Archives for 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.

The path has unfolded before us once again, Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 25 (B) – October 25, 2009

(RCL) Job 42:1-6, 10-17 and Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22) (Track 2: Jeremiah 31:7-9 and Psalm 126); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

Recipe for success: one part awareness, one part knowledge, one part motivation, one part action. Slowly add one ingredient at a time, gradually and with care. Then begin again. Note: you may be inspired to start over at any point in the process.

One might place knowledge before awareness, but without awareness how does knowledge develop? Once we are aware and know, it takes motivation to produce action.

This recipe for success is present in the lessons we’ve read today with one specific difference; where the accountability lies.

Our reading from Hebrews describes a sort of “designated hitter” concept and might be heard as supporting a hint of clericalism. Priests abound, and their work keeps them going. Their main purpose is to intercede for others. In this context, the recipe for success might be difficult because the action ingredient belongs to someone else. For some, this might be just fine. In fact, for some, not having the final action or burden for action enables a lack of accountability for individual relationship and success.

The gospel, on the other hand, provides us with an account of the recipe for success from the perspective of Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus was aware of the ministry of healing that Jesus had become well-known for at this point in the story. Bartimaeus asked to be healed, to be able to see again. And Jesus healed him.

These two stories lead us to interpret the recipe for success in two very different ways: one, giving over the final ingredient to someone else; and the other, total responsibility for our own outcomes.

Certainly each of these readings describes Christian life as the end product in a “Recipe for Success.” In our experience of our faith and tradition there have been times when we have relied on someone else to intercede for us. An example might include a reliance on a priest to connect us with God in worship although our Book of Common Prayer would actually suggest that we are all equal in this process. Total engagement with the mission and ministry of the church is what we are all called to be.

Our Anglican tradition actually encourages a balance between scripture, reason, and tradition suggesting an individual and corporate collaborative awareness and knowledge, not a reliance on intercessors or interpreters. Certainly we must be aware of the scholarly perspectives throughout history that guide us in understanding scripture. Throughout history we have become aware of just how important the scholarly perspectives are that impact our tradition and expression of our faith. There seems to be some difficulty when we begin to apply reason to the mix, as we have seen in recent debates.

But back to our recipe for success – the one thing that is certain is that awareness and knowledge, the first two ingredients, are essential to the end product.

Once we put the two readings together, our recipe for success might lead us to understand that it takes both individual and corporate restoration to wholeness for “real” success.

Using the metaphor of sight in the gospel story we can understand that physical sight is not required to produce faith. In fact, Bartimaeus is blind but his faith is strong. He does not seem to condition his faith on whether or not he can be healed or whether or not Jesus will stop and heal him. But he asks Jesus for healing or physical sight so he can be fully restored to wholeness.

Throughout history, God has worked miracles through political forces, social action, and ordinary events, meeting people where they are and restoring them to wholeness. Whether or not we fall and call out from the gutter like Bartimaeus or turn ourselves around with a heightened sense of awareness and knowledge motivating us to act justly and walk humbly with our God, the product is faithful living.

Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Of course Jesus had already heard Bartimaeus calling out to him and asking for healing, for sight. Why would he have to ask again what he was asking? Is it possible that the question served to emphasize the faithfulness, the confidence that Bartimaeus felt? Was Jesus asking again so that his disciples would reconsider their own faith, possibly suggesting that some self-reflection was in order?

It may be that Jesus also wanted to point out that the disciples, his followers, need not act as his agents, screening out whatever they felt Jesus should not attend to. Brian McLaren’s book Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide makes a strong case for considering the obvious here. “The kingdom of God is not simply a new belief or doctrine that can be patched into an old way of life; it is, rather, a new way of life that changes everything.”

Mary Anderson writes in her Christian Century article “Blind Spots“:

“Some changes are no doubt fast and immediate, but the changes that endure unto the generations are the result of a process of human or divine origin.”

Arriving at the place of restored wholeness can only happen through the process of self-reflection and self-knowledge. We cannot diminish the process and in fact it is the journey toward wholeness that is often the grace that binds us to God and each other, sustaining our faith and transforming us as God’s own. This level of transformation can only be known if we are honest and open – seeing clearly what is before us and giving way to those things that are best put into the past.

