Archives for August 2008

Unless, Pentecost 16, Proper 17 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; or Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Last Sunday’s gospel was really fun – Peter’s answering for the disciples that Jesus is much more than people were saying he was – that he was the Messiah. Fun because Jesus affirmed them and even told Peter he was a rock on which he would build the church. Fun for us, because we can hear that story and also feel affirmed as part of that church that exists as the very body of Christ.

Today, though, it’s not so fun. Today we hear Jesus telling Peter and the disciples the sacrificial cost of what he must do to carry out God’s will for all people – and the sacrificial cost of what they must do as the body of Christ.

Jesus said, “You are right in saying I am the Messiah, but since I am, I must go up to Jerusalem where I will suffer much and be rejected by the religious leaders. There I will be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Typically, Peter took the initiative again, speaking for the disciples: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

In a sense Peter is boasting, “We will protect you. We will see that you are accepted and not rejected. We will never let you die.” Peter did not want for his leader to experience pain, unpleasantness, suffering, rejection, death. This did not fit the disciples’ idea of what it meant for their leader to be the Messiah.

Hearing this, Jesus became so angry that he took Peter to task and said to him, “Get behind me Satan!” Frustrated, Jesus was saying, “Peter, once more you do not understand what is going on. You are the one I am most counting on to provide leadership when I am gone. I need for you, above all, to understand, and you still don’t know what God truly intends for his Christ and for you.”

Though Peter replied, “Oh, no, Lord, not you,” perhaps he was also saying, “Oh, no, Lord, not me!” It is easy for us to imagine that Peter knew that Jesus’ rebuke meant the same thing for himself and that he did not want to experience pain, unpleasantness, rejection, suffering, death.

We can imagine that it was natural for Peter to feel this way because we also tend to say “Oh, no, Lord, not me!” We do not want to experience pain, unpleasantness, rejection, suffering, death.

Wouldn’t we rather forget what Jesus had to go through? Wouldn’t we rather remember Christmas and Easter and forget Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Wouldn’t we rather focus only on the pleasant side of the story?

With God, though, it had to be the other way. For through his life, suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection, Jesus saves us by showing us the way to a life of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace – given with no conditions, no strings attached. God provides for us the chance to live a life with a full range of the possibilities potentially present in everyone.

Jesus saves us by his death, by overcoming once and for all the power of sin. Sin no longer can have a death grip over us because Christ makes it clear that God will forgive the sin that we confess and from which we repent in the sincere desire to renew our lives. And because Christ makes us realize that we are the most precious in creation – even worth dying for.

Christ’s death and resurrection give us the hope and purpose to go on in life despite the difficulties or tragedies that may befall us. Jesus laid this out to Peter in telling him, “Let me do what I must do.” He did this by calling all his followers together to tell them once more in the clearest possible terms what was at stake for the world and what he was calling them to do. To truly follow him, they had to follow him all the way to Jerusalem. They had to deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow him.

This is Christ’s call to us, as well. To deny ourselves is to put aside thoughts of our own needs, forgetting ourselves, so that we may remember and care for others. Taking up our crosses is to be ready to endure the worst that may happen to us for being true to God and the values of God.

The Good News of today’s gospel is that being a Christian is not always easy, but it is always life-giving and meaningful. The Good News of today’s gospel is that we have the resources to give up or take on whatever we must for the sake of God. We can make the necessary sacrifices – the offering and giving of ourselves so that God’s work may be done.

The Good News of today’s gospel is that we have the resources to take up our own crosses. We can give ourselves away, not hording our resources, knowing that God gave us life not to keep it but to spend for the sake of God and God’s children. We can take up our crosses to follow Jesus by giving our time, our talents, and our treasure for God’s uses.

The Good News of today’s gospel is being truly faithful to traveling our own hills of Calvary, following Jesus’ steps, doing our utmost to live in his example, striving everyday to do what he would do in our particular situation.

The Good News of today’s gospel is also what Jesus tells us about the result of all this. He asks us to consider the reality that “those who want to save their life will lose it.” What profit is there in having worldly riches but lose spiritual life? But he adds, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It does not get much plainer than that.

