Archives for 2009

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.

Independence Day – July 4, 2009

(RCL) Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

The fact that we have the option of two Collects for Independence Day hints at the possible ambiguities associated with this national holiday. Ambiguities that attempt to hold us somewhere between declaring our independence on one hand, and on the other, thanking God, as the Prayer Book says, “for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”

Such ambiguities also reside within our gospel reading. This section of the Sermon on the Mount seems to suggest that Jewish tradition directs love of neighbor and hatred of enemies. While the former is well attested to throughout the Old Testament, Judaism nowhere prescribes hating one’s enemies.

And although just who constitutes a neighbor has been subject to much debate, Jesus throughout the gospels, and New Testament writers like the one in Hebrews, and Paul’s mission to the gentiles, appears to extend the boundaries of the neighborhood to all those who have been created in God’s image. Indeed, as early as the Noah narrative deep in the origins of Genesis, our God is portrayed as the One God who provides for the entire human family, letting the sun shine and the rain fall for both evil people and good.

As surely as virtual distances between countries in the global village continue to shrink, forces like globalization extend the neighborhood to even the furthest and most remote corners of this fragile earth, our island home. Images are streamed to us via satellite and the Internet of catastrophes, triumphs, and discoveries wherever they are to be seen.

This day’s scriptural theme reminds us that we are all of us sojourners on God’s earth, and this is ever more important as we pause to reflect on our nation’s origins, history, and contributions to God’s ever-growing neighborhood.

The book of Exodus tells us to “love the sojourner, therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

A sojourner is one who lives or stays in a place for a time. The Bible understands this to be the most fundamental characteristic of what it means to be human: we are all here just for a time. We are all of us on our way to yet somewhere else. We are all sojourners.

For people of Biblical faith, Abraham and Sarah are the perfect prototype couple signifying a life of sojourn, a journey from home to a homeland, which is ultimately the common denominator of who we are: people on our way. They stepped away from the friendly confines of the familiar and into the new world of God’s dream for them. In the cosmic sense, we come from God and return to God, with this brief sojourn on earth as a kind of midpoint in what we often refer to as eternal life.

Jesus calls us to be perfect, which in Greek means something like “whole,” “undivided,” or “complete.” In one sense, the perfection Jesus calls for is a call to treat other people in the same way God treats people – all people – in the divine realm. Jesus calls us to live in a new world of God’s eternal reign, and Jesus in all that he says and does proclaims this new world to be already operative.

Again, as Hebrews lays it out, persons and communities of persons achieve identity, in part, by imitating exemplars. Abraham and Sarah are such exemplars, setting out from home to they know not where, allowing God to lead and direct them to a new world, a new home, a new life where even a craggy old man, “and him as good as dead,” and a woman, “even when she was past the age,” could become the parents of a nation of God’s people more numerous than the stars of the heavens and grains of sand on the seashore.

As history would have it, this nation of Abraham and Sarah became the quintessential sojourning community, now distributed throughout all the earth. And by adoption, we gentiles were added to that nation through the mystery of the cross and resurrection, a mystery that means to remind us that we too are sojourners called to care for others as God so graciously and generously cares for us.

It takes little reflection on these core stories of our faith to find the stirrings that brought and continues to bring sojourners to this land we call America. A land founded, in part, by religious and entrepreneurial refugees from an old world seeking a new world. A land that, as it found its identity, became a beacon of freedom and liberty for people the world over.

But the liberation of our forefathers came at a price for those already living in the neighborhood, and for those we brought by brute force to work the land that gleams from sea to shining sea. The land has itself been brutalized and gleams a little less each year we are here. It does not appear that we have been completely faithful to live out of whatever it might mean to become perfect as God is perfect.

So it is we gather to reflect and pray on this, our Independence Day. We pray either to “have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace,” as it says in one of the Collects for today, or to have “a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will,” as it says in the alternate Collect.

That is, we gather to renew our commitment to become a people like Abraham and Sarah, a people like Israel, a people like Jesus, who remember who we are and whose we are: we are God’s sojourner people. And like our lifetime here, we have now only a brief time for this sojourn and this reflection. We have only a brief time to become perfect as God is perfect in caring for others – all others who sojourn with us – and for the earth as God’s creation.

