Archives for September 2009

Look for the commonality, 17 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – 2009

September 27, 2009

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124 (or Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14); James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

In today’s gospel, we hear the intriguing story of Jesus’ disciples trying to stop a man who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They seem to have become especially upset because the offender was not one of them. In the eyes of the disciples, he was not part of the inner circle, and he was acting differently from what they considered to be the norm.

As soon as Jesus heard about it, he turned the tables on his closest followers and rebuked their blind, unbending exclusiveness. He told them not to stop the man, because whatever good is done in Jesus’ name would put him in a situation of not speaking evil of the Lord. And tellingly, Jesus concluded, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions are not limited to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians cannot fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.

In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly, he realized that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him. Jesus rejected this by making it clear that only in a more narrow sense can one be an outsider.

What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such a fence-building frenzy. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion. And living out the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?

Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following our Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes, conscience and practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognize that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them against you – or against me.”

He warns us against simplistic solutions to complex problems. He causes us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it is absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by Edwin Markham can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

― 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.

We’re all kin, all a part of the people of God, 16 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – 2009

September 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (Track 2: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Sometimes the expanse of centuries between when the scriptures were written and when we, in the twenty-first century, are reading them seems to disappear. The readings today that supposedly come from Wisdom and James couldn’t possibly have been written that long ago. They must have been written in our time – in our generation, or at least only as far back as our parents or grandparents. They’re too current, too modern, too right between our eyes, don’t you think?

This is true for James, especially. You don’t often hear people say that the letter from James is their favorite. Maybe it’s not used often enough, or maybe it makes us uncomfortable, but we must admit that James is nothing if not practical. James’ very practical outline of behaviors and exhortations on what one must do to live a Christian life is very, well, no nonsense. James really spoke out to his readers back then, but today’s bit of James should still give us a lot to think about. In fact, if it doesn’t, then the bumper sticker that should be speaking to us is the one that says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Listen again to what James says: “Those conflicts and disputes among you … do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

That almost hurts to read out loud because it’s so true. Look at the world we live in. Many of us continue to ask why, in this day and age, the only way we seem to be able to deal with problems among the countries of the world is to arm mostly the poor and kill until someone gives up or one side has no one left standing.

But even closer to home, look at our own congregations. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James writes. Where indeed? What is it about us church folks that makes it so much easier to exclude than include, when we should know better. What Christian can’t recite by heart the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And the bumper sticker adds, “No exceptions.” What don’t we understand about what we can recite by heart?

And then, of course, we have to look at ourselves. It gets really uncomfortable when we read “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Jesus says pretty much the same thing in the gospels – but “adulterers”? That seems a little harsh.

And we can wonder what’s so wrong with “the world.” The world, after all, is beautiful – it’s a gift from God, not something that should put us at enmity with God. But that’s not what Jesus and James were talking about when they used the word “world.” They were referring instead to the “operating system,” so to speak, of the world; the way we interact with each other, the systems we set up to run the world, our rules. That’s where we get into trouble. That’s where we let our conflicts and disputes, our cravings and selfish ambitions prevent us from truly living out those two great commandments that we all say we believe.

And then there’s that rather scary reading from Wisdom. “The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.”

Well, surely that’s not any of us: “ungodly … summoning death … belonging to his company.” That’s the stuff of a Stephen King novel, this personification of evil. So, we can comfortably read on until we get to verse 10:

“Let us oppress the poor man; let us not regard the grey hairs of the aged, let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.”

That should make us squirm, because we have to understand that as long as there is oppression, disregard for anyone, old or young, as long as there are laws that ensure only the powerful get ahead, as long as God’s people are at enmity with God’s people, we’re a part of that. We share in the life and behavior of all God’s people.

This all sounds pretty negative – bordering on desperate perhaps. So where’s the good news? Is there good news?

I think so. But we may need to turn off our TVs and put down our newspapers so we can better focus on the good that is in our “world,” our “operating system.”

There are innumerable good things being done by people in our country, in our church – there are good that each of us do. When James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” – that says to us that he knows there are those who are wise and understanding among his hearers. We know the same about ourselves.

The connection of gentleness and peace and mercy with wisdom is lovely. Elizabeth Johnson, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes:

“The world as a whole is shaped by Wisdom’s guidance. … This ordering is a righteous one, inimical to exploitation and oppression. Sophia hates the ways of arrogance and evil but works to establish just governance on the earth.”

Like James, she talks about an orderliness in the world. She reminds us that Sophia (“Wisdom”) works to establish justice and righteousness.

Wisdom is a fascinating image. We use it to talk about the nature of God, we use it to describe the gift of understanding that we seek from God. Wisdom is personified as the most hospitable of women. Elizabeth Johnson describes this feminine aspect of wisdom:

“The female figure of Wisdom is the most acutely developed personification of God’s presence and activity in the Hebrew scriptures. … The biblical portrait of Wisdom is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice, and a host of other women’s roles.”