Reflection and restoration complement each other serving as process, as guideposts, which result in our personal journey toward life in Christ and the faithfulness like that of Bartimaeus. We are held accountable in our corporate lives as believers, being for one another the reminder, the emphasis the looking glass, to see those things that we may not be able to see or acknowledge. No matter how much we trust each other, though, this is a difficult scenario – one that we see being played out in the life of the church today.

We can be tempted to see the loss, the risk associated with this corporate interdependence and faithfulness. We have to be willing to let go of our rigidness, the hardened heart and embrace a new vision of ourselves and each other. We are always moving from blindness to sightedness, from unfaithfulness to faithfulness. And our faithfulness is what leads us into action or mission, a major focus for our church.

As we move forward we must recognize our blind spots and look creatively at our corporate life, seeing it with new eyes. Only then will we be taking the path that transforms the process so that our recipe for success produces a new product.

There is no question that a new product is necessary. We recognize already at some level that the mission of the church is a corporate activity. But once again, we individually have to undergone the reformation process, the transformation into wholeness before we can corporately share that same process.

As with the readings today, we cannot rely on others to intercede for us and seek God’s blessing on our behalf. Waiting for this to happen, risks our own relationship with God. It is very obvious as we view the world around us that inaction on our part or reliance on someone else to be the instruments of God in our world, produces what I would venture to say is a less than perfect world. The time has come for us to change our awareness and anticipate just what kind of world we are leaving for our grandchildren.

We disciples of Jesus have vision problems. We sometimes describe our blindness as an inability to see the forest for the trees, but that’s a benign analysis. More worrisome is the inherited blindness of each generation, which so often assumes it is the best generation of all, with no lessons left to learn, only an inheritance to enjoy. This arrogance is the root of our blindness. We still need the miracle of restored sight. This is the time to follow the recipe for success once again – first individually, with the gospel as our guide; and then corporately, creating the new sight, the new vision for the church. We have so many gifts to share, why would we rely on someone else to do what God has called us all to do?

The path has unfolded before us once again. Ask for new sight just as Bartimaeus did, and then use what God has restored in you to transform the world.

 

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

God saved us to be servants, Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – October 18, 2009

(RCL) Job 38:1-7, (34-41) and Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37c (Track 2: Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16); Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

James Hewett writes, “God did not save us to be a sensation. God saved us to be servants.”

Today’s gospel reading provides a remarkable contrast between sensation and servant. In this reading we hear the story of two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, who make the request to Jesus to receive a position of prominence in the Kingdom: “Let one of us sit at your right, and one at your left in Glory” they ask of Jesus. The disciples’ impudence and lack of understanding is beyond belief. How could two people who are so close to Jesus miss the boat so completely? Did they forget the encounter with the rich man that occurred just before their request? Or the encounter with the little children? And have they not heard Jesus’ own prediction of what was soon to happen to him? In light of all of this, their request is truly astounding.

And it angers their fellow disciples. But what seems to anger the other disciples is not so much that James and John have misunderstood Jesus’ teachings – which could perhaps be justified – but that James and John went to Jesus requesting a place of power ahead of the rest of them. The other disciples do not seem to be acting out of righteous indignation; rather, it appears that they are jealous. And Jesus’ loving response to them all is to take the opportunity to contrast earthly greatness with divine greatness. Earthly greatness is defined as having power over, whereas divine greatness is defined as being servant to.

Today there are examples all around us of the secular quest for greatness and its often accompanying spectacular fall. Bernie Madoff is an obvious example of the quest for monetary power, but our country’s growing credit-card debt hints at how widespread the problem is.

In contrast to worldly greatness, to be great in God’s eyes is to be a servant modeled after Jesus’ own life of service. For many listeners, the story of James and John is disconcerting because if James and John, who knew Jesus personally, couldn’t incorporate his teachings into their lives, how on earth are we to do so?

These stories are a reminder for many of us that, try as we might, all too often our actions are more reflective of motivations of the secular world than the divine.

So how do we become better servants?

One way is by making sure that the motivation for our service is love. Eighteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Secker said, “God has three sorts of servants in the world: some are slaves, and serve Him from fear; others are hirelings, and serve for wages; and the last are sons [and daughters], who serve because they love.”

In the week ahead, as you seek to serve God, check your motivation. Divine servanthood is always motivated by love.

