Archives for November 2009

Thanksgiving Day (B) – November 26, 2009

(RCL) Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Before it was a noun, “thanksgiving” was a verb. The difference matters.

A desert father once said:

“If you have a chest full of oranges, and leave it for a long time,
the fruit will rot inside of it.
It is the same with the thoughts in our heart.
If we do not carry them out by physical action,
after a while they will spoil and turn bad.”

Living thankfully is not essentially about feeling thankful, or even being thankful. To live thankfully is to act differently day by day because we are compelled by the Spirit to participate in the generous life of God-with-us, constantly practicing thanks-giving.

Thanksgiving is well established as a cultural institution in our country. We know it as a day to observe, a milestone in the year, the inauguration of the “holiday season,” we are told – a “high holy day” for retailers, a bellwether of our national economic health.

It is a time for families and wider communities to gather; a day for starting to write up our “holiday” shopping lists; for watching football; for eating, eating, and eating. And for many, it is a time when attention is given to those who live in deep need throughout the year.

“Have a good Thanksgiving,” we say to one another beforehand. And afterward, we ask, “How was your Thanksgiving?” assuming the word to be a noun.

But as a verb, as a spiritual practice, what is thanksgiving all about?

Giving thanks is actually central to the practice of Christianity.

It is a golden thread, woven through and uniting all we do as Christians.

At Thanksgiving, we celebrate the gift of the harvest. We do so actively. As Charles Winters put it in his wonderful prayer, which is offered by many just before the Great Thanksgiving in celebrations of the Eucharist:

“We make, O Lord, our glorious exchanges.
What you have given us, we now offer you,
that in turn, we may receive yourself.”

To harvest is itself an act of faith, of confidence in God’s continuing providence. When it has been a good year, it is evident that God is providing for us in abundance. But the very act of cutting down the stalk and gathering in the crop from the field, leaves the field barren. To harvest is an active response to all that God has given us, without which what has been given will rot and be ruined – of no benefit to anyone. In harvesting, we give thanks by stepping forward to collect what God has provided and using it to provide for our needs and those of others, trusting that in the cycle of nature, more will be provided in the next growing season.

There is an ancient, Biblical tradition in harvesting, of farmers not reaping all the way to the edges of a field so as to leave some for the poor and for strangers. Part of the joy of the harvest is found in encouraging the gleaning of that part of the crop by others. So, the practice of giving thanks at harvest time is connected with participating in the generosity of God, who provides the harvest.

The harvest is only possible when we join with God in the dance of abundance. We are thus acting as stewards of God’s bounty – taking charge, taking responsibility for that which we do not own, for another’s property (God’s property, strictly speaking). In so doing, we find ourselves giving thanks by sharing generously of the gifts we ourselves have received. That is the Christian practice of stewardship.

It is a common practice at Thanksgiving for congregations and other community groups to gather food for food shelves, or assist at soup kitchens, perhaps offering Thanksgiving dinner to those who are hungry or alone at this special time. It’s an admirable tradition. For some, unfortunately, this is motivated by a sense of guilt, that we have so much and are feasting so excessively – maybe if we remember those who have less than us, it will salve our consciences to some extent.

But as a Christian spiritual practice, we understand this work of feeding others to be a natural consequence of participating in the dance of abundance with God. Compassion and acts of charity flow naturally as a way of giving thanks to God; for in that action, we receive so very much. The blessing flows both ways in that exchange.

Practicing compassion and seeking to give ourselves away is a form of prayer. It is an activity that lies at the heart of all spiritual traditions, and therefore naturally catches the imagination of our neighbors in every community.

Thanksgiving, then, is not primarily about “feeling” thankful. In many homes, before the turkey is carved, people take turns sharing what they “feel thankful for” that year. This is a nice custom. But as practicing Christians, we are called to move beyond “feeling” thankful; we are called to give thanks by taking very specific spiritual actions:

We practice hospitality.
We practice generosity.
We practice stewardship.
We practice compassion.

