Archives for May 2010

Wisdom, understanding, and mystery, Trinity Sunday (C) – 2010

[RCL] Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8 or Canticle 2 or 13; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out

 

That passage from today’s reading in Proverbs invites us to consider wisdom, understanding, and mystery.

In 1968, the crew of the Apollo 8 circled the moon time and again, scanning its surface for possible future landing sites. Needing to gather their bearings and recalibrate, they lifted their view (and their camera) to catch what has become an iconic image: Earthrise. A crystal blue drop, hovering in the blackness of space, it peaks over the horizon of a desolate and grey lunar landscape, its leading edge flooded in light, glinting off the surface of the water, the lower half disappearing, seemingly melting away into the blackness that surrounds it. With the snap of a shutter, our image of the world would never be the same.

Groundbreaking images of our world: like this one they come from time to time, seeming to shake the very earth on which we stand, to move it significantly. The soil and streets beneath our feet, the societies, habits and bodies in which we live become foreign and unfamiliar. The world no longer is what it once was. Or at least what we believed it to be.

Bill McKibben recently released a book called Eaarth, with an extra “a.” McKibben is the same author who wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience on climate change. In that early work, published in 1989, he warned us that in order to save the world we inhabited we must act, and act swiftly, to curb our consumption of fossil fuels.

In his latest book, McKibben relays a different message: It is too late.

It is too late to save the planet. Scientists have agreed that 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the maximum level that will sustain the conditions that created the world we now inhabit. For the 10,000 years of human history, the atmosphere has maintained nearly constant levels around 275. We have been raising that number by just around 2 points every year since the industrial revolution began, putting us now at right about 390. At current levels, the coral reefs become unsustainable due to the rising acidity of the oceans. At current levels, oysters have trouble forming their shells. At current levels, the arid subtropics push outward, spreading wildfire and drought while the expanded tropics bring more insect-borne illness. Two years ago the northwest and northeast passages opened for the first time in human history, and in a decade or two, a summertime spacecraft will see only open water at the north pole.

It is too late to save the world we knew or thought we knew.

McKibben continues to say that having glimpsed the world as it truly is, it is not only foolish but damning to pretend we live on the world we once knew, no matter how safe and comfortable that fiction may be. He writes:

“We need now to understand the world we’ve created, and consider – urgently – how to live in it. … Which doesn’t mean that the change we must make – or the world on the other side – will be without its comforts or beauties. Reality always comes with beauty, sometimes more than fantasy. … But hope has to be real. It can’t be hope that scientists will turn out to be wrong, or that President Barack Obama can somehow fix everything. Obama can help – but precisely to the degree he’s willing to embrace reality, to understand that we live on the world we live on, not the one we might wish for. Maturity is not the opposite of hope; it’s what makes hope possible.”

We call today Trinity Sunday. It is a day that strikes fear into the heart of many a preacher, their pulpits becoming platforms for their particular Trinitarian theology. Endowed with weight they have not asked for, they approach the mystery of the Trinity with fear, trembling, and perhaps a bit of frustration.

We often are encouraged to see mystery as antithetical to knowledge, or wisdom. In fact, the very roots of the words “wisdom” and “mystery” are opposed; the one “to see,” the other, “to close” or “to shut,” as in the lips or the eyes.

And yet, today we are invited to enter the mystery within wisdom, to the possibility that like maturity and hope, there is something cyclical to their relationship, wisdom begetting mystery begetting wisdom.

In today’s reading from Proverbs, Wisdom cries to us, her “cry to all who live.” She claims to underlie the foundation of the earth, bearing witness to the limits of the sea, rejoicing before the Lord, delighting in humankind from their creation and yet unknown to them. Wisdom in herself represents a mystery whose revelation is slow, cyclical, process-driven. Wisdom is not birthed of easy answers, it is uncovered little by little through sight, through searching, through peering into the eternally unfolding world of creation.

A young woman in the Pacific Northwest left the church for several years after having endured the judgment and self-righteousness of a particular congregation. As her children entered pre-school, her husband said to her, “Well, I know very well what it is you don’t want in a church, but tell me, what do you want from a community of faith?”

She responded, “I want help finding the mystery in all things, embracing that mystery, not trying to explain the mystery out of it.”

Our human tendency is toward categorization, toward hyperbole and absolutism, not out of narrowness of thought, but often out of distraction and exhaustion. The ability to embrace mystery is not the rejection of wisdom, but the opening of a space for a slow, unraveling, ever-incomplete revelation, the willingness to sit with the reality of a world more complex in each revelation, more detailed and ever new.