We may sacrifice honor and honesty for profit and self. We may sacrifice principle and Christian values for popularity. We may sacrifice the values of God for the riches of the world. We may do all these things, but today Jesus makes us consider what such behavior will ultimately gain us. His assurance and his example make it clear that all it gains us in the end is a self-imposed exile from the greatest possible thing in life: God himself and God’s realm.

Unless. Unless we sacrifice ourselves to advance God’s purposes. Unless we seek to be one with Christ. Unless we first deny our selfishness and pick up the particular crosses God calls us to bear. Unless we follow Jesus on his journey, surrounded by God. Unless we join the faithful members of the body of Christ in heeding the Good News that is today’s gospel.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.

We are a people, Pentecost 15, Proper 16 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

At various points in our lives we need to “step up to the plate.” As scary as some of these times have been, they usually have been moments that have initiated some transitions in our lives and offered us the opportunity to drawn upon the memories of our early years.

The lessons for today lead us to renewed discoveries: the importance of stepping up to the plate; the persistence of God in furthering God’s intentions and mission; and the incredible opportunity that even you and I might have to touch, carry, and share that which is very sacred.

In ancient Egypt, the Hebrew population was flourishing even as they were struggling under oppression. The Pharaoh wanted their numbers to decrease, so he tried to kill off young Hebrew males by drowning them in the Nile River. Moses was set in a basket (the same name used for Noah’s ark) by his mother and cared for in the early journey by his older sister. Eventually he was discovered by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and we know the rest of the story.

Out of the most unlikely beginnings, a small vessel of God’s grace was saved to do God’s bidding. The women of the story – the mother and sister of Moses, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the midwives who earlier refused to participate in Pharaoh’s terrible scheme – all become for us beacons. They are carriers of the sacred, and people who stepped up to the plate to make possible an emergence of a scared story that was to define Old Testament history and the foundations of our Hebrew scriptures. It was part of larger pivotal event in the life of the Hebrew people and in our religious heritage.

In Matthew, we hear again Peter’s confession, which became for him and for the disciples an invitation to carry an awesome responsibility of furthering God’s mission of reconciliation. Peter’s confession is preceded by a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Answers come readily. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” It is easy to say what we have heard others say.

But another question appears: “But who do you say that I am?” The disciples are asked to step up to the plate. And so are you and I.

In Romans, we encounter familiar words: all have been given differing gifts through God’s grace that are to be used for the welfare of the entire community. No one can claim that his or her gifts are more important. All are important for wholeness and holiness.

So what do we do with these stories? In what ways do they affect us? Are they only part of our lore or are they alive in some new ways in our hearing? Which ones stand out to us? Which ones especially challenge us? Do we see ourselves as ones who stand for the little ones of life, or are we drawn to step forward to proclaim new life and possibilities? Is ours the quiet loving care of a sibling or the incredible angst of a mother who wants desperately to hold on to her child and yet let that child go? Do we believe that we have gifts? And are those gifts available for others? Do we as a parish community help one another discover our giftedness and welcome them when discovered? When asked the question asked of the disciples – “Who do you say that I am?” – what will we say?

Today’s lessons begin with a horrific history, the slaying of young children, and a sacred, nurturing history of the caring for a little baby; and today’s lessons end by asking adults to answer important questions and to take responsibility. As such, the lessons imitate life as we know it. There can be no greater work than the care of young children. We know that by the age of six, children have formed many aspects of their personalities and have a history of either being loved or not being loved, experiencing security or insecurity, feeling treasured as sacred vessels or feeling abused as ones of little worth. And they will deal with all of these feelings for the rest of their lives.

A priest in Pennsylvania and team from his parish regularly went into Graterford Prison for over 10 years, and what they discovered were men who were in the main abused as children and who had often abused others, continuing the circle of violence. Our work in the midst of the abuse and neglect of children today is to be a people who care, nourish, and protect them. There is no greater work. We start out with our own families and as community who gathers here at this congregation. Our future is determined in part by how we welcome and treasure the young ones in our midst.

Today’s lessons end by asking the rest of us, the adults, to step up to the plate of taking responsibility for living out the answer to the question: “But who do you say that I am?”