Giving thanks is a verb, a spiritual practice that runs like a golden thread through all we do and all we are as Christians.

Perhaps it helps to set one day aside in the year when we have the attention of everyone around the nation, to rehearse the importance of being thankful. But we are even more effective as evangelists when we use Thanksgiving to act thankfully, with God, the God of abundance, who in this harvest festival, as in every day, rejoices to invite us to join in returning the gifts we have received, to God’s honor and glory and purpose.

Let us pray:

Generous God of love,
we gather in community
to praise and thank you
for the harvest of our orchards and vineyards.
Out of the sharp cold of winter,
through blossom and fruiting,
has come the plentiful harvest of today.
From winter trees, pruned and leafless,
has emerged a rich crop upon every branch,
swollen by the warmth of spring and summer.
Your boundless generosity, O God,
is like the overflowing of baskets and bins.
Here is variety and volume beyond measure,
like your immense love.

May we be moved to give back to you
a portion of what you have gifted us,
from the richness of your community
and the wealth of your creation,
for the sake of the gospel
and to your glory,
our Life-Giver and Sustainer.

Amen.

 

— Steve Kelsey is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years he has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.

We still ask the questions, Christ the King / Last Sunday After Pentecost (B) – November 22, 2009

(RCL) 2 Samuel 23:1-7 and Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19) (Track 2: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” the magi asked.

That question alerted Herod to the presence of a rival in his midst. To eliminate the rival he had his soldiers kill all children in an entire region of his realm.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked Jesus mockingly.

The very idea of the Jews having a king in any meaningful sense must have seemed ridiculous to Pilate. Furthermore, Jesus must have looked far from regal as he stood before Pilate. He had been arrested in Gethsemane; all his disciples had abandoned him; he had defended himself before a Jewish court; and he had probably been roughed up by Roman soldiers. But there was also a serious side to the question. A king of the Jews would have represented a challenge to Pilate’s authority and (more importantly) to his masters in Rome. The Roman Empire responded to such challenges just as ruthlessly as Herod had.

In reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus denied that he was a king in any way that would make sense to the Roman governor. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”

The confrontation with Pilate was rich with irony and ambiguity. Pilate appeared to be powerful but was really powerless; Jesus appeared to be powerless but was really powerful. John had already told his readers that part of Jesus’ mission was to “cast out” the ruler of this world who has no power over Jesus. Paradoxically, Jesus brought down the “ruler of this world” by submitting to his power; his death brought about the destruction of the powers that nailed him to the cross.

Pilate and Herod were not the only ones who misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Even the disciples failed to understand it. James and John wanted to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom. To “sit” was to occupy a position of power, and to sit beside the king was to share in his power. But Jesus told them that they completely misunderstood the nature of his kingship and kingdom: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”

A friend who is a rabbi once said to me, “Christian triumphalism makes me uneasy.” It makes me uneasy, too, and the feast of Christ the King is awash in triumphalism.

“Crown him with many crowns,” we sing, and “All hail the power of Jesus’ name.” I am uneasy because it is all too easy to give Jesus the crown but to take the power for ourselves. The followers of the Crucified One overcame Rome by martyrdom, but after Constantine’s conversion, the victorious Christians started making martyrs of their former adversaries. The history of the church is spattered with blood because power requires violence to maintain itself. To put it another way, we use the rhetoric of Jesus but behave like Herod and Pilate.

The kingdom over which Jesus reigns still defies our understanding. He rules over a kingdom with no borders to defend, no soldiers to defend it, and no weapons for the soldiers to use. It is a kingdom that inverts our values. The one who serves is the one who rules.

We still ask the questions that the magi and Pilate asked: “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” and “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Knowingly or not, Pilate answered his own question; the Gospel of John tells us that “Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. It read: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’”

The cross is Jesus’ royal throne and also the antidote to Christian triumphalism. Jesus reigns from the cross, and to share his kingship, we must also share his suffering. There is plenty of room at the right and left hands of Jesus, but those who would share his power must also share his cross.