Another way to become better servants is by being mindful of who it is that calls us to serve. We should remember that in all things we serve God, and God alone. By becoming more aware of God’s presence in everyday life, we can strive to understand that all we do is somehow of God. With this approach, even the most mundane tasks that might not usually be associated with our spiritual lives can be viewed as service.

One young mother recalls her difficult transition from paid employment to being a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her first child. A spiritual director assisted her in the process, instructing her to walk with the baby each day, being acutely aware of her surroundings and being alert to where God might be. She recalls seeing nature and the created order, as well as the frenetic pace of those around her, in a new way during these walks. She also began to see her tasks, such as the endless piles of laundry that had to be washed, as a service of love.

A third way to become better servants is by ensuring that our church is a “servant church.” Theologian Karl Barth discusses such churches in his book Dogmatics in Outline. Barth describes the living church as one that:

“proclaims the Gospel to every creature. The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it that only now and then it sticks out its feelers and then thinks that the claim of publicity has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald. Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself.”

Is your congregation a living servant church? Does it have a clear understanding that it exists in service to Jesus? Do all actions stem from Jesus’ commission to proclaim the gospel? Do worship services, community outreach, and activities all have the possibility to transform those they touch? If not, then perhaps it might be time to begin a conversation about refocusing on Christ’s divine purpose for your congregation, because, after all, the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ.

The story of James and John is disconcerting because even the most pious listeners can see a bit of themselves in the story. How many of us are able to truly base our lives and actions on the divine definition of greatness – servanthood?

Fortunately, this story closes with a message of hope. Jesus proclaims that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus promises us that although we will all fall short, through his death we are redeemed.

And that is the Good News.

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small-church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, Pentecost 19, Proper 23(B) – 2009

(RCL) Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (Track 2: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

“Then who can be saved?” they asked Jesus.

How often we ask ourselves that very question. Oh, yes, day to day we put on a good face and project an image of confidence to the world around us. Like the man in today’s gospel reading who seeks Jesus to ask how he might inherit eternal life, we like to believe we know all the answers and have done all the right things.

Jesus asserts that when the rubber meets the road, one must give it all away and follow him; but that strikes us as simply impossible. And like the man in the story, we are shocked and go away unhappy at best, frustrated and defeated at worst.

How true are the words from Hebrews:

“The word of God is living and active, sharper that any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

Deep down inside we know this to be absolutely true. We just wish Jesus, the Word made flesh, would save his ability to judge our thoughts and intentions for someone else. Anyone else.

Can’t it be enough simply to love Jesus? The disciples thought it was enough to follow him around, to have left home – family, friends, support, a bed of one’s own, the means to make a living.

It is curious, isn’t it, how Jesus is always upping the ante? And yet, from beginning to end, his program hinges on the foundational belief that in God’s reign the last will be first and the first will be last.

Now if Bill Gates with all his billions represents the first in this world, let’s say at number ten, and the poorest of the poor are at number one on a scale of one to ten, can we even begin to imagine, as Jesus urges us to do, what it would look like if this world were turned upside down? That is the first task here.

The second task is to imagine what it would be like to live at number five. Why number five? Because those who live at number five will feel the least disruption in their lives as the Kingdom of God turns everything upside down.

So the ultimate question may be, How do I get to number five? What does the journey to number five look like?

Now on a global scale, most of us in this country, not all of us, live somewhere nestled in around number nine. So what does an individual or a culture need to do, how do we need to change, to scale things back to number five?

This may be where the power of the Word of God comes in: time spent reading, listening to, and meditating on the Word of God will work like a two-edged sword, dividing soul from spirit – judging the intentions of our hearts. For as the author of Hebrews observes, Jesus has in every respect been tested as we have, and is willing to offer us grace and mercy to find help in making this journey from nine to five.

One suspects it will be a journey about common wealth, rather than individual wealth; about the salvation of the whole world, rather than individual salvation.

The man in our gospel reading today who came to Jesus evidently felt his salvation was in all that he had, not in all that he was. At the end of the day, says Hebrews, and Jesus, it is who you are that matters more than what you have.

This is very difficult to grasp – especially in a culture that urges us to acquire as much as we can get. It is difficult to grasp that letting go may be the most important lesson of all on this journey from nine to five.

We just might discover as we read, listen to, and meditate on God’s Word, that God’s own economic plan, a plan that revolves around the tithe and the Sabbath, is truly the meaning of life that we have been looking for.

