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Remembering Refugees on Holy Family Sunday, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2009

December 27, 2009

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

[NOTE TO READER: The word Chuuk is pronounced to rhyme with “look.”]

On the island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, there are many people who have come seeking a better life for their children. One of them is a man we’ll call Andrew.

Andrew is from Chuuk State, a chain of islands surrounding a large lagoon in the Micronesian archipelago. The Federated States of Micronesia are part of the Compact of Free Association that allows Micronesians to travel and work anywhere in the U.S. without a visa.

Andrew came to Guam with his common-law wife and several children, seeking a better life and to escape from the grinding poverty that afflicts much of Micronesia. He has no marketable skills and a minimal education, so he is barely literate in his own language. But he is a handsome, strong man who is willing to work.

Since his arrival on Guam, his family has broken apart, and he now is responsible for two of his five children: a young girl, and boy for whom he is the sole support. As he seeks employment, he subsists with the aid of food stamps and keeps them safe, seeing that the older girl is in school. Meanwhile because of the scarcity of housing and priority given to U.S. citizens, he has moved his family at least five times in the last two years, often leaving belongings behind as they move.

Joseph and Mary spent much of Jesus’ infancy in exile, staying ahead of Herod and his henchmen, who were determined to keep any rival kingship at bay. Their life, like Andrew and his children’s, was one of displacement and fear. Joseph often had to move his family out of harm’s way as Andrew does; Joseph because of political threats, Andrew because of drugs, alcohol abuse, and violence in the places he can afford to live.

This Sunday is often called Holy Family Sunday. In the familiar lectionary the theme was always focused on the Holy Family and their flight into Egypt. The Revised Common Lectionary has shifted the focus a bit, but the theme of light shining in the darkness could well apply to those who seek a safe place to raise their children in a dark, chaotic, and violent world.

There are now more refugees throughout the world than ever before, most of them victims of war and economic displacement for which they are not responsible. All they seek is a secure place with reasonable food, safe drinking water, and a chance to educate their children.

Consider the words in today’s reading from Isaiah:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.

These words were written to express the joy of a nation delivered from exile; but they could well be words of a refugee family finding a safe haven.

Regrettably our political and economic systems have failed in their ability to provide such places for people seeking refuge. Even with efforts by churches and volunteer organizations to resettle refugees, many remain in camps and compounds, some waiting for resettlement for years. Their faith and hope diminishes over time, and the failure of governments to find solutions is surely a great sorrow.

Like many problems, the solution to this dilemma seems often beyond our reach. We care, but what can we do?

Saying we can do nothing is not an option. There are numerous private reputable organizations that address these conditions, among them Episcopal Relief and Development. Choosing to join a mission that is capable of addressing the plight of refugees and homeless people is easily done online with the stroke of a few keys.

One couple that lived on Guam has partnered with the Episcopal Church in Micronesia to assure that Andrew and his children have the basic necessities. Others have adopted a child, a family, made sure a family has a goat or cow through organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development. There are opportunities for everyone and a wide range of gifts to choose from that can make a difference.

Today’s gospel reading begins with the theme of Jesus as the Word that was before anything was. For John, Jesus is the one true light coming into the world, “the true light that enlightens everyone.”

In our baptismal relationship with Jesus, we begin to see what the darkness often hides: the needs of the poor, the oppressed, and refugees. To turn away from them is to say no to the light. Then we become dwellers in the darkness as well.

As we remember the Holy Family this Sunday, remember also that they represent to us all political and economic refugees. The response to the gospel message requires more than remembering them, it calls us to action – an action of relief and support that ensures that the light shines in the darkness.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer lives with his wife, Jane, in Holiday Island, Ark. He is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Celebrating the Word Becoming Flesh, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2009

December 25, 2009

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Here’s a question for you this Christmas Day: Say there had been no fall from grace in the Garden, and humankind had never sinned. In that case, would God have become man? Would God have become part of our human race? And would we today be celebrating Christ’s birth?

Medieval scholars pondered these questions long and hard.