Like the magi, we are also on a pilgrimage seeking the king. Unlike them, we cannot bring our gifts to a manger in Bethlehem. But we can still find him in those he came to serve.

As it says in Matthew 25: “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food.’”

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than 50 of his sermons have been published. He is rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

To join in the prayers, Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – November 15, 2009

(RCL)1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (Track 2: Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16); Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

In T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Four Quartets,” he talks about going to a church at Little Gidding, the site of a small Anglican religious community founded in the seventeenth century. Eliot writes, “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.”

Many of us have felt this desire to kneel where prayer has been valid. For those of us who pray regularly, we may long to join our prayers to those who have gone before us. For those of us who have a hard time with prayer, we still somehow desire to kneel in that place where prayer has been valid. In either case, when we come into a place where truthful prayer has been made, many of us feel like falling to our knees.

People attend church services for a variety of reasons. The preaching. The music. The fellowship. The coffee hour. The stained glass windows. One extremely important reason people come to church is to kneel in a place where prayer has been valid. Somehow, we want to put ourselves in that place where truthful prayer has been offered. Even when we feel like we don’t have the words ourselves, perhaps especially when we don’t have the words ourselves, we want to go to that place and receive the sustenance that comes from being in a place where prayer has been valid. Our churches are many things, but one thing that seems essential is that it has been and continues to be a place where truthful prayer is made.

Our Old Testament lesson for today from the First Book of Samuel begins with the simple statement “Hannah prayed.” Such a simple statement, and yet encompassing such depths that we will never fully fathom in this mortal flesh. Archbishop Michael Ramsey was once asked how long he prayed each day, and he responded by saying, “Oh, I suppose only two or three minutes.” Then he added that he had usually been at his prayers in chapel for an hour in order to get to that two or three minutes of prayer.

The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer gives us a nice introduction to the principal kinds of prayer. This is helpful because often times we think of prayer as simply asking God for things. And, indeed, these are valid prayers, prayers of petition and intercession in which we bring before God our needs and the needs of others. However, our Prayer Book deals with intercession and petition only after explaining prayers of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, and oblation – and the order may be telling us something important. Perhaps there is a reason that adoration and praise and thanksgiving are at the top of the list.

The Westminster Catechism says that the chief end of human beings is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Notice it does not say the chief end of human beings is “to ask God for things and to keep asking for things forever.” It does not say “to confess our sins to God and to keep confessing our sins forever.” Rather, it says “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” When all those other types of prayer pass away, adoration and praise of God will continue forever. As valid as all other types of prayer are, someday they will end. Someday all prayers will be encompassed by adoration and praise.

As the German theologian Gotthold Mueller wrote:

“Praise of God … according to the witness of both Old and New Testaments is the only form of prayer enduring ‘from ages to ages.’ As with faith and hope, all other forms of prayer (petition, intercession) come to their eschatological fulfillment and so to an end. What ultimately endures is the doxa (praise) of God which is, at the same time, the only true salvation of humankind and of the whole creation.”

What is the chief end of human beings? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

What is amazing about prayers of adoration and praise is not only that they will endure from age to age, but also that we can participate in these prayers right now. And Hannah, in our Old Testament lesson for today, shows us how. Hannah’s prayer is a prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving. She prays, “My heart exults in the Lord.” Adoration. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God.” Adoration and praise. “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world.” Adoration and praise and thanksgiving. Hannah’s prayer then, now, and from age to age. Our prayers joined with Hannah’s, then, now, and forever.

Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, says that adoration is:

“not a special form of prayer, for all true prayer is saturated with it. It is the air in which prayer breaths, the sea in which prayer swims. In another sense, though, it is distinct from other kinds of prayer, for in adoration we enter the rarefied air of self-less devotion. We ask for nothing but to cherish him. We seek nothing but his exaltation. We focus on nothing but his goodness.”

All true prayer is saturated with adoration.

We long to kneel in that place where prayer has been valid because in some way we know that when we do so we are joining in something that will endure from age to age. All true prayer that is saturated with adoration and praise and thanksgiving will endure forever. Perhaps that is why people still come to church services today.

