Archives for March 2010

Acting the roles of Palm Sunday in daily life, Palm Sunday (C) – 2010

March 28, 2010

The Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 
The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

There’s nothing more exciting than a spectacular parade. Television spectaculars, like the Oscars are something of a modern equivalent. We watch excitedly as new stars are born and see them surrounded by the press and adoring followers. We love heroes. We love following their lives and marvel when they buy big homes and jet around the world.

It is also true that we get something of a thrill when these modern idols are exposed. We revel in their destruction. Somehow it makes us feel better to know that the person who filled us with awe is just another fallible, flawed human being.

Palm Sunday in the drama of lessons and ritual takes us from adulation to betrayal and desertion. We know that the very crowds who shout “Hooray” will yell “Crucify him.” One of Jesus’ closest followers will betray him. Most of the disciples will desert when things get tough. The religious leaders, convinced that they are protecting Judaism from the upstart prophet will plot with cynical Roman politicians to kill Jesus.

When Jesus begins his journey into the Holy City, he is soon surrounded by excited crowds. They have heard that this prophet heals, feeds, raises from the dead. Perhaps he will solve all their problems. Perhaps he will throw the occupying Romans out and restore the Jewish Kingdom. Is this Man indeed the Chosen One?

Others have pronounced themselves to be the Messiah and have proven to be no such thing. Yet the hopes, aspirations, and demands of the people remain high. Maybe this time God will act. Jesus’ followers were caught up in this excitement. All their fears about Jesus entering Jerusalem, his words about being killed there, are forgotten in the excitement of the reception. They must have felt very important, those disciples, as the crowds cheered. One tortured soul, Judas, perhaps hangs back a bit. We don’t know his dark motives. Was he jealous? Had some truth Jesus said to him hurt him and driven him to revenge?

In a few short days the crowds will decide that there’s nothing in anything Jesus says or does that is good for them. The disciples, or almost all of them, will separate themselves from Jesus and run for cover. Judas will betray his Lord. The religious leaders and politicians will handle the matter with speed, and a man will die.

As the Eucharist ends today, we can almost feel the dark pall of evil. There’s no happy ending in the lessons. The roller coaster surge of the liturgy leaves us down and shaken.

We may well ask ourselves which role we play in this human drama. Do we test God, Jesus, the Spirit in terms of “What is in it for me?” The crowd did. Do we resent the way the Faith accuses us and wish we could silence Jesus, as Judas hoped? Do we run from Jesus and hide behind self-preservation? How ironic it is that the religious leaders and most of the disciples acted from self-interest. The Chief Priests convinced themselves that an unholy murder was justified to safeguard the institution. The disciples perhaps convinced themselves that if the work was to continue, they should protect themselves from arrest and punishment.

Over and over again in the long story of the church, Christian people have acted the roles we encounter today, not just on Palm Sunday, but in the daily life of parishes, dioceses, and the national church.

The question posed by that old African American song, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” points not to St. John and the Marys, but to the rest of us. How often have we deserted our church when we haven’t obtained the things we think we need? How often have we turned on priests or fellow Christians when they have spoken the truth to us? How often have we put the institution before Jesus? How often have we just run away when things got tough? These sins are alive and well and flourish today as they did then.

This isn’t an outdated story. This is life.

For a moment, just a moment, it is good that the lessons today end with death, with no hope, with Jesus alone and dying. For in this Holy Week, which begins today, we have much dying to do, and dying hurts, and dying risks the end of everything. Yet as a community of Christians here today and as individuals, it is, as St Paul tells us, “in dying that we live.”

Let us then offer our selfishness, corporate and individual, in Jesus to God as we walk to the Cross. Then in the silence of Good Friday we wait.

 

— Fr. Tony  is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

What God’s generosity means in our lives, 5 Lent (C) – 2010

March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

As we turn our faces now toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are given this last Sunday in Lent to ponder God’s gift of generosity and what that generosity means in our lives with Him and one another.

We may start by looking at the family of Mary and Martha of Bethany, with their brother Lazarus, as portrayed in today’s reading from John’s gospel. Jesus came to their home and they gave a dinner for him – a fine example of generous hospitality in the context of a small, close-knit Jewish community of the time.

Further on in Chapter Twelve we find that all sorts of people coming to Jerusalem for Passover stop by the house to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and to see Jesus himself. So many people went to visit the Bethany household on this occasion that the Jerusalem authorities who were hunting for Jesus decided to find and arrest Lazarus too, since, we are told, “it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”

The generosity of his friends at Bethany had unintended consequences. More than any other gospel, the Gospel of John is crafted to show how very unwelcome Jesus was among his own Galilean Jewish neighbors, and how he became the focus of suspicion and growing hostility on the part of a small but powerful segment of the Jerusalem leadership. The story today of the dinner at Bethany points us toward the events of Holy Week that will result in Jesus’ crucifixion right in the heart of the annual Passover celebration.