This is not easy to answer, for behind our responses we have our own histories, our own working through all of those messages from our own childhood, our own disappointments and failures, our own physical and emotional pains, our own experiences of loneliness or feeling of little worth. We come to this place from the contexts of our living, a place one might call “tall grass.” In this tall grass, we are buffeted by many things, some which we cannot see. Life is complex and full. Sometimes the tall grass becomes a haven where we can hide out. Sometimes it is a maize where we don’t know where we are going or who is around us. At other times we like to smell its uniqueness and at other times we feel choked by its overbearing sameness. Life is full in all of its complexities, and we bring all those complexities here at this moment in this place.

So we are a people of the context.

We are also a people of the gathering.

We are here together. And in our gatherings we have a sense of who is around us, and in this reality we have a choice: do we circle the wagons or do we create circles of trust? Our work as a parish community, without being intrusive in others’ lives, can be a place where we can start again and feel that here is a community that values me as a treasured earthen vessel of worth and significance. This can make all the difference in people’s lives. It can be a place where we can be loved in healthy, life-giving ways, and where we are fed not only by bread and wine but also by a people, who, sharing our human journeys and our human condition, are willing to not just to talk the talk but walk the walk with us in our journeys in daily living.

We are a people of the table.

To engage in this most special walk, we present ourselves, at God’s invitation, before the holy table to receive what the world might see as a small gift – a morsel of bread and a drop of wine – but which we know is the gift of life. It, too, is a reminder that doing something that may seem small and insignificant can make all the difference. Who would have known that putting that baby in a basket and setting him upon the water under the watchful eye of his sister would change the course of history? It is from the table – holy table, tables of conversation, tables where other meals are shared, tables/platforms where other interactions take place– that we know most fully that our journeys are inextricably connected to others’ journeys.

We are a people of the dismissal.

We are called from the table to return to the complexities of life, to the tall grass. This is where most of our life is lived in all of its fullness, struggle, sorrow, and celebration. It is from the tall grass that a basket was made for a baby that changed the course of history. It is the tall grass that the disciples were beckoned from the Mount of Transfiguration. It is where death and resurrection happens most frequently.

So what are we to do or say when we hear the words “But who do you say that I am?”

In the midst of our fears and hesitation, it is the stepping out in faith and being alive and present to ourselves and to others, the world around us, and to God’s reconciling love breaking into the world in often small, seemingly insignificant ways that is the source of our future hope and promise. So with courage and hopefulness, with our pain and struggles, with our joys and celebrations, we dare come again to the holy table and to a special presence with each other in prayer.

Who would know that as a result of our coming here we and the world around us will never be quite the same again? Be on the alert, for God’s spirit is dwelling in our midst!

Written by the Rev. Bud Holland
As the program officer for Ordained Leadership and Ministry Development at the Episcopal Church Center, the Rev. Melford “Bud” Holland is involved in a number of initiatives related to education, lifelong learning, leadership, and ministry development. He has also previously served in congregations and other diocesan positions. E-mail: bholland@episcopalchurch.org.

Extraordinary generosity, Pentecost 19, Proper 20 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The scene in Matthew is becoming more and more familiar. People are waiting for work, waiting to be hired, waiting to earn a day’s wage – which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family. The issue then is one of daily bread. Just like manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.
To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wages means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed by when the hiring is being done. To not be chosen to work creates anxiety.

The lesson here is one of extraordinary generosity. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

We say this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next? People who do, come to our church doors every day hoping we have listened to Jesus tell this story – and that we believe it.

Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn – a return to manna season – a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It starts crawling with worms and moths. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.

So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cries of those hired early in the day are oh-so-familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were there first. We deserve more because we did more.” And we glibly reply, “Life isn’t fair.”

Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just is established by God, not by our standards of merit, qualifications, and grounds for staking a claim. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom – life lived under the reign of God, a God who is generous to a fault, a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.

As Marguerite Shuster observes in The Lectionary Commentary:

“Grace is not grace if it is qualified by superior virtue in the recipient. Sinners are not sinners if some are less dependent on grace than others. Besides, if one has enough oneself … why would one even want more than someone else, unless out of some sense of pride and self-righteousness? That it seems odd to put the question that way – so normal, so natural, is our desire to want more – shows the depth of our sin. The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us.”