Women can’t leave the doing of justice and the spreading of the Good News to men, and vice versa. We’re all expected to share that work. So there is good news in today’s readings.

And of course, we only read one small bit of Wisdom this morning. If we’d read just a few more verses, we would have come to that most beautiful passage that’s often read at funerals:

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace – their hope is full of immortality.”

That speaks of the dead, but it also speaks of us who still live in this world, especially if we believe in the communion of the saints as we say we do in the Creed. All of us – those who have gone before us and those of us still here – are connected. We’re all kin, all a part of the people of God.

So, to play with this passage a little: “All those who are righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, the righteous may seem to be weak, to be useless; but they have peace. They have hope, and that hope is full of the promise of immortality.”

And isn’t that God’s promise? Isn’t that what we hope for finally, for union with God? We can experience that here as well as in the hereafter, and part of our ministry is to make sure that we welcome all our brothers and sisters on that journey.

These readings give us a lot to think about. This is just a start, and there’s good news all though it. Because even when we’re brought up short and challenged about how we’re living, and even when we’re at our most unlovable, there’s always the promise of God’s love for us.

Several chapters later in Wisdom we read: “But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours.”

Thanks be to God!

 

— 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.

Jesus offered no easy religion, 15 Pentecost, Proper 19 (B) – 2009

September 13, 2009

(RCL) Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 (Track 2: Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-8); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

At least Jesus took poor Peter to one side! There are few things worse than being shamed in public. Yet the story of this stinging rebuke somehow leaked out. Indeed there is a school of thought that attributes much of Mark’s gospel to the words and memories of St. Peter. Perhaps in this account we are hearing his confession.

One may have enormous sympathy with Simon nicknamed Peter. He was one of the first to join Jesus and obviously loved him dearly. Peter was a bit of a “muscular Christian” prone to blurting out his thoughts and feelings, for better and for worse. Yet there is no deceit in him. What you see is what you get.

In the gospel today we see Peter at his most inspired and in his most protective mood. He wants his Lord to be so much more than a mere prophet, even a famous prophet. “You are the Chosen One: the Son of the Living God.” He wants the man he loves to be superhuman and to overcome everything easily.

The word Messiah meant much more than a religious leader. Devout Jews believed that their long suffering as an occupied nation would come to an end by God’s direct intervention. The God of Israel would save his people by sending one specially chosen from birth. To a believing first-century Jew that meant the Romans would be thrown out and a religious and political Israel would emerge restored and renewed.

Just as there were many in the occupied nations of Europe during World War II who dreamed of the day when the Nazis would be expelled, so first-century Jews dreamed of the day when the tramp of the Roman legions with their idolatrous eagle banner would no longer be heard.

When Peter blurted out this statement, Jesus gave him high honor. “You are the Rock.” Tradition suggests that Peter was a big strong man. “The Big Fisherman.” A rock is strong and hard and immovable. Peter must have stood tall. His faith was the rock on which Jesus’ gospel would be built.

But then Jesus begins to talk about what a Messiah-ministry would look like. Rather like Winston Churchill, who offered the British people nothing but “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” in the battle against Hitler’s Germany, Jesus tells a story of redemption and renewal founded in his own personal suffering and death: suffering brought on by rejection, abuse, defection, and death. Little did Peter know that he would play the coward when those dark moments arrived.

Jesus offered no easy religion to his disciples and he offers no easy religion to us. We don’t much like that. So often we think of faith as some sort of insurance policy against suffering, hurt, betrayal, sickness, and death itself. Like Peter, we don’t want a faith that goes there. We want a return for our investment. We want our rights. We want our freedom. The list of our wants go on and on. Like Peter, we don’t want Jesus to suffer, but is that in part because we don’t want to be caught up in his suffering?

It is easy to deal with the sufferings of others at a distance. We may support causes, write checks, travel to meetings in our nice cars, and utter revolutionary thoughts. We may be attacked by those who oppose our views. What a comfortable martyrdom. Yet always there, behind the altar, on the wall, however tasteful or ornate, is the Cross. “If any would follow me they must take up their cross.”

Yet even at the gate of death we cry Alleluia. So speaks the language of our Prayer Book. If our faith isn’t an escape from hurt, isn’t a faith about a Messiah who comes to do it all for us, it is a faith that brings us extraordinary joy in walking the way of the cross through death into life. Peter was crucified, legend tells us, upside down because he was not worthy to suffer as his Lord did. Poor Peter. He couldn’t prevent his friend’s death, and he suffered the same fate.

If Mark repeats Peter’s own testimony in this passage, he demonstrates an honesty we would wish to emulate. Yes, we believe. Yes, we seek to avoid suffering: keep Easter but not Good Friday. Yes, we want to liberate those who suffer just as long as we don’t suffer ourselves. Yes, we want our rights and fail in our duty. But just as Jesus used the fallible St. Peter as the rock on which he built his Church, so he uses the smaller, often split rocks of our uncertain faith to spread the gospel to a needy world.
— 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.