But to return to the dinner itself: In the midst of this meal, Mary of Bethany comes into the dining area with a bottle of expensive oil, the sort that was customarily used to anoint the dead before burial. She pours it lavishly over Jesus’ feet and then dries his feet with her hair. It is a costly gift, a generous gift, one that comes from her head, heart, and soul – quite unasked for, quite unexpected. This is Jesus the Lord of Life, who had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead only weeks before, and Mary treats the Lord of Life as if he were already a dead body.

We do not know how anyone in the house interpreted this extravagant gesture except for Judas. Judas asked the money question: would it not have been better to spend all that money on the poor and needy? Questioning Mary’s generosity in this way was surely valid. Jesus had built much of his reputation on the way he accepted, fed, and healed people who were outside the socio-economic safety zones – men without status in the eyes of the temple and court authorities, widows who were unable to stand on their own two feet, and children who were unable to make choices for themselves.

Jesus’ response to Judas is interesting, therefore. He tells Judas to let Mary be; she had bought the oil for the day of Jesus’ burial. Jesus’ death comes into view on the horizon as he continues, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” The admonition seems gentle, but perhaps there is a note of sharpness and certainly of poignancy.

In the house at Bethany, the poverty of the human Jesus becomes visible. Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing is given to one for whom there was no room at the inn at his birth, for whom there was precious little hospitality given during his lifetime, and for whom, in the end, there will be a borrowed tomb.

The notes of generosity in this gospel reading prompt us to consider our own attitudes toward giving, especially the ways in which we offer ourselves and what used to be called “our substance,” to God.

The God who appears in Isaiah today is the one who gives life to the world, the God of the Exodus, the extraordinary God whom we see across the whole span of scripture. In the words of Walter Brueggemann in his prayer “On Generosity”:

You come giving bread in the wilderness,
You come giving children at the eleventh hour,
You come giving homes to exiles,
You come giving futures to the shut-down,
You come giving Easter joy to the dead.

The world is full of earthquakes and disasters. Week in and week out our parishes and the charitable agencies around us are bombarded with the real needs of hurting, starving, wounded people in famine and war, flood and hurricane. The poor we have always with us, always with claims on our compassion and generosity.

We do not always make time or use our imaginations for risky, generous offerings, like Mary who poured out an abundance of oil on Jesus’ feet. These are the tokens of a deep-seated generosity in our souls that mirror and honor the generosity of God our Creator, who gives us life by bringing us out of error into truth, our of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

 

— The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York.

The perplexing Prodigal Son, 4 Lent (C) – 2010

March 14, 2010

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

[NOTE TO READER: In paragraph 19, the word “Laetare” is pronounced: lay-TAR-ray.]

Today’s parable is the longest in the Bible – and the most quoted. The parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is popularly known, has preoccupied and perplexed the thoughts and works of countless religious and secular scholars, writers, and even artists.

Why? It doesn’t seem so complex. The meaning doesn’t seem so obscure on the face of it. The domestic scene it describes may even be familiar to some of us: the return to the fold of a beloved family member who has wandered off for a while. His family greets him with conflicting emotions. Some feel joy at his return; some feel relief that he is safe; some feel jealousy that all seems forgiven and even forgotten; some harshly judge his profligate ways; some feel it is unfair that they are not celebrated for staying and remaining faithful to their family obligations.

But as you can expect, the real message of this parable isn’t quite so simple. It doesn’t lie so obviously on the surface of the narrative.

Taking our cue from Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, we realize that the eldest son’s error was in judging his brother’s return and his father’s reaction of pure joy – no reproaches, no recriminations for the trouble or grief the son’s appearance had caused – “from a human point of view.” Who among us hasn’t and wouldn’t take that same “human point of view” when confronted with a similar situation that seems so obviously unfair?

Somehow the Prodigal Son’s return to his father’s favor seems just too easy: essentially, “Hi, Dad. I’m Home!” And all is forgiven. Let’s have a party!

It is hard for us to accept that the consequences for behaving badly could be, should be, so apparently light. Even though we understand that the return to the faithful flock of any one strayed sheep, even just one formerly lost soul, is always the occasion for joy in the family of God. Even though we understand that always – but especially during Lent – the call to “repent and return” is one that we all should heed in small ways, as well as in life-changing ways. Even though we take to heart the psalmist’s reminder that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!”