Many answered with an emphatic no, citing the clear witness of scripture and the creeds. Christ came to bring salvation to humankind, they maintained. He lived among us and taught us, and his death on the cross became the means of our redemption. That was the reason he came to earth – to save sinners. In their view, if we had not sinned, there would have been no need for redemption or salvation and so no need for the Incarnation – no need for Christmas. Humankind would have remained at peace in the Garden – in a state of bliss as some writers might call it – and the person of Jesus Christ would simply not have been. And we would never have been the wiser.

Other scholars however were deeply troubled by this train of thought, which appeared to make the Incarnation contingent – that is, dependant – upon evil itself and the sinfulness of humankind. Yet how could that be? After all, in Christ, God and creation had come together as one, and God was united with humankind forever. God’s love for us, these scholars argued, was so deep and profound that the world itself would be unthinkable – un-creatable, to coin a word – without the Incarnate Christ at its center. Christ, the God-Man, was no afterthought to sin, and Jesus Christ was far more than just a cosmic Mr. Fix-It. No, they concluded, God would have become human no matter what.

There can of course be no absolute answers to the hypothetical questions posed ages ago by these scholars. Perhaps both schools of thought have a point. Christ certainly came to save sinners. But humankind did not have to sin in order to experience God’s love. For us as Christians today, it can be reassuring to imagine God in Christ at work in our lives and in our world from the very beginning of creation regardless of our human and sinful nature.

The Gospel of John seems to reaffirm this basic truth of God’s creative love.

In terms that would have been familiar to ancient Gentile philosophers, the Evangelist tells us today, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

This “Word” of which John is speaking is the essentially creative principle of life – something much more than a one-syllable lexeme or unit of language. The “Word” explains God’s way of making things happen. It is the assurance of God’s intimate and vital involvement in the world and ultimately in human affairs as well. And this divine “Word,” or creative force, is none other than Christ our Lord, born in Bethlehem centuries ago. In Christ, “all things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being.”

In other words, God in Christ was not content to remain somewhere beyond the stars and galaxies – distant and aloof from that which had been fashioned and brought to life in creation. In Christ’s birth, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” And that is what we celebrate this Christmas. The birth of Christ into our world is in a very real sense the birth of the universe itself: the Big Bang in the manger.

“Word” and creative principle and creation may well seem like so many philosophical and theological terms and abstractions. But there is nothing abstract about the birth of a child. It is the most real thing there is. Ask any mother. Every parent who has been up all night with a child has experienced first hand the reality of life and creation in all its godly resilience and human vulnerability.

Everything we know and even everything we cannot know has been brought into being through the small helpless Christ Child born this day into time and history. The fretful cry of this infant has become the Word proclaimed in our gospel message across the ages and throughout the world. In Christ, the world is not just redeemed and saved from sin. In Christ, the world has come to be in the first place. And in him, it continues to be made new each and every day.

Merry Christmas!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim minister of “The Episcopal Church in Almaden” in San Jose, California.

Light is Born, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2009

December 24, 2009

Psalm 89:1-29; Isaiah 59:15b-21; Philippians 2:5-11

The stars in Africa shine brightly. Like when you were a child, and there was far less light pollution than there is now. The dark of a night without moon would ignite the stars as bright sparks. The stars in Africa are those sparks.

If you look patiently, you can see the Milky Way, as a swath of faint cloud, flowing as a stream through space. The lights of the sky, the universe itself, extend forever, as an infinity pool, where horizon and sky are as one. A magical place where the temporal kisses the spatial, and there is no longer a distinction between time and space.

It is perhaps there that you will find God; it is perhaps there that you will find eternity.

Imagine yourself as a hobo traveling through space. You speed past the star Vega, and the constellation Hercules. You spiral outward through the Orion Arm of the Milky Way into its fingers, past nebulae, and into the space of galaxies.

You race infinitely faster than light toward the edge, but now the edge is obscured, only black extending to black. Galaxies distant, planets are now unimaginably behind you. Through this darkest night, even of your own soul, this darkest night, even of the soul of humanity, an even darker space, looms unimaginably in your path, a black hole, darker than the black space that surrounds it.