Again, consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day with the anxiety of going home empty handed intensifying as each hour passes by. Is even laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?

Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of creation, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause, must feel a deeper sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous, and difficult, but to be out of work can be even worse.

I think of all the people who leave home each day, briefcase or tool box in hand, pretending to go to work long after they have been laid off. They cannot face telling their families that they no longer have a job. We are tempted to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The temptation is always to assume God serves our sense of what is fair, our sense of “justice.” The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving and have stake to a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.

The good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is – on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures – because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life-sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.

And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven’s “enough,” heaven’s daily bread, and heaven’s daily wages make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

Jesus’ assurance that the last shall be first and the first shall be last is tied to manna season, and settling for bread and wages that are given daily. We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to manna season.

Jesus seems to be announcing a great reversal of places in the kingdom. The New Testament calls this “turning the world upside down.” People outside the church in the first centuries called Christians “those people who are turning the world upside down.” Go figure!

So if 10 is Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei, and 1 is the poorest of the poor, it has been suggested that those who are really clever will live around number 5. That way, when it all turns upside down, they will feel the least amount of disruption in their lives.

Manna season: when everyone has enough, no one has too much. If you store it up, it sours on you. The world lived at number 5.

Sounds easy! But on a global and even national scale, most of us are living conservatively at number 9, except on April 15 when we pay our taxes and attempt to argue ourselves down to an 8.5. Looked at from this perspective, the journey to number 5 looks like a long, long journey. But, says Jesus, it is the journey to life lived in its fullest!

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous to others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. And as John 3:16 states, “God so loved the world that God gave … .”

God loves and God gives. We are created in God’s image. We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with others as God is with us.

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. E-mail: kkub@aol.com.

Dare we be a channel of healing, Pentecost 14, Proper 15 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133; or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Try as we may, we do not always find ourselves comfortable when we are among people we don’t know. Visiting a new church can be nerve wracking, unless we are among the extroverted class.

Even within our own country we find cultural and ethnic differences that may challenge the best of us. Traveling abroad may similarly pose challenges, particularly if we stray outside the usual tourist bubble and find ourselves lost among people whose language we don’t speak and who look different.

It is easy for us to be caring at a distance. Writing checks to help other people in need is a vital and good service, but it is perhaps made easier because we don’t have to rub shoulders with the people we are helping. If we volunteer in a thrift shop or help feed the needy, we may wonder what on earth we would say to such people if we had to be in their homes or on the street.

In the gospel today, Jesus has a discussion about the way we think. He points out that what we say, perhaps how we act toward others is much more indicative of how we think than keeping certain religious rules about what we eat or drink.

It seems his comments offended the pious. One is reminded of the story Jesus told of the pious person who went into the temple to pray. He stood there in the attitude of prayer and said, “Thank God I am not like other people.” It would be dreadfully offensive if we said, “Thank God I am not of another race or culture.” Yet we do find ourselves thinking such things as we watch the news or engage in heated conversations about those people who don’t agree with our politics or religion or social attitudes. It makes it worse when we are sure we are right and they are wrong.

Being bigoted against bigots is no virtue!

The gospel today goes on to tell a story about Jesus leaving his homeland and going into what we would now call Lebanon. There are only two recorded occasions when Jesus leaves Jewish territory.

There was a long-standing ethnic feud between the people of the Holy Land and the people of Lebanon. There still is. This might well be a contemporary story.

Jesus is approached by a local woman who wants him to heal her daughter. The Israelites called such people “dogs.” And remember that dogs didn’t enjoy the privileged place in society then as they do for many of us now.

It was obvious that the woman was desperate. She would have been brought up to despise Jews. She risked being rebuffed and insulted. There are moments of desperation in our lives when we are impelled to step out of our safety zone, our secure society. Our need overcomes fear and even prejudice.

Jesus tests the woman. He even uses the common racial slur. “We don’t give dogs human food.” Please note that Jesus is not merely saying that dogs shouldn’t beg at a table. He is using a dreadful slur to test the faith of the woman. We may find that shocking. Please note he is not being a racist. He is testing the boundaries that have been set. May they be crossed? The woman is desperate, but can she, is she able, to step through pride and prejudice and reach the point of acceptance and healing?