What a friend we have in Jesus, 14 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – 2009

September 6, 2009

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (Track 2: Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In today’s gospel, we hear that Jesus went about the countryside hoping to escape notice. And here and there he stops in a village or at a house. And as it appears, he stops not so much by deliberate intent, but by happenstance.

At those seemingly random locations, he is reported as casting out demons, healing the sick, and causing the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. It’s a really peculiar way to stay out of the public eye, isn’t it?

Jesus manifests divine power to cure and heal, in miracles of God’s amazing mercy and boundless love. Remember, this is first-century Palestine. There are no ambulances, no hospitals, no pharmaceuticals. People are used to getting sick and then dying, not being cured of their diseases. In this harsh world of very painful realities, Jesus stops by and, in an instant, makes all things well. Jesus comes for a visit and suddenly the mute are speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing.

No wonder Jesus could not escape notice!

And there is only one thing anyone need do in order to receive God’s grace: just ask.

Nobody performs an act of contrition, no offering is made, no sacrifice is made. There is no promise of leading a new life, no agreement to change one’s ways, no pledge of future faithfulness.

This is a clear and powerful reminder that God’s love is showered on all of us, whether we have earned it or not. And let’s face it: most of us do not deserve it.

Sometimes, sure, we are good and faithful and true. But all of us are also capable of the most despicable acts, the most grievous abuse, the most unforgivable sin. And we know this not as an abstract concept, either. We know in our hearts that we are sinners, and we know it by tangible, irrefutable, and recurring evidence.

Yet God loves us still.

Now some people live in a world of illusion, in which they try to earn God’s favor. They imagine that if they do just the right thing, or obey the right laws, or try very, very hard to be good – they imagine that if they do these things God will love them.

It is a surprisingly popular view nowadays, even though it cannot be supported by the witness of the gospel writers. For example, in Matthew 19 someone asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answers, “There is only one who is good.”

In that same chapter of Matthew someone wonders, “Who can be saved?” Jesus replies that all things are possible for God.

In Luke 10, someone asks, “What must I do?” and Jesus says: just love. We don’t have to do anything – simply love God and love your neighbor.

It is not, of course, as easy to love as it is to hear the commandment to love. But the commandment is concise, clear, and unambiguous: love God and love your neighbor.

God calls us to love for one simple reason: God loves us. God loves us unconditionally. And God loved us first. So God is asking for us to requite that love, to share it with others, and to spread that love all over this land.

But whether we do that or we do not, God loves us still, always, and forever. From before we were born until after we die, when we are naughty and when we are nice, while we are sinning and when we repent: God loves us. Period.

Embracing that theological truth is simple sometimes – especially when our diseases are cured, or calamities come to an end, or misfortune turns to opportunity.

But who among us has not asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when things go wrong?

It’s a perfectly natural response. Clergy hear it all the time. And, yes, clergy even ask the question when adversity arrives. So we must not be ashamed to ask, even as we must not get stuck asking and asking and asking. Because it is the wrong question.

You see, when ill fortune overcomes us, we become like the characters in today’s story. We get stuck in that endless and fruitless loop of asking – and blaming – God. So we need a friend, a family member, an advocate to ask God for help on our behalf.

When trials afflict us, when disaster strikes, when we trouble arrives on our doorstep – then we need a friend to ask for God’s saving help.

And in today’s story the Syrophoenician girl and the deaf man in Sidon each seem to have such a friend. These are some very good friends indeed. In today’s parlance we might say these two have health-care advocates, people who see to it that they get the attention and treatment they need.

They are truly fortunate, for the demon is cast out and the disease is cured. That does happen, and God is quite capable of effecting a miracle.

But miracles do not always come when we want them. The harsh reality is that we cannot command a miracle to occur, and – for some mysterious reason – God sometimes chooses not to, as well. The all-powerful creator of the universe sometimes decides not to intervene, not to effect a cure, not to bring an end to trouble.

This is when our faith is really put to the test: when we pray, and plead, and beg – but a miracle does not come.

Those who claim to know why God sometimes answers “no” to our prayers are fooling you, and probably themselves. The best we can do, really, is to trust that there is some bigger plan, some more important objective, some greater good that is somehow served by our individual suffering.

And as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8, the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

So to dwell on why we suffer is, again, a futile endeavor. Because it distracts us from a more comforting and more enduring truth: God loves us. God loves us unconditionally. And God loved us first.

And because God loves us, God shares in our sorrows, our suffering, and our hardships. As it says in the old hymn: “What a friend we have in Jesus. … Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?”

What a friend we have in Jesus, who willingly took the sins of the world upon his back and died a shameful death on the cross, that we might taste redemption.

What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows our every weakness, every fault, every mistake – and still loves us, and calls on us to love in return.

What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows we undergo afflictions and torments because he shares in our every pain.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.