You can’t actually see a black hole. You perceive it. You sense it, by the absence of matter, by the absence of light and time. And as you approach it, the black hole sucks you into itself, its gravity bearing on you as chaos; you are spiraling downward into its center.

The hole swallows you eternally, as into the abyss. The violence of the black hole is unimaginable; you are alone, and there is no hope.

But light is born.

Light is always born where there is no hope, in black holes. Light as pinprick appears, a star, bare and stark against the black. You reach to apprehend the star, but inexplicably, the light from the star apprehends you!

The light captures you, and as if by magic, and you are no longer subsumed by black hole in distant space, but by some strange Einstein phenomenon, by some wrinkle in time, you find yourself here, in this world – newly alive, freshly born. Created, or is it re-created? Oxygen fills your lungs, and you cry as a newborn. You are a person drowned, but inexplicably alive!

Do you see? The Star? The distance between the farthest star and your heart is hair’s breadth, and eternity is there, in that slightest distance, both across the universe, and within your soul – for eternity is not as you had imagined.

The star as a pinprick of light into life’s deepest darkness, the edge of your universe. Time and space are of no account, at the edge of your reality, there, at that edge, you will find the Holy.

The Divine, God as Almighty. Inaccessible. Invisible. Absolute.

Even time must account to Elohim, for with this God, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is a day. Even light and dark must account to the Great “I Am,” for with this God, there is no distinction between them; for the night and the day are the same. Even distance and space must account to El Shaddai, for with this God, the edge of the universe is at the tips of your fingers.

The prophet, Isaiah, acknowledged the plight, ours and that of the human race: the people walk in darkness, and elsewhere, deep darkness enshrouds the people. A black hole without hope.

We thought we could save ourselves. They called the beginning of the twentieth century, the New Century. Optimism abounded. We found ourselves at peace, on the brink of scientific breakthroughs; there was nothing we couldn’t do. We could fly to the sky, build skyscrapers, peer into galaxies.

We awoke from that dream to the reality of two world wars, massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda, AIDS and malaria pandemics, and macabre catastrophes. It became apparent that we cannot save ourselves as we had imagined. Even now, prophets warn of a global environmental catastrophe.

Although our education and scientific knowledge can help, we are still in need of more. We are in desperate need, for the dark night is black. We are hurtling through space past galaxies and nebulae, at warp speeds, toward black holes and an uncertain end, and we are sore afraid.

We need a Savior.

The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. … And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

You imagine the Christmas star to be about a baby, born one more time, this year, the same as last, but only a baby misses the point. This night shines as day because eternity itself, El Shaddai, the Great “I Am,” the ever gentle Elohim, transcended the barrier dividing time from space, as light and life and hope, to save us from darkness.

For unto us a Child is Born, a Son is given.

Several years ago, the earth traveled through a meteor belt of some sort, and if you cared, you could sit outside at night and watch thousands of meteors etch lines of light across the sky. Imagine sitting in your backyard, 40 degrees at four in the morning, wrapped in a blanket, huddled in absolute wonder as light after light appeared suddenly – here, there, darting to and fro. Imagine the joy of discovering light.

Do you want to know what Christmas is about?

The people who lived in darkness have discovered light.

For tonight, this night, pure love has permitted itself to be pulled into your black hole, spiraling downward, chaotically and critically until it came to rest in a manger, in a stable, among barn animals and hay, on a dark, crisp night, much like tonight, when the stars shone as in Africa.

If you looked up, that night, you could see the Milky Way, as a faint stream floating across the sky.

Christmas is about a God who still condescends to earth, and that means this: Christmas is about the human soul, for the God of pure light chose to become as us, bounded by time and space, even – now get this – to bow down to us, to save us from the death, the darkness, the fear. But more than that: God esteemed your soul as worthy.

God esteemed you as worthy. For you, a light shone in the darkness, which is why the Savior beckons you out of your Christmas stupor, and into a real faith, a true and living faith, a faith in which you touch something – someone – you have never touched before, and you see a light you have never seen before.

And suddenly there appeared the heavenly host, who began praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

Peace to his people on earth.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the rector of Christ Church in Sausalito, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he has also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

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.