Yes, Jesus comes to us, but we also must make that step of faith toward him.

In the Rite 1 Eucharist there is a lovely prayer that begins with the words “We do not presume to come to this thy table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercy.” The prayer is built around the gospel lesson we are using today. Jesus is different. He isn’t a nice friendly American or a person we would meet at church. We have to admit our need as we approach him. “Our own righteousness” won’t hack it. By “righteousness,” we can mean pride, or confidence in our own culture, or learning, or intellect, or good taste, or manners. We might mean our own racial, or political, or national roots.

Jesus is for all; and because he is for all, he belongs to no one.

The woman replies with some good humor. She points out that even dogs get the scraps that fall from a table. Jesus tells her that her trust has made it possible for her daughter to be healed. The woman is being a conduit for another. There is an extraordinary reminder here that we may become “go-betweens” for others and be the means by which God’s gift of healing love may be extended to others.

All too often our prayers are safe. They are prayers at a distance. They cost us little. They trip off the tongue at bedtime or even in church when that long list of sick people is read during the Prayers of the People. We risk nothing when we say, “God bless Annie.”

When Jesus says that if we are to follow him we must be cross-bearers, he invites us into uncomfortable, painful, and hurting places where those who need our prayers live. He invites us out of our comfort zones. He invites us to experience the tragedy and hurt another one is suffering. He invites us to be with those who may be called “dogs,” or think of themselves as “dogs” – unclean, apart, perhaps at the bottom of the social or class ladder, or perhaps “apart” because of their lifestyle or habits.

The woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon came to Jesus where he was. He came to her. They met and exchanged barbed words, and another was healed. Here is an extraordinary example of reconciliation and grace.

It is clear that none of us has the strength to reach out beyond our comfort zones. Yet at the table spread each Sunday we step from our own world into the unknown place where Jesus is and he feeds us with more than crumbs or scraps. We receive him. We live in him and he lives in us. The question remains, For who is our encounter with the Lord intended? Is it intended for another, a person who may live in a place or have an experience outside the normal routine of our life, or whose habits or lifestyle may offend us greatly?

Perhaps in this holy place this day we can think of a group, or a person who cries out to be healed in one way or another. Dare we step out to the table at which the Lord sits and beg for his aid? Dare we be a channel of healing and love to that other person or group who, too, belongs to God and for whom Jesus died?

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery. His email address is anthony.clavier@gmail.com.

Real forgiveness, Pentecost 18, Proper 19 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

The Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad wrote: “Real forgiveness is not a purely interpersonal matter, but it reaches deeply into the relationship of men before God.”

The three lectionary passages today, taken from the end of the book of Genesis, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Roman Christians, and from Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ parable to his disciples, present us with profound lessons on tolerance and forgiveness.

In the very last chapter of Genesis we read the finale of the Joseph story. There is nothing easy or light or sentimental in the ending of this story, one that reads like an exciting short novel.

Out of jealousy and spite, the sons of Jacob had committed a grave crime against their brother Joseph. Years later they discover that their victim has survived and has become a great man in another land: Egypt. They, too, eventually go to this land to escape starvation, and their wronged brother is the only one who can save them and their huge clan.

Today’s lesson picks up the story right after the death of the patriarch, Jacob. Now that their father is dead, the brothers, filled with guilt, are afraid that Joseph will take revenge on them. They tell him, probably falsely, that it was their father’s last wish that Joseph should forgive them. Joseph’s answer is surprising, even today: “Am I in the place of God?” he asks. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

This is the crux of the story. God takes evil and turns it into good in order to achieve God’s purpose of salvation. A human being cannot change this. We can hear Joseph’s thinking: What good would it do for me to take revenge on you, when God has changed your evil act against one person into a great good for so many?

Today, we are bound to wonder how different world history would be if all persons and nations thought this way: History is in God’s hands; how can we become gods and change it through war, revenge, and evil?

In the second lesson, St. Paul is not confronting evil but cultural differences that stand in the way of what is good for all. There is that marvelous verse that says, “Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the sake of quarreling over opinions.”