Paul explains that the life of faith is also a slow and laborious process and that hope is born of character, character is born of endurance, and endurance is born of suffering. At each moment the world must be understood in its momentary revelation in order for the greater truth to emerge. Unless we allow ourselves to experience suffering, not shying away, we will not know endurance. Only by giving ourselves over to a self that values endurance will we be of character, and only for those of character does hope endure, allowing us to live with and through suffering. The cycle begins again.

Jesus, likewise, invites us to a life of faith built on slow growth, on timely revelation, saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot hear them now.” Wisdom in God also is revealed according to the concreteness of our experience, its place in time, inviting us to see clearly the age and the faith we inhabit, to witness its limits, knowing that only in that full knowledge does continued and renewed revelation emerge.

The disciples look on in bewilderment. “We cannot hear?” they wonder, examining themselves for their own unreadiness. What is it in us that cannot hear, what in us prevents us from looking at our faith with open eyes, stepping into its mystery, its slow unfolding, patiently examining its details so that when God reveals himself anew we might know the difference?

Mystery presents us with the opportunity to glimpse the world recreated in every moment, the possibility that, like Bill McKibben’s new “Eaarth,” with two “a”s, we live more fully when we give ourselves over to the experience of embracing the world as it reveals itself to us, not as we “know” it to be. In mystery we give ourselves over to the possibility that a world, fragile and interconnected as we now understand our own to be, held in the mystery of climate change and global warming, can be life-giving. It calls us to look, truly look upon that incarnational reality, that sacramental life: this world, this table, invites us into unending wisdom.

This day we are invited to stand in faith, to stand precisely where we are, in the mystery of the Trinity, in the mystery of a God revealed to us in this moment, this age, this life and this faith, a mystery that we explore, unravel and receive together, knowing that in seeing more truly, with each new revelation, we step into greater hope, greater joy, greater love, greater knowledge and communion with the three, the one.

Written by Jason Sierra
Jason Sierra is a member of the Office for Young Adult and Campus Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center. He resides in Seattle, WA, and holds a BA in American Studies from Stanford University.

The Promise of Pentecost, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2010

[RCL] Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17

[NOTE TO READER: In paragraph 22, the Hebrew word ruach is pronounced “ROO-ark.”]

The promise of Pentecost is baptism. “The one coming after me,” the Baptist promised, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

This Pentecostal promise speaks not of some infantile christening, the dribbling of water across the crown, water wiped away with delicate embroidered cloths. Nor does this promise speak of the lighting of a candle with safe flame, or the rubbing of an oily cross on the forehead.

Rather, this Pentecostal promise threatens full immersion. Full immersion, as in inundation, the element of water encases you in its tomb. You could drown, or perhaps burn, for the Holy Spirit entombs you in explosion, and conflagration. Flames of God’s power lap inexhaustibly skyward – with your soul as fuel.

Baptism by fire is soulful, like the first baptism. “As I went down in the river to pray …” The line of pilgrims snaking upward from the shore, grasses blowing at heels. Person after person stepping tentatively into the water, with promise as soap to cleanse.

Hope to change: regeneration by element. But water is dangerous, fire is dangerous, baptism is dangerous, and the Holy Spirit is dangerous – an unshucked atom. But John the wild-Baptist promised this type of Pentecostal baptism.

“The One coming after me will baptize you with Spirit and Fire,” not water on the head, drip by dribble, but fire.

Now “you have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer you who lives, but Christ who lives in you.” You are “Christ’s own forever.”

In February, NASA launched the space shuttle Endeavour, in what was billed as the last nighttime liftoff. Originally, launch STS-130 was scheduled for 4:39, a.m., February 7.

They say a space shuttle launch is dangerous. Not just to the astronauts, but to spectators. Liquid hydrogen, 423 degrees below zero, is combined with liquid oxygen to inaugurate an explosive thrust of 37 million horsepower. The explosion consumes so much fuel that, were it water in a swimming pool, the pool would drain in 25 seconds.

The closest non-NASA spectators must watch from six miles away, across water. Even the raw explosive sound would kill you if you were located much closer than a football field from the launch.

On February 7, Florida was cold: forty-two degrees, and the sky was crystal. The Big Dipper and the North Star were imprinted into the nighttime sky above the launch pad. Spectators lined the shore of the Banana River. They huddled with friends for hours, in blankets to keep warm.

About one hour before the launch, a bank of low-ceiling clouds rolled in, threatening the launch. NASA actually needs to see a shuttle visually to 5,000 feet.

Undaunted by the cloudbank, NASA continued the countdown. The clouds were also tenacious, and at T-minus nine minutes, NASA scrubbed the launch.