If we take this time to reflect on how we as a nation might use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will, we will come to know the kind of faithfulness and hope that gave Abraham and Sarah – and all those who came and still come to the shores of North America seeking a more true vision of God’s purpose – the courage to leave the realm of the familiar as we continue to step out and into the New World God has already begun in Christ. With Christ, in Christ, and to Christ be all honor and glory, now and forever.

 

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

Death confronts us on this night, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2009

April 10, 2009

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

The readings for this sad day and night should stand alone, without the need of a sermon. So it is with trepidation that one approaches this sacred time, aware that the sermon writer cannot add to the tragic story, only make a feeble effort at an interpretation that may sound more personal than universal.

Written in stark prose, the gospel story tears at the heart. Writing in incomparable, grave poetry, Isaiah and the psalmist inspire, terrify, even confuse. How can a Christian read the Second Isaiah passage and the opening words of the Psalm of Dereliction without making the connection with John’s telling of the last hours of the beloved Jesus? It is impossible to separate the two; no wonder the early church saw the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah as the prophetic precursor of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the images of Isaiah find flesh in the hours of the Passion.

Listen again to the words of the prophet: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.”

The gospel writer speaks of a baffled Pilate who goes in and out of his headquarters in confusion over this prisoner. Pilate asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.

The psalmist writes:

“All who see me laugh me to scorn;
“They curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the LORD, let him deliver him.”

The gospel writer recalls:

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.”

After the night-long mock trial, the dragging of the innocent Jesus from Annas to Caiphas to Pilate, the story reaches its climax. Here the writing is at its simplest, allowing us to imagine the horror, to enter into the suffering without any commentary: “So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him.”

Death confronts us on this night. The death of One who is well loved. The death of One who is condemned unjustly. The death of One who is young and who dies horribly. How many of us have faced such pain? How many parents the world over can identify with the sorrow of his mother because they too have lost a child? How many mothers and fathers have seen a son or daughter destroyed because of war? And how many of us have lost beloved friends? On this night let us confront the reality of death and let us think of all those who are suffering because of the death of a loved one, because of the death of an innocent. This night we remember, we pay attention, we grieve.

God gave us the capacity to grieve. We are allowed to shed tears and to cry out in supplication. Listen to the testimony of the epistle to the Hebrews writer: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

It doesn’t say that he was saved from death; but it does reassure us that he was heard. For those of us who grieve over the world’s suffering, this teaches us not to expect miracles but to be reassured that we have a God who hears our cry and understands our pain.

This, after all, is the Christian message of the Cross – that God entered our human experience fully, even unto death. A God who hears us is a God who shares in our suffering. Once more the epistle to the Hebrews testifies: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Isaiah had written: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”

We are his future. How well have we continued his ministry? On this night of remembered death, let us also remember to grieve and to cry out to a God who hears us.

 

Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003) and other books of Biblical storytelling.

Peter got it right, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2009

April 9, 2009

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Peter got it wrong. We shouldn’t be surprised in the least. The gospels have taught us to expect Peter to be the eager disciple who energetically jumps to the wrong answer and is ready to act when listening and learning is called for.

Peter sees Jesus get up from the table, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. Then he watches as Jesus pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. You can almost hear the wheels turning in Peter’s mind as Jesus wipes the wet feet with the towel that was tied around him. Peter is waiting until it is his turn. He lets the other disciples take part, but he will never let the master be his servant.

Then as it is his turn, Peter asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Impetuous Peter doesn’t want to wait. He understands perfectly well that Jesus is serving his disciples in the humblest of ways and he isn’t going to play along. Disciples wash their teacher’s feet, not the other way around. Peter says flatly, “You will never wash my feet.”

Then in language that has long reminded the church of baptism, Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” This changes everything for Peter. If foot washing is a sign of being part of Jesus, then he wants to be drenched – soaked from head to foot.