This hits at all of us. We love to quarrel with others over attitudes, opinions, and customs, over petty things that ultimately have very little to do with who God is and God’s desire for us to live in communion and peace.

The same old arguments that the Pharisees used in their efforts to make Jesus stumble in his answers are now being confronted by Saint Paul in today’s reading. The Jewish converts to Christianity are scandalized by the Gentile converts who are used to eating meat and drinking wine, and who don’t have any traditional commitment to Sabbath observance. So they pick fights with one another. Who here is the weaker and who is the stronger, Paul doesn’t say, but we can guess. He seems to be comfortable with those who eat meat and who don’t agonize over all the minutiae of keeping the Sabbath, but he is also understanding about the differences and a bit amused with the pettiness. We can see him smiling under his beard.

Paul’s reaction is founded on tolerance of differences and respect for those who seem weak to the strong. This is an excellent lesson for us in this age of multicultural encounters and global concerns. Two thousand plus years ago, when people prided themselves on not being tolerant of strangers, comes this early Christian who urged us to respect and tolerate what today we would call cultural differences. We need to remember this urging as we contemplate the differences in our Anglican Communion.

The passage in Matthew delves much, much deeper into the realm of forgiveness, which is profoundly more serious than tolerance.

Like all parables, it is set in its own context, and portions of it may seem harsh to modern sensibilities.

Two points must be clarified about the context of this parable. The law of Moses as presented in the book of Leviticus says this about poverty and being sold into slavery: “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves.” We see that being sold into slavery is allowed by the law but the mean treatment of poor people who have to sell themselves into slavery is forbidden.

The second point that must not be ignored is this: Jesus makes it clear that God’s forgiveness is unlimited; that’s what he means by seventy times seven. But the story also presents an obstacle to forgiveness and we will come to that in a moment.

The king in the parable acts with magnanimity and compassion. When the slave begs to be forgiven the debt and not to be sold, the king releases him and forgives the whole debt, which is enormous. The problem comes when the man who is forgiven does not have the same grace and compassion toward those who are indebted to him. This parable makes tangible the meaning of the pleading in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Like so much else in the life of faith, it is a paradox. God cannot forgive us until we forgive others. Instead of the Creator initiating the act, it is the creature who must make the first move in forgiveness. This is the only obstacle to God’s forgiveness: our own refusal to forgive.

Forgiveness is much more beneficial to the one who forgives than to the one who is forgiven. All of us know that this is not just theory but understand its truth from experience. Jesus told it as a story that fitted the context of his time. Centuries later, human understanding of emotions would assert this in psychology: forgiving, letting go of feelings of revenge and retribution, is a potent healing act.

As individuals, most of us have experienced the great release of being able to forgive. It has nothing to do with sentiment; it is a powerful act of will. As nations, we have failed miserably. As communities, we have not learned to forgive.

The last verse, with its harshness, is appropriate for all those who seek war instead of peace and who hold on to revenge and meanness instead of practicing forgiveness. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We, as individuals and as nations, need to take this very seriously indeed. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Written by Katerina K. Whitley
Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. For more on her books, retreats, and workshops, visit www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.

God goes searching, Pentecost 13, Proper 14 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

“And Joseph went looking for his brothers.”

Seeking, searching, Joseph went looking for his brothers. In today’s reading from Genesis, the meaning in Hebrew of Jacob’s command to Joseph is, “See how your brothers are,” with the meaning of “Seek the peacefulness and integrity of your brothers.” Joseph’s search for his brothers, God’s search for us, our search of one another, is more than just to seek and search for another, but to seek and search for the other’s peace, wholeness, and well being.

As God goes searching, looking for us, so we must look and search for God and for one another, for our brothers and sisters. As Joseph went looking for his brothers, so must we.

There is a stranger in the story – Hebrew interpretation often takes this to be an angel of God – who asks Jacob, “What are you looking for?” Joseph did not seek on his own but with divine guidance. If this stranger’s brief encounter had not happened, would Joseph ever have found his brothers so that God’s providence could unfold in salvation history? Are we ever a chance encounter for another to find their way to God’s will? Do we listen if God as the stranger places guidance in our own paths?

