free himself from sin. His words suggest that maybe sin is lurking like a monster under the bed, just waiting to take us over.

Even in the gospel reading, Jesus reminds the crowd that some thought John was possessed with a demon, yet he lived a life of denial and simplicity. Jesus lived overturning injustices and unveiling the many ways that society’s attitudes and laws actually reflected sinfulness rather than loving God and loving neighbors. He pointed out that sin could come from twisting the law to cause loss of humanity and life. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with his own acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion.

Jesus does not tell us that it is an easy task to be free of sin and follow him. In fact, there is a cost. The cost may even come from the place we have trusted and have pledged our loyalty. That is why it is so hard to understand what sin is, and often just as hard to know what love is as well.

So, even when our motives are on target, sin seems strong enough to destroy. And yet, sin cannot exist when we abide in Christ and Christ in us. When we transfer our loyalty from the material powers of the world to the infinite love of God we find ourselves experiencing the passionate expressions of love that we read about in today’s Old Testament reading and psalm. We are filled with a sense of blessing and abundance.

The answers to everything are found in the unexpected, and with that come both peace and joy. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with his acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion. And no words, no matter how profound, can really describe love so that we or another can understand.

These readings both challenge and assure us. They hint at the profound simplicity of a life in Christ, and they serve as a mirror for us to examine our understanding of who we are along with how we are living. Our desire is to love God and to love our neighbor. When we do not love God and our neighbor, we are in sin.

Jesus gave us these most reassuring words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Come to me, take my yoke, learn from me; I am gentle, humble in heart; you will find rest for your souls.

Let us come to God through Jesus. Let us take on the yoke of discipleship. Let us learn from Jesus. Be gentle, humble in heart and you will be at peace with all that God made.

 

— The Rev. Debbie Royals is a regional missioner for Native Ministry Development, based in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She is the Province VIII Indigenous People’s Network chair and a CREDO health faculty member.