Picking up on the baptismal line of teaching, Jesus seems to push it further in saying, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” In this same way, one who has been baptized needs only repent of his or her sins to be made clean again. One doesn’t have to be baptized a second time.

But the connection to baptism was not Jesus’ main purpose that evening. It was the night before he was to die. The disciples did not know this yet. But Jesus is using his last evening to get across his most important lessons one more time. In case they missed the significance of his washing their feet, Jesus points out that he has done this to give them an example to follow, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

This is where we expect Peter to strip off his outer robe and start working his way around the gathering washing up the other disciples. But this time, he seems to understand that something more is going on here than a lesson about washing feet. It is an example Jesus is giving. An example of service rather than a command to spend one’s days cleaning road grime off feet.

It might not have been easy to get across, but Jesus clearly connected with this message about servant leadership. Peter and the other disciples might have left the table still wondering about when and where they were to wash each other’s feet. But everything would change in a few hours. The next night they would be gathered in mourning at the death of their rabbi. Much later, sometime after the shock of Good Friday and the joy of Easter, this foot washing lesson sank in. We know the point got through because with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples really came to understand their call to ministry and were empowered to act on it.

Later, when remembering that night before he died, Peter and the others would have seen foot washing from the far side of the cross and the empty tomb. Having seen how complete was their teacher’s love and commitment, those words of Jesus, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” must have sounded so different. Then even Peter knew that the life of service to which his Rabbi called him would involve much more than washing the feet of those he might have considered beneath him. After washing their feet, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Jesus’ example was much more life changing than the humble act of washing feet. Jesus had been obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He had loved as God loves, and in the process, so upset the status quo that various groups who couldn’t agree about anything agreed that Jesus must die. Jesus was restoring outcasts to community. Jesus was breaking down the dividing walls between those who were “in” and those who were “out.”

Those in control, Jews and Romans alike, knew they had to stop this new movement before it got out of hand. In this, those who opposed Jesus were no different from those in power in all times and places, working to keep their influence and authority. Yet Jesus would not give up on his revolutionary love, even when the price of that love was torture and death.

The disciples did come to understand Jesus’ actions fully. Seeing the foot washing anew in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they came to understand that the only real power and authority belongs to God. We mortals who spend our lives trying to build up that sense of control for ourselves chase an illusion. And here all the paradoxes Jesus had been teaching could be heard anew: the last shall be first; those who love their life lose it; and the master comes among us as a servant. These paradoxes spoke to the deeper truth in Jesus’ life and ministry.

Jesus did not call his followers to lead in the same way that others led, by lording over them. He called those who would come after him to lead through their service to others. Jesus called those who would follow him to love as he had loved, with more concern for the other person than for ones’ self.

Simon Peter would come to live fully into Jesus’ example of loving others. Peter was part of that first band of disciples who turned the world upside down with a revolutionary way of loving. The disciples followed Jesus in working from the bottom up to help the world see outcasts and victims not as those cursed by God, but those in need of God’s love and healing and redemption. They came to serve others, even the gentiles, who at first seemed well outside the bounds of their mission.

What is most amazing is that the early church never seemed to take up foot washing as a sacrament alongside baptism and communion. Yes, the act of washing feet was preserved, but never in quite the same way. To this day, some groups practice foot washing, others do not. But all Christians hold on to the essential truth that in serving others in need, we are living in to Jesus’ command to love one another as he loves us.

Tradition tells us that Simon Peter became a scapegoat himself. The early historian Eusebius tells us that Peter was put to death by the Roman Emperor Nero. It seems that following the burning of Rome, someone had to take the blame, and why not that new sect who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods?

Peter went to his death boldly, not giving up on the love we are to have for others that Jesus taught that night before he died in the humble act of washing feet. In response to that self-giving love of Jesus, Peter gave up his own life willingly. Peter served others by giving the example of faithfulness unto death.

Peter got it right.

 

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

To become more merciful, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2009

February 25, 2009

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In the epistle we just heard, St. Paul beseeches us to be reconciled to God. And his way of being reconciled may surprise you. Paul does not suggest a confession, or propose any self-examination, or lay out a lengthy program or exercise. He tells us that we should simply accept the grace of God when the time is right, and, behold, now is that acceptable time.