We understand, we have been taught and believe abstractly, that a forgiving nature is one which we are called to cultivate in a life of faith and to demonstrate in our relationships with others. But somehow we can’t help but feel that the situation described in this parable smacks of what we might call “cheap grace.” It conflicts with our definitely all-too-human notion that we need to earn good fortune, and certainly in some measure deserve God’s favor, and that “no pain, no gain” is the proper yardstick for measuring out someone’s portion of forgiveness.

Understanding God’s justice is never easy. Basically, the difficulty lies in the fact that we confuse our sense of justice with God’s capacity for love. In human and secular understanding, the two have become entangled – and muddled. Justice has to do with fairness; love has to do with selflessness. Justice is balanced; love is extravagant. Justice almost always involves some measure of retribution; love calls us to reconciliation.

The deeper truth of the story of the Prodigal Son lies in coming to grips with the breadth and depth of God’s love. In the words of the hymn, it requires us to contemplate the “wideness of God’s mercy,” to imagine it from outside and beyond the narrow confines of the human perspective.

The breadth of God’s embrace is unknowable to us. The depth of God’s love is incomprehensible – and certainly immeasurable from a human point of view. It is not for us to decide who falls within God’s grace – nor who should be excluded from his mercy.

During this time of Lent, when we are meant to prepare ourselves spiritually for reliving the story of Jesus’ passion, his death and resurrection, we need to keep Paul’s words clearly in focus – that through Jesus’ one astounding act of self-sacrificing love, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” And not just reconciling our one self-selected flock of faithful believers gathered in any one place at any one time, but the whole world, once for all time.

In Christ, in his death and resurrection, God was reconciling the world to himself. There was no universal accounting of trespasses, no meting out of more salvation to some than to others. There was no greater redemption for one group than for another, no fuller restoration of a chosen few over the vast hordes of sinners. God was reconciling the whole world to himself. That isn’t justice; that is unfathomable divine mercy and unbounded holy love.

Paul tells us that we have been entrusted with spreading the message of this kind of absolute reconciliation – the message of reconciliation that lies at the heart of the story of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

And the kind of reconciliation that we are called to preach is the kind of reconciliation that does not weigh our merits, but simply pardons our offenses, as the collect says.

It’s the kind of reconciliation that holds nothing back, harbors no recriminations, nurtures no resentments.

The kind of reconciliation that demands nothing in return – nothing except utter surrender to God’s mercy.

The kind of reconciliation that starts with a heartfelt confession like the one the Prodigal Son makes to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy of your favor.”

We are called to preach the kind of reconciliation that comes from unconditional forgiveness, like the father gave in his immediate welcoming and loving embrace of his errant son: “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, or as it has been more popularly called “Rejoice Sunday,” referring to the opening words of the Introit for this day: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem.”

On this one day amid the other thirty-nine of this penitential season, the clergy may shed somber purple vestments for glorious rose ones.

On this Sunday we are permitted to dispense with whatever Lenten regimen of fasting we may have imposed upon ourselves and indulge – moderately – without guilt.

And on this Sunday we are told to make a truly joyful noise unto the Lord with hymns and organ, and even array our altars with gloriously colored flowers – a celebration that immediately calls to mind our gospel story and the father’s celebration at his youngest son’s return.

On this Sunday, we are meant to cast our eyes forward to the end of this season of penitence. On this Sunday we are called to anticipate the joy of Christ’s resurrection, to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption given long ago to the Israelites, God’s chosen people:

  • a promise renewed time and again down through the millennia each time God’s people have returned from their disobedient and faithless ways
  • a promise given to Moses when he led the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea
  • a promise renewed with Joshua at Gilgal, redeeming all Israel from their forty years of wandering faithlessness in the wilderness
  • a promise renewed again with David, forgiving him for his sins against Uriah and God and making him king of all Israel
  • a promise renewed by bringing the dispersed people of Israel out of exile in Babylon and restoring God’s people to the promised land

Again and again, scripture recounts one story after another of redemption, restoration, and renewal of God’s people – individuals, tribes, and nations of God’s people – until finally, the promise is fulfilled in Christ once for all time for all who would believe.

Jesus Christ died once for all time and once for all humankind.

On this Sunday of rejoicing, let us remember the words of our psalmist this morning: “Mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.”

 

— The Rev. Susan McCone is the director of Mission Funding for the Episcopal Church. A priest of the Diocese of Connecticut, she also serves as priest-in-charge of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Washington, Connecticut. Susan is an M.Div. graduate of the Yale Divinity School and the Episcopal seminary, the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

When God becomes flesh, life gets very interesting, 3 Lent (C) – 2010

March 7, 2010

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

When the God who declares from a burning bush, “I AM who I AM. … Tell them I AM sent you!” becomes flesh and dwells among us, life gets very interesting. Pilate slaughters a group of Galileans. A tower in Siloam kills eighteen others. Do you think they are worse sinners than anyone else, asks The Word made Flesh?