To join in the prayers of our forbears whose hearts exulted in the Lord, who praised God, and who gave thanks to God for his mighty acts of redemption.

To join in the prayers of all those ordinary and extraordinary saints who have gone before us who have lifted their hearts giving God their thanks and praise.

To join with the present company of the faithful, to add what God has done in our lives to the record of his mighty deeds in our own prayers of adoration and praise.

And to join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing hymns and proclaim the glory of God’s Name.

“You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity, or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.”
— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How on earth can we follow Jesus, 23 Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – 2009

November 8, 2009

(RCL) Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (Track 2: 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146); Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

No, this isn’t a sermon about tithing, so you may take your hands off your wallets.

Our television screens bombard us with offers of deals. No doubt your spam contains similar offers. From time to time we read about elderly people who have been duped out of their funds by unscrupulous people offering deals. There are even crooks who recently played with peoples’ health by offering spurious swine-flu remedies. So we build walls around our lives, taking care not to be “had.”

It is easy for us to become so protective of ourselves that we are no longer able to give or receive easily. Those of us who have been hurt badly build walls around ourselves and then wonder why we are so lonely and unfulfilled. Christians are not immune to this “natural” reaction.

Sometimes we don’t give to worthy charities, excusing ourselves by muttering that they spend too much on overhead. And yes, we get moody when the annual pledge campaign hits us in our parish. The odd thing is that we don’t feel our consciences tugged when we read the sort of lessons appointed for this Sunday.

The story of Ruth is a non-Jewish love story. Ruth takes a leap of trust and faith and decides to stay with her mother-in-law and marry Boaz rather than retuning to the safety and security of her own homeland.

In Kings, a woman left with nothing to feed her son and herself feeds the Prophet with what she has left. She may starve to death, but still she makes bread and gives drink.

In the gospel Jesus points to a widow woman, obviously without children to care for her. She gives her last penny. In the light of what Jesus says later about the scams going on in the Temple, the fact that he commends the widow for giving all she has to the Temple treasury is astounding.

Surely Ruth should have required a prenuptial contract! Surely the poor woman should have told the Prophet to go and find her son and her something to eat. Should not Jesus have rather suggested that the widow keep her few cents for herself? “Charity begins at home!”

Protecting our assets, the things we cherish, our integrity, seem to be natural reactions, survival instincts. Yet we follow a Savior who calls us to risk all in order that we may truly love and be truly whole. It would be said of Jesus, “The foxes have lairs, the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus’ mother and his relatives pleaded with him to come home, to be safe and to stop living so dangerously. The love of Jesus was extravagant, self-sacrificial, and utterly without concern for his own well being.

Well, we think, that is fine for Jesus, but he is unique. Sometime early on we absolve ourselves of commitment to follow his example, and settle for a faith that allows him to do the sacrificing, while we receive the benefits.

In the gospel, Jesus points to professionally religious people who parade their religiosity and who love the power their religious rank gives them, but who defend their institution and their place in it vigorously. When the Chief Priest decided that Jesus must be killed, he justified it as the death of one to protect the peace and prosperity of the settled religious Establishment. “It is expedient that one should die for the people.”

How often we rephrase Jesus’ command to “Go Baptize, Go Tell” with “Come through our church doors and help us maintain the building!”

Christianity calls us to love extravagantly, care extravagantly, and give extravagantly. Saints such as Francis of Assisi took that challenge to heart, to the dismay of his parents and the contempt of the world.

One of our lovely Collects contains the phrase “In whose service is perfect freedom.” Remember “service” once meant slavery. Jesus, we are told by St. Paul, gave up his equality with God, emptied himself, and became a servant, a slave.

That’s wonderful. Jesus is our servant. Just what we need.

But what of us? How do we measure up “to the fulness of the stature of Christ?” Do you remember when your parents used to put you against the wall and mark how tall you were growing? Next to Jesus we seem small in love, in caring, in giving. Yet if we are to commend our faith, our parish, our Church to a needy world and above all to our Lord, we are called to a more excellent way. We are to remember in our Lord’s chilling words, that when we have done all we are still unprofitable servants.