This is not a message many of us are ready to hear. Most of us were taught that the lengthy period of Lent was one of penitence and fasting, a time provided for those who were separated from the church by their sins, so they could be reconciled by acts of penitence and forgiveness. In fact, we will hear words very similar to those following this. That is, of course, one meaning of our Lenten season.

For most of us, Lent is the time of sometimes painful self-examination, during which we scrutinize our habits, our spiritual practice, and our very lives – hoping to make ourselves better, trying to make ourselves worthy of the love of God.

We “ramp up” our prayer, fasting, and self-denial in order to remove worldly distractions from our lives. And we take on Bible study, classes, and service projects in order to add meaning and depth to our existence.

For some children, Lent means no candy. Or a coin in the box whenever they say a bad word. For adults, it may be consuming less meat or alcohol, or attending that Lenten program at the church.

However we go about it, the goal is pretty much the same: Lent makes us ready for Easter. Quite simply put, we are better able to appreciate Resurrection joys come Easter Day by enduring these Lenten disciplines now.

Except, just a moment. St. Paul says we need to be reconciled to God – now, today.

Not after enduring a forty-day fast. Not after lengthy Bible study. Not even after we pray, but now, here, today: Be reconciled to God.

And the blessed apostle not only invites us to be reconciled to God, he actually beseeches us. That is, he pleads, implores, presses, begs, and demands. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. … Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.”

For many of us, this could mean a whole new kind of Lenten discipline. Instead of putting our hand into the refiner’s fire, we would be dancing in flames of love’s delight. Instead of seeking to squelch the voice of sin within us, we would be cultivating the sounds of joy. Instead of wallowing in our guilt, we would be reveling in our gratitude.

For not only did God create us, and everything there is; not only is all of creation wonderfully good; and not only are we offered the grace of God; but we are also offered that again, and again, and again.

We are offered God’s love in times of hardship, affliction, and tumult; in times of hunger, calamity, and sickness; and in times of peace, surplus, and prosperity.

We are offered God’s love both in times of distress and in times of accomplishment; in times of triumph and in times of failure; in times of righteousness and in times of sin.

Yes, that’s right: even when we sin. When we do things we know are wrong; when we hurt ourselves or others; when we lie, cheat and steal: that is when God loves us most.

Because when we sin, we need God even more. We need courage to turn away from darkness and to face the light. We need daring to turn away from the world’s false comforts and to accept the enduring grace of God. And we need faith to turn away from death, and face the new life that is freely given to all of us.

To paraphrase the blessed Apostle, God has put no obstacle in anyone’s way. God finds no fault in anyone’s ministry. And so, as servants of God, we are called to commend ourselves in every way. We are called to seek those qualities St. Paul writes about: purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.

Some of these are character traits we can cultivate in ourselves. We can commit ourselves anew to promote forbearance through patience, to emulate purity through simplicity, to encourage knowledge through study, to foster kindness through gentleness, and to nurture truthful speech.

The rest are not things that are up to us, really. They are not results of our labors, or products of our will. The Holy Spirit, genuine love, and the power of God are not up to us. There is nothing we can do to create these, nothing we can do to snuff them out.

But we do have a choice. And that choice is whether to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, whether to let genuine love enter our heart, and whether to open ourselves up to the power of God.

And in this we have an entirely new idea for a Lenten spiritual discipline. Not giving up things, if such a discipline makes us miserable. Not taking on things, if that makes us miserable. But cultivating good qualities and opening ourselves up to the power of God, because only that can make us truly satisfied and content.

So, let’s go through that list of St. Paul’s in detail.

First, forbearance. What can we do to increase our patience, to cultivate self-control, tolerance, and restraint? The list of specific steps will be different for each of us, but the objective is the same: to become more merciful.

Next, purity. Now, we can’t become more pure, we cannot restore innocence – but we can cultivate decency, transparency, and simple cleanliness.