We might think the blame game is some kind of ancient mindset, but we may as well admit that we all get into it at one time or another.

Jesus, as I AM made flesh, can hardly believe people think this way. After all, didn’t God make it perfectly clear that the sun shines and the rain comes down on the good and the bad? As Timothy Shapiro explains in his book New Proclamation, Jesus is, in effect, announcing, “The sin is found in those who think the sin is found in those who have misfortune fall on them.”

So Jesus says to repent of this kind of thinking; he says to turn away from the blame game altogether, and show some mercy – the kind of mercy that God, a.k.a. “I AM,” likes to show for everyone, everywhere. See for yourself in the Book of Jonah.

To repent means to turn around or turn back. The idea is that we are walking with God, or walking with Jesus, and then suddenly we find ourselves distracted by, say, the 3,000 commercial messages that bombard us each day. Or by some personal crisis. Or by the day-to-day routine of dropping kids off, picking them up, driving them somewhere else, and then picking them up again. We find ourselves walking in circles at best, rather than walking with or at least toward God.

To repent means to come to our right mind about the way in which we are walking, and to turn, or re-turn, to walking in the Way with Jesus, the Great I AM in the flesh. Or we will get crushed by the weight of our sin. Notice, by the way, it is always our choice – we can walk with God or be crushed by the weight of our sin. Repentance seems, all in all, a very good idea for all of us.

Included in all that is the grace God shows for all people, at all times, everywhere – especially when they choose to repent. Again, just go back and read the Book of Jonah one more time!

Then comes the parable in today’s gospel reading – an enigmatic little agricultural metaphor just dripping with judgment and grace. It seems there is a joke in the Greek. The word for “manure” is, in fact, not so refined; it is street slang, or what we in some more innocent era called a “swear word.” So think of the harshest possible word for manure, and then imagine the gardener – or tenant farmer – saying it to the wealthy absentee landowner, followed by “and if in a year you are still not happy, YOU cut it down!” There would be serious snickering among the tenant farmers and servants in the crowd who only dreamed of ever talking back at their superiors in such a fashion.

And what the story means to convey in part is that the absentee owner does not get his hands dirty, knows little of how to tend fig trees, and is trying to tell someone who knows the tree, the soil, and the kind of care necessary how to do his job.

And it is the gardener who introduces the notion of grace. “Sir, let it alone,” he says, in essence. “Don’t blame the tree, don’t order me to cut it down – give it another chance. Give it a moment of Amazing Grace. Give it a chance, and it will bear fruit in its own time.”

When we finish laughing, do we get that we are the landowner blaming the tree for its lack of fruitfulness? And that we are also the tree, standing in need of God’s Amazing Grace?

Every day when we wake up and get out of bed, God is bestowing upon us a great deal of Amazing Grace, whether we deserve it or not. Another way to put this is that, through what we do or don’t do, we are all complicit in contributing to the misery of others and the devastation of the very planet God created and calls “good” – and if you remember in the first chapter of Genesis, He calls it not just “good,” but “very good.”

Lent is a season that means to remind us that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But it is God’s primary attribute to have mercy upon us as long as we keep on repenting of our various sins – most especially the sin of playing the blame game.

The Good News is that God does not want to blame us; God wants to save us. And so God came to live among us as one of us to teach us about sin, repentance, and grace. So it is that the Great I AM became flesh and dwells among us to this day!

Here is a take on the subject from William Countryman’s little book, The Good News of Jesus:

The new life of the good news is like this: There was a woman who lived in Sonoma County, near Sebastapol. She had no relatives there – not even any close neighbors. The nearest was an elderly man who lived a half-mile away. Behind her house she had a garden, and at the foot of the garden, two apple trees that were her pride and joy. Once she was called away to care for her only living relative, who was sick and lived very far away. She gave a key to the elderly man, who promised to look in on her house every week or so; but he was too infirm to care for her garden. She thought she would be away a few months, but she was gone two years. From far away, she heard about drought and storms. When at last the woman came home, she found her house had lost some shingles, and there was a little water damage inside. Then she went through the house and out into the garden. It was overgrown with tall grass and nettles. At the foot of the garden were her two apple trees. They were in bloom – at the height of their bloom, when apple trees look like white clouds with a touch of pink and the petals are just beginning to fall and carpet the ground with white as well. She stood awhile and drank it all in, and her heart filled with delight and thanks. Then she unlocked the tool shed, took out her pruners and, wading through the weeds, went down to the apple trees and began cutting out the dead wood. And she thought of the day when she would have apples for herself and her neighbor.

 

— 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.