It was rescheduled for the same time the next night, but few spectators returned. What were the chances, when the same cloudbank still hung low that second night?

About thirty minutes before launch, the cloud bank slid off to the side, a few stars appeared, and this time, the countdown passed T-minus nine.

Finally, into seconds, and then, 10-9-8-7-6 … At four, the liquid hydrogen explosively combined with the liquid oxygen, the sky lit instantly, and the shuttle, like an old man rising from an armchair, lifted.

Only it was no old man; it was, as someone remarked, “instant sunrise,” for the fireball lit the sky and clouds and horizon. The cloudbank turned orange; the water, too, and the fish in the Banana River, the frogs at water’s edge, alligators and egrets, all paused to catch incredulous breath at the extraordinary sight, and finally, the roar.

The single most beautiful element of launch is the rumbling roar speeding low across water, far slower than the speed of light.

At five seconds per mile, the sound reached the spectators at thirty seconds after liftoff, bathing them at last in extraordinary spirit.

Jesus’ followers heard sound first, before they saw the flame, the sound of spirit traveling faster than light, not slower.

Before now, they had been incarnational believers. Jesus was alive, physically, and they had thrust their fingers into his hands and their fists into his pierced side. They had believed with their bodies. However, the internal radiance of Moses and the indefatigable power of Elijah thus far, had eluded them. The illuminating essence of Divine, Jesus at Transfiguration, was absent. Perhaps essence was their hope, but it was not yet their reality.

Now, today, the prepossessing roar of Spirit as at creation, the same breath of God, ruach expressed across the deep – like oxygen fanning flame – the sound itself baptized these neophyte Christians by Holy Spirit and translation!

Translated life, for once they were lost, but now they are found, once they were dead wood, but now they are the fuel of lapping Spirit, a fire kindled deep inside.

Jesus had written them into his Last Will and Testament: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” The very peace of God as fire in them imploded, changing them forever. Estate settled.

Perhaps you received the Holy Spirit in some civilized ceremony, with droplets of water falling onto your head, and the polite sign of the cross pressed into your forehead. On that day, the church ladies smiled. They nodded to one another, and observed, “How sweet.” Neither they, nor you, realized the power transmitted by liquid drops of hydrogen and oxygen onto your head. An unshucked atom. The very Spirit of God in you is still unshucked.

You are Jesus’ heir, and you don’t even know it.

Perhaps the Pentecostals get it better than we do. They celebrate the Holy Spirit in a ritual of fiery baptism, dancing and shouting and speaking in tongues. They engage the atomic power of God’s Spirit, while we Episcopalians act like the Father has invited us to afternoon tea and crumpets. In the process, could it be that we deny the Holy Spirit?

You have received the Spirit of God, the power of peace within, and without. Perhaps it is time for you and me to shuck the atom, to unleash the power.

There are any number of ways to unleash the power.

• Advocate: The Holy Spirit prays on your behalf, interceding regularly for you, and through you, for others. God as creator jumps to answer these prayers, but do you pray boldly?
• Guide: The Holy Spirit will guide you, but the compass-power of God is located in the silence. How can you possibly hear above the internal cacophony?
• Interpreter of Scripture: The Holy Spirit will interpret Scripture for you, will open your mind like that of the disciples to see the Word of God lurking behind the black letters on the page. How will you discover God in Scripture if you never crack the book?
• Healer: The Holy Spirit heals, sometimes physically and emotionally, if you can believe it, and always spiritually. How will you be healed if you won’t forgive those who have wronged you?

There is so much more, and it is all explosive, all the conflagration of God. The promise of Pentecost, uttered by the Baptist, is not impotent, but potent. Not weak, but strong.

It is time for us to become Pentecostal believers, and tap into the explosion of God’s Spirit.

“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me.”

Christ in living Technicolor, and instant sunrise.

Written by the Rev. Rob Gieselmann
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.

God’s love is life itself, 7 Easter (C) – 2010

May 16, 2010

Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

There is a story or parable, variously ascribed to the wisdom traditions of Arab, Chinese, or rabbinic literature, which illustrates well “the changes and chances of this mortal life,” as the Book of Common Prayer describes the vicissitudes, the ups and downs, of this world.

According to most versions, the story – no doubt apocryphal – goes like this: A farmer had a fine stallion that one day escaped and ran off. The farmer’s neighbors commiserated with him. “What bad luck you have,” they said sadly. But the farmer responded, “Who really knows? It could be bad. But it could also be good.”