Then there’s knowledge. This may be more like a traditional Lenten discipline than many of the others, for we can increase our knowledge and love of for the divine by meditating on God’s holy Word. We can increase our knowledge of the church through reading. We can devote ourselves to learning more about who were are as Christian people.

After this comes kindness. This Lent, let us all seek to be more compassionate, more gentle, more considerate. It can be our aim to set aside all spite, viciousness, and harsh talk – no matter how people treat us.

Last among the virtues we can work on, is truthful speech. Honesty, candor, and integrity can be elusive. It is sometimes easier to tell a white lie than to maintain fidelity to truth. But if we take a few tentative steps in that direction, we will be better for it.

To become more merciful, more pure, more knowledgeable, more kind, more truthful – these cause us to behave more like God. And how can we do this? How can we emulate perfection, how can we aspire to the goodness that is the divine?

That’s where the second part of this discipline comes in: to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, to let genuine love enter our heart, and to be open to the power of God.

The only way any of this can work, the only means of making this a life-changing season, the only method for making permanent changes from destructive patterns of behavior is to seek divine assistance.

And that is what we are especially called to do in Lent. To acknowledge that we are not doing the best we can, to aspire to do better, and then to seek God’s guidance and God’s help in the lifelong process of becoming all that we can be.

For in each one of us is a spark of divine goodness that compels us to persevere with great endurance through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, and hunger.

We do this because we know at our core we are called to something better. As Christians, we are called to cultivate purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, and truthful speech. And this we do through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the force of genuine love, and by the power of God.

So, this Lent, may we all be reconciled to God; for, behold, now is the acceptable time.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.

Why frightened?, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2009

January 2, 2009

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

When Herod heard about the child who had been born King of the Jews, we read in Matthew that “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Isn’t that odd?

All Jerusalem was frightened with Herod. It’s not like they had our technology that’s capable of getting news from one end of the planet to another. Communication had to have been excruciatingly slow then, compared to ours. How could all of Jerusalem even known the wise men were consulting with Herod at the palace?

That’s probably one of those odd little questions we might ask ourselves as we hear this very familiar passage about Herod whose wickedness astounds us several verses later. We might even remind ourselves that the stories we all know and love about the Christmas event as they’re told in the Synoptic gospels all have variations of time and characters and symbolism. But still, the idea of others in Jerusalem being frightened about the news of the birth of this child is intriguing.

Why frightened – when the birth of the Messiah should have been a cause to rejoice? Why frightened – when the arrival of wise men from afar could have been like the circus coming to town? In those days the idea of three men on their own camels traveling alone from another country would be unimaginable. They’d have traveled with an entourage, armed men as protectors against desert robbers, families perhaps, other animals for food and the portage of tents and other necessities. They may have made quite an entrance into Jerusalem. They got an audience with the king, so they must have had credentials.

Well, we don’t know any of this, and it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point of this passage. Matthew uses this story to establish that Jesus is the Messiah and as a prologue to establishing Jesus’ ministry in the following chapters. He uses this story also to show that Jesus’ ministry is to all God’s people. The wise men would have been gentiles. The shepherds would have been the poor. Jesus would later challenge the religious leaders by saying tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom before them. That alone could cause the leaders to be fearfully angry.

But fear – that’s still intriguing, especially as we hear this wonderful story of Jesus as a baby again. The whole idea of wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, our Christmas card version of a cozy, very clean stable (as if there is such a thing), gold, frankincense, and myrrh gives us such a beautiful picture, a magical picture, that we might be tempted to stay with that picture and not look further to what we might reflect on about ourselves.

So, fear. Who should be afraid? Well, not the faithful, not the remnant of Israel as our reading from Jeremiah tells us. The Old Testament reading talked about redemption and restoration for those who had been scattered. While this isn’t a prophesy about Jesus’ birth, it does remind us that God never forsakes God’s people. Even if they have turned from God and have been scattered, the faithful and those who repent will be led by God’s own hand out of sorrow into joy, out of hardship into comfort. Among the remnant will be the blind, the lame, and those with children – they have no need to fear. The poor, the helpless, the marginalized have no need to fear. Generations later, it’s the same. God takes on human flesh and comes to dwell among God’s people as a child. No fear here.