The Joseph saga is a story of hatred, prejudice, blinding jealousy. It does not begin as a pretty picture. Joseph’s brothers want to kill the favored, beloved brother and destroy the heart of their father as well as the son. It is a violent story: first to murder, then to hide the deed, to throw the beloved down a well, and finally in a cruel compromise, to sell him into slavery.

Yet this story is far more than a tale of family dysfunction, hatred, division. It is a story of God’s working in the lives of humans, even humans that falter, fail, and sin despicably and abhorrently. It is a story of divine intervention, salvation history, and God’s provision.

The brothers, of course, had no idea that their actions would lead to their own provision and survival. Their deeds were simply evil. Yet God, even through the evil of the world, works good and wonder. God is the Restorer, the one who takes death and transforms it into resurrection.

Joseph became and instrument in God’s plan of love and provision. It was because Joseph had become successful in Egypt, ensconced in position and power, that he was able to help his entire family when famine came. It was the kind of help that transcends knowing or understanding but is contained in love and forgiveness and mercy.

God’s help came through human hands, human love, human forgiveness. Jacob was able to overcome the human tendency to judge or reject those who had harmed him.

Fear is the predominate obstacle to God’s using us in this world. Fear is the predominate obstacle to our own ability to have faith and trust in God’s providential love in the midst of hardships. Our world is inundated by fear right now. It controls our hearts and minds. Fear is seen in the crisis with oil and the price of gas, with the cost and loss of housing, with every row of goods in the grocery store as we see the prices rise before our eyes, with global terror, nuclear threats, illness of those we love or ourselves, the very word “cancer” and a myriad of broken relationships.

The psalmist cries out in Psalm 69:

“Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
“I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold;
“I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.”

In today’s gospel, we hear the tale of Peter trying to walk on water. The disciples were alone in the boat, a terrible storm had arisen, Jesus was walking toward them across the water like an apparition or ghost, and they were filled with fear. The storm was very, very real, and in that small boat they had good reason to be afraid. To see their beloved Jesus walking across the lake in the dark, in the violence of the storm, doing what was humanly impossible, must have been frightening. To try to do what is humanly impossible by ourselves, without God, is always frightening.

Peter listens to Jesus say simply, “Come,” and he gets out of the boat in a response that defies all logic. Our boats are symbols of false security, often reflected in our bank accounts, our materialism, our huge and unnecessary houses. What is the boat in your life that you are afraid to get out of? What is the boat in your life that prevents you from following God’s call to come? What is the fear that imprisons you?

Peter could not walk on that water for one reason: fear. He looked around at the worldly reality of the storm, the physics of the water, the incomprehensibility of the situation, the absurdity of it all, and fear overwhelmed Peter. He began to sink. And then Peter did what we must all do. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Lord save us. Lord save us all.

The epistle in Romans today gives us the directions for what we must do to receive that salvation of Jesus. We must ask. We must cry out, “Jesus save me!” We must believe in our hearts – really believe – that it is Jesus who gives us life, forever eternal life. And we cry out. We proclaim with our lips. We believe, proclaim out loud, “Jesus is Lord.”

And then we too can walk on water, the water that tries to drown us, the water of fear that we can rise above. Jesus save me.

Written by the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck
The Rev. Sister Judith Schenck is a retired priest and a Franciscan Poor Clare solitary in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. Email: sisterjudith@bresnan.net.

Cleaning out our stuff, Proper 13 (A) – 2008

August 3, 2008

Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17: 1-7, 16 (or Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22); Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

The gospel for this Sunday is from Matthew, chapter 14, verses 13 to 21, and it is perhaps the best known parable of the Bible.

Or is it?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it is certainly well known. But no, even though it is commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Loaves and Fishes,” it is actually not a parable. Merriam-Webster defines “parable” as “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.”

And while this story certainly illustrates both a moral attitude and a religious principle, it is presented by the author of the Gospel of Matthew as an actual event from the ministry of Jesus.

In fact, one reason it may be so well known is that the miracle actually occurred twice. These two incidents are cited in John chapter 6, Luke chapter 9, Matthew chapters 14 and 15, and Mark chapters 6 and 8.