How on earth can we follow Jesus? He gave up life itself on the cross. On our own, as parishioners, clergy, vestry members, we fail and mutter our apologies in the General Confession. Yet “in Christ” and his love, we can grow to risk the life of love we were born to in our baptisms. Only then may we be truly free.

 

— 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.

We are to be unbound, 22 Pentecost / All Saints’ Sunday (B) – 2009

November 1, 2009

(RCL) Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Mary and Martha of Bethany are deep in shock and lost in grief for their brother Lazarus. The sisters had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. On receiving the message, Jesus had waited two long days. By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days.

“If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” This quote is from the opening paragraph of the first book of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The author, who writes dark tales for children under the pen name “Lemony Snicket,” explains that this is how the Baudelaire children felt when they became the Baudelaire orphans after both their parents died in a house fire.

Those words of how difficult it is to convey a sense of loss fit with today’s gospel reading. Martha is hurt when she sees Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then she calls for her sister Mary who repeats that same accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Then John tells us that, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’”

Then in that shortest verse in the Bible, we are told that “Jesus wept.”

Jesus loved Lazarus. He weeps at the grave of his friend. Yes, this makes sense in Jesus’ humanity, but if anyone believed in the resurrection, it should have been Jesus. Yet Jesus wept. This shows us that grief is not unchristian. Christ wept at the grave of his friend. We too weep over the graves of those we love. On this All Saints Day as we remember not just the great saints of the church, but also the saints in our own lives, we remember those we love who have died. That remembrance comes with sorrow.

It is a sorrow that does not go away. Real grief stays with you. In fact, not only can one not expect grief to go away completely, we also shouldn’t want it to. For as the person you loved is not returned to you, how can you stop grieving? The loss remains, and so does the sorrow. But grief can and does change. We pray not for an end to the grief, but for an unbearable sense of loss to be replaced by a sorrow we can bear. And in this, we are helped by the hope of the resurrection.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus knew people would continue to die. He taught that not only do we find death in the midst of life, but we find life in the midst of death. Those who die will live again. This is Christian teaching and it is why even at the grave Christians can and do praise God.

So while grief is a Christian response to death, Mary and Martha’s line of reasoning is flawed. They said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They assume Jesus was absent from the situation. But we know he was well aware of what was happening in Bethany and waited two days before going. After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is even more fully present by the power of the Holy Spirit with those we love at the time of their death.

In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the writer said, “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”

That is so true, and scripture tells us that in Jesus, God knows how it feels as Jesus experienced real grief. Jesus experienced not just the death of Lazarus, but also the loss of his father, Joseph. There would have been others whom he loved who died as well. In becoming human, God was and is with us in Jesus in a way that caused him to experience the depths of human pain and loss. God can readily imagine grief as our “with-us” God has known that pain firsthand.

God is not distant and reserved. God is close, caring, and compassionate. Scripture tells us that the time is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and when even death itself will be defeated. Yet, in the here and now, there are many tragedies, personal and even national or international, which cause people to question their faith.

In all these cases one hears people ask, “Where is God?” And the answer is “with us.” God was there when the towers fell on September 11. God was there when the flood waters rose following Hurricane Katrina. God is there in the tragedies large and small that have us wondering why. God is there in the midst of suffering, present with those in pain, as one who learned the depths of human suffering while living among us.

Knowing that Christ knows how it feels to experience the death of a loved one, we can hear more clearly Jesus call to put away the fear of death. Jesus calls “Come Out!” Come out from the grave. Grief is real, but that loss is not the end. Don’t let grief overwhelm you. Grab hold of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” to those around Lazarus, and he says the same to us. We are to be unbound, set free from the power of death. For even as we find death in life, we find life in death. We know that Jesus is resurrection and life, and those of us who believe in him, even if we die, we will live.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and the Vicar of King of Peace Church in Kingsland, Georgia.