Awe perhaps, and awe has been used as a synonym for fear. This awe is described so beautifully by John Donne in his poem “Annunciation.” He calls the pregnancy of Mary “immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” That one phrase just explodes with beauty and wonder. To begin that same poem Donne wrote, “Salvation to all that will is nigh.” Here may be what this passage from Matthew could teach us.

“Salvation to all that will …”

Salvation is certainly offered to all, but not all seek God’s truth or accept the free gift of grace. That should be no surprise to us. We see too much evil in the world today, even in this wonderful Christmas season. We see our own governments pandering to the powerful and ignoring the powerless. We see too many in our own church giving lip service to caring for all God’s people, while putting energy into seeking ways to marginalize many and destroy unity.

Children living on the street, family farmers being run out of business by an oppressive economy, humanitarian aid being the first thing cut from a country’s budget, workers losing jobs and often homes while CEOs retire with golden parachutes: these things should give us real cause to fear, just as the arrival of the wise men dropping the truth of God’s incarnation right into Herod’s lap made him fear.

Our fear, however, shouldn’t be a fear of God turning away from us. It should perhaps be the fear that we could be tempted to feel so overwhelmed by all we see in our world today that we might just give up trying to witness to a different way of living as godly people. Fear could make us close our eyes and pretend all is well. Another English poet, T.S. Eliot, in his magnificent poem “The Journey of the Magi” had one of the magi describe this feeling of being overwhelmed by what they returned to after seeing the Christ child:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

If we take seriously all that the Incarnation calls us to, we might also find that we’re no longer at ease in our own “old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” We must ask ourselves, who or what inhabits our old dispensation, our old lives.

Can we see who or what in our lives are an “alien people clutching their gods?” Like that wise man, we should be uneasy with some of what we see around us. Our fear of what we see should – instead of paralyzing us – empower us, propel us forward into doing something. A response to God’s free gift of grace will turn fear into the kind of deep joy we associate with the story of the wise men. That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Eliot’s wise man talked about the journey to Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

The whispering that this journey might be all folly could have been a real source of fear for that wise man. But they kept on, and in the end:

arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again.

Our collect for today offers us a wonderful prayer to help us as we reflect on our fears, but more hopefully on how we might respond to God’s invitation to affect for good the world we live in.

“Oh God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him, who humbled himself to share our humanity.”
What greater thing could we ask? May it be so for us all.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

Holy Janitors, Feast of the Holy Name / New Year’s Day (B) – January 1, 2009

(RCL) Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

The ancient Romans had among their pantheon a god of doorways. His name was Janus. With two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, he was the god of beginnings as well as endings. He gives his name, of course, to this month, “January,” and to “janitors,” the keepers of doorways.

And so, on the threshold of another year, as the vast majority of our fellow citizens are waking up from last night’s revelry and switching on holiday parades and football games, we are holy janitors, gathered here this morning to sanctify this transition – Janus was also the god of transition and change, by the way – and to greet this beginning with prayer and song and fellowship.

Just as the ancient Romans felt the need for a god of beginnings, and gathered to pay him homage when the wheat was sown, or when the harvest began, or when a baby was born, there is, within our human nature, a deep yearning for new beginnings, and a natural hope that this year will be better than the last.

That same yearning, that same hope, was ascribed to Jesus Christ by the early church. Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians, writes very simply: “He is the beginning.”

And, though as far as we know Jesus had only one face, looking forward, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos records the Lord saying again and again, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end.

After Pentecost, in a time of transition, the early Church struggled with its identity and purpose, longing in the face of persecution and skepticism for a new beginning, for the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem that John so vividly describes. The first followers ached for a second chance.

On this Feast of the Holy Name our readings are all about second chances, as we look backward and forward at the same time. In the book of Numbers, God pronounces a blessing on the new priests as they begin their new way of life. God has brought the people out of Egypt, and now God begins trying to build them into the vision of a priestly kingdom that is the culmination of God’s plan. Centuries later, after prophets have risen and kingdoms have fallen, God tries again. Yet another chance, and again, God has a new name – officially given on this holy day: Jesus, Yeshua, the Lord is Salvation.