So, what does it mean? Well, that was the very subject of a bit of seafaring chit-chat between Jesus and the disciples related in Mark:

“‘When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’
“They said to him, ‘Twelve.’
“‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’
“And they said to him, ‘Seven.’
“And he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’”

Well, if the disciples, sitting not five feet from Jesus, found the meaning obscure, perhaps we may be forgiven for not fully understanding it either.

But one of the truly amazing things about the Bible is that it is indeed a living document. Taking virtually any of the biblical precepts, one can examine it in detail, turning it this way and that in various qualities of light as if it were a huge amethyst crystal, and gain refreshing insights not only into modern life, but into ourselves as well. Although written over 2,000 years ago, the Bible is a beacon that casts a brilliant illumination across the millennia to shine right in front of us today. Few if any works, even those of comparable antiquity, can even come close to this universal quality.

We may be just as perplexed as the disciples when it comes to interpreting these two events as they occurred in the year AD 30, but as we turn and examine this story from a modern point of view, discovering that “moral attitude and religious principle” is perhaps an easier task, and perhaps also much more useful to us as we resume our secular existence outside these walls. In fact, if we hold this story up to the light and gaze through it intently, perhaps we can see aspects of our own lives illuminated startlingly in a way we may never have anticipated.

Immigrants to the United States are drawn by the American dream, or at least the version of it that our own public image, broadcast and circulated around the world, portrays it: the lavish home, manicured lawn, multiple automobiles, and indulgences of every stripe. In fact, we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, driving an economy that itself is driven by our need to acquire “stuff.” If consumer spending on durable goods takes a nosedive, our economic growth goes right down with it. We wonder, perhaps, how many Third World countries have self-storage facilities to park the things they do not have room for.

Gazing still through this gospel story as we hold it up to the light, perhaps we can see even father back.

Was there ever a time when we were content just to be? Perhaps as newly minted high school graduates or college students our concerns were less upon acquisition and more concerned with survival – of ourselves or of the planet, depending upon our individual focus and that of our generation.

And what can we say about those times? Were they difficult? Certainly! But were they not also somehow simpler, less frenetic? More filled with wonder? We had time to think, to ponder, and to seek answers to momentous questions that we couldn’t even articulate through the medium of songs that we felt “said what must be said.”

Now if we look at the surface of this gospel story, we may see the image of our own faces mirrored in it. Is it a face that is too busy to think, too harried to ponder, and has that face abandoned the search for answers to questions that it has all but forgotten? Or perhaps, like the material possessions we seem to accumulate, the questions have multiplied to such an extent that we simply push them into a little box deep within our soul to be addressed later. When is “later”? Today is certainly later than those wonder-filled days many years ago. Is today late enough?

Now, perhaps, we are equipped to dive into the story of the loaves and fishes and extract our own meaning from those 2,000-year-old words.

Jesus is faced with a primitive dilemma: feeding five thousand men and perhaps as many more women and children with only five loaves and two fish. How can this possibly be done? There are, after all, laws of mass at work here, aren’t there?

“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of “concrete reality” that we fail utterly to perceive the “divine reality” that exists right alongside it hidden, as it were, in plain sight:

“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

Linked with the Father by a bond of unimaginable strength, Jesus submitted this primitive dilemma to Him, and the unimaginable solution was manifest to the abject wonder of all. But how much should we really wonder at this today? After all, we have 2,000 years of experience reflected in the writings of scripture upon which to base our expectations. With all these years and with all those writings to inform our expectations, which of our dilemmas could not be solved by establishing a pathway between ourselves and God through Jesus and, just as Jesus did, submitting these dilemmas to God?

We need only exhibit the courage to transform ourselves into the wonder-filled souls of years ago, informed now by our faith that God is the long-sought source of the answers to those questions.

Will we be able to hear his answer when it comes? Will his answer be the answer we are seeking? Will we have the courage to “pass out the baskets,” trusting in our own complete faith that he has provided for our needs as may be best for us?

To borrow from our Baptismal Covenant, with God’s help, we will.

And what a great way to start “cleaning out our stuff.”

 

— James Hinckley is a member of St. Timothy’s Church in Fairfield, Conn., and is enrolled in the Ministry Exploration and Education Program of the Diocese of Connecticut.