Bishop Walker of Long Island recognizes four Holy Habits: tithing, weekly corporate worship, daily prayer and study of God’s Word, and keeping the Sabbath. These habits enable us to draw near to God, and as Paul’s letter to James urged a few weeks ago, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.”

Perhaps this can lead us to a closer understanding of what Jesus answers when they ask, “Who then can be saved?”

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Drawing near to God seems to be the best way to make the journey. In the end, the meaning of life cannot be learned or understood. What is needed is fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding.

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 leads 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.

How much should I give to the Church?, 18 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – 2009

October 4, 2009

(RCL) Job 1:1; 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (Track 2: Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

“How much should I give to the Church?”

This is the dilemma faced by most Episcopalians each year around this time as they consider their pledge and annual giving to the work of the church. As a Sunday bulletin insert from the Ecumenical Stewardship Center explains the issue, “People are often asked to give the church a tithe, a tenth of income. But a tenth of what income? Gross income? Net income? Earned income? Investment income? It’s just too confusing.”

So here is a radically different way of going about this. Why not give it all – 100% – to the church, or better yet, to God?

Yes, you heard that right. Give 100% of your income, your treasure, to God and the work of the church. While you are at it, throw in your time and talent for good measure. Certainly makes stewardship a lot easier. You do not even need a calculator or a 1099 for this one. Hold nothing back.

How can you and I possibly do this?

Well, when you stop to think about it, we really do not have a choice. As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you. There are no pockets in burial shrouds. That same Stewardship Center insert reminds us forcefully, “Everything will eventually be returned to God as its rightful owner anyway,” including our very lives. So why not be gracious about it and give it all back right now – lock, stock, and barrel?

Truth be told, probably only one person in all of Christian history has ever come close to succeeding at this. That is none other than the humble Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast is celebrated in many churches today, on October Fourth. Having turned all of his possessions and great family wealth over to the poor and downtrodden of his community, Francis literally stood at the cathedral steps shivering in his skivvies until the mortified bishop came along and covered him with his robes.

Francis gloried in what he called holy poverty and even spoke of “Lady Poverty” as his bride in Christ. Unencumbered by worldly distractions and possessions, he experienced the utter freedom and abandon of “the little children” mentioned in today’s gospel account. Others soon came to join Francis in a life of simple community and prayer. They became known as Franciscans.

While such radical gospel living may have worked well enough for Francis and his followers centuries ago, it might prove a bit more problematic for us today, as well intentioned as we may be. So here is a suggestion.

Let’s pledge 100% of our income, and ourselves, to God.

But then, let’s make an honest inventory of what we need to survive – and even thrive – as a child of God. The Lord will understand this, as all the things we need come from God to begin with. We might want to keep that roof over our heads, so we will need money for the rent or mortgage payment. In today’s world, most of us will probably need a car to get to work and church and practically anywhere. So better put aside something for the car payment and gas and occasional repairs.

Then there is the matter of eating. Since we no longer live in an agrarian society as did Francis, we will need grocery money to feed ourselves and our family. And of course these days who could dare forget to figure in the high cost of health care and education? But after we have calculated out what we truly need and added in a little more for entertainment because “God loves a cheerful giver,” the rest will go to God and the work of the church. For most of us, this will probably come out somewhere around 10%. For a few, perhaps more.

Why go through this exercise? Why not just give the 10% in the first place and be done with it?

Well, you can certainly do that if you want to. And God bless you for it! But for the rest of us, it can be a worthwhile exercise to inventory our lives at least once a year, remembering that we “all have one Father,” as our lesson from Hebrews tells us. We are all God’s children.

Jesus demonstrates in today’s gospel account that it is to such as “the little children” gathered in his arms “that the kingdom of God belongs.” Little children of course know implicitly that “the kingdom of God” is the only treasure in life worth having – at least until the example of grown-ups teaches them otherwise. Alas many folks today, children and grown-ups alike, stand little chance of finding the kingdom amid the clutter of their busy lives filled with playthings and possessions too numerous to count. Like Francis, we all need to simplify. We need to remember the kingdom.

So if some Sunday morning you see your clergy and fellow parishioners, like Francis, standing around in their skivvies in front of church, you will know what happened.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus can be found most Sunday mornings in front of Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church in El Centro, California, where he is priest-in-charge. 

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.