As a sign that it is indeed a new beginning, that God is crossing a threshold that has not been crossed before, as a sign that things are to be different, the news of the second chance is told first to shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks. Not to kings or sages. Not to the rich and the mighty. And where are the shepherds to find him? Not in Jerusalem. Not in the temple or in a palace, but in Bethlehem of all places, in a barn, wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding box. An old way is ending, and a new one is beginning. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

Christ’s birth, his advent, is a second chance for humanity, and for our relationship with God. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, declares that by it we have received adoption as God’s children. And what is adoption but a second chance? God in Christ has chosen us – adopted us – and given us a new beginning; and even more than a new beginning, a whole new life, a new birth, a new creation in which to live. We are no longer slaves but children of God. And so on this wonderful morning, on the threshold of another year, the news is good: God so loved the world, that in Christ, he gave us another chance, so that we may not perish, but have eternal life.

The tension built into the theology of Advent is its focus on both the first coming and the second coming of Christ. We prepare to celebrate the first even as we wait for the second. And some of us may wonder if we are to give thanks for the second chance that God offered us in Christ while all we can see around us is the need for the third chance?

In our most grounded, centered, and prayerful selves, we know that cries of “How Long, O Lord?” must be tempered by an understanding of the first coming. And the tension of Advent, the pull to give ourselves over to the hope of a new beginning that will fix everything, is balanced by an understanding of the incarnation, and the Church in God’s plan of salvation.

The tension of Advent is resolved in some sense by the knowledge that no matter when the second coming takes place, the first coming has given us the ability to live in the kingdom. That deep desire of every nation, that profound longing that we hear in Isaiah’s oracles, that Mary articulates in her song of praise, that Jesus foresaw – that possibility is present. It’s here. Jesus, as Paul says, is the Beginning.

In other words, we are living in an in-between time. We are living between the first coming and the second coming. And somehow, though we have been given everything we need to build the kingdom of God, we haven’t built it yet, at least not to the specifications of Jesus’ blueprint.

And so, as we step boldly once again across the threshold into a new year, perhaps our greatest hope should be that in this in-between time, God is not finished with us. That God is still at work in our lives and in creation.

On the Feast of the Holy Name, we might remind ourselves that our society has given God a lot of other names: “money,” “success,” “things,” “alcohol,” “drugs,” “sex.” Many people don’t know God’s name at all.

Our work as Christians, what we, in fact, must do, is to help people discover that God can still transform their lives. We are not just following an ethical code set forth by a lovely and kind teacher 2,000 years ago. We are building the kingdom of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, co-creators with God of a transformed reality. We must show the world that God, the great “I am,” the alpha and the omega, is not finished, but is at work, and has the power even now to give us new lives and new hearts.

It won’t be long – just a few months from now – until we gather before the cross, to witness the baby whose coming fills us with such hope, now grown and dying. The power of God, friends, is to draw Easter out of Good Friday.

The power of God is that beginnings follow what seem to be endings.

The meaning of the birth is connected to the meaning of the death and resurrection in this way: the kingdom breaks in where and when it is least expected. And despite any sense of powerlessness or hopelessness or cynicism we might experience, our purpose in this in-between time, this time of transition, is to be agents of the in-breaking. The kingdom comes – it can come and it will come – when we, by our work and witness, manifesting the power of God that we know, bring it to bear.

Our work as Christians is to make the kingdom real where and when it is least likely to appear. Isn’t that what it means to be the Body of Christ?

And so, fellow holy janitors, keepers of this new day, let us pray that God may fill our hearts with joy and hope in believing; save us from our fears and doubts; and give us courage and strength to be instruments of the in-breaking of his promised kingdom.

 

— The Rev. Timothy Crellin is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boston and founder of the B-SAFE program, which serves more than 500 children and teens in Boston every summer, and the St. Stephen’s after-school program, which serves more than 125 young people every afternoon. He lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife and seven-year-old son.