Sure enough, the very next day, the stallion returned followed by twelve wild and healthy young steeds. “How fortunate you are!” exclaimed the neighbors. “Who knows,” countered the farmer to his neighbors’ surprise, “if it is good fortune or not?”

Not long after, the farmer’s strapping son attempted to break one of the wild horses when he tumbled and shattered his leg. “How unlucky you are!” exclaimed the neighbors. The farmer shrugged his shoulders and asked again, “Who knows if it is bad luck or good?”

Later, the king’s soldiers arrived, recruiting young men for battle and war in far-off lands, but they quickly passed over the farmer’s son with the bad leg. “How very lucky you are,” said the amazed neighbors as the old man muttered once again, “Who knows? Maybe it is good, maybe it is bad.”

Good or bad? Who can say? Sometimes it depends on your perspective and your faith. Consider our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles.

Coming across a slave girl with “a spirit of divination,” Paul frees her from her bondage “in the name of Jesus Christ.” But what is no doubt good fortune for the young girl is a financial disaster for her wily and rapacious owners, who have suddenly lost “their hope of making money” from her soothsaying. They see to it that Paul, along with his companion Silas, is thrown forthwith into prison – an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events for these intrepid disciples of the Lord, who now find themselves sequestered in “the innermost cell” of the prison with “their feet in stocks.”

An earthquake – then as now a terrible and unpredictable calamity – becomes the disciples’ unlikely means of escape and the return of their good fortune. But their impending flight from captivity, and that of the others imprisoned with them, brings their duteous jailor to the point of despair and suicide, until Paul swiftly intervenes and introduces him and his household to faith in “the Lord Jesus.” The warden “and his entire household” are then “baptized without delay,” and all rejoice in their newfound faith and the blessings it represents.

All in a day’s work, we might say, for Paul and Silas – disciples of profound faith and determination. What seems misfortune and adversity one minute is the very next minute revealed by the grace of God to be the means of deliverance and salvation not only for Paul and Silas but for those whom they encounter as well.

In some ways things have probably not changed that much in two thousand years for people of faith. Just as in the time of the Apostles, the vicissitudes of everyday life today are such that none of us can count on lasting good fortune – or thankfully, bad. Sometimes in the middle of things, we cannot even tell which is which. Our heads spin at the pace of change in our world, in our lives, and in our church. Who can say from one moment to the next what is good and what is bad? What is the Lord’s doing, and what is not?

Many folks, for instance, who just two or three short years ago were productively employed and enjoying the fruits of their labors, now find themselves unemployed and looking for work – in some cases even homeless – victims of forces beyond their easy control. Still, we know from experience that times of adversity are often also periods of great energy and creativity – for society as a whole and for us as individuals.

Most of us can probably tell of instances in our own lives when apparent hardship or tragedy brought in its wake opportunity and prospects we might never have otherwise experienced had it not been for what we at first mistook for unmitigated misfortune. Who can tell, really, what blessings may ensue from today’s hardships and perils?

Perhaps there is wisdom after all in the attitude of resignation of the old farmer in the tale. Who can ever say for sure what is good luck or bad? Sometimes the wheel of fortune is more than just a game show on television. Yet Christians have more than quiet resignation to blind fate or destiny to fall back on. For, while acceptance of divine predestination has been an important element of some Christian traditions for centuries, it has never kept genuine people of faith from prayer, hope-filled trust in the Lord, and acts of mercy.

The words of the Book of Revelation – arguably one of the more weighty works of the New Testament – are as profound and rich today as they were the day they were written. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” proclaims the Christ of the ages in our second reading today, “the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Good fortune and bad may be part of our human vocabulary and experience, but they say little about the Lord’s all-encompassing and unending love and compassion, which forever transcend our limited human realm of change and chance.

There is nothing under the sun that is not part of God’s plan for us, God’s people. There is nothing that can keep us from God’s love. To know this brings more than abject resignation to fate, more even than quiet reassurance amid the “changes and chances of this mortal life.” To know Christ is beyond fortune or destiny. It is the Good News proclaimed by our Lord throughout the gospels. It is the fulfillment of his ardent prayer today in the Gospel of John, that we all “may become completely one” in him and the Father.

To know Christ and the Father’s love is life itself.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim minister at the Episcopal Church in Almaden, in San Jose, Calif.

The tide is turning, Ascension Day (C) – 2010

May 13, 2010

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Luke 24:44-53

Now is the turning of the tide. In our readings for this Ascension Day, we encounter an important shift for those who follow Jesus from being turned inward, focusing on their common life and learning at Jesus’ feet, to that same group looking outward to the needs of the world. In this way, the Gospel of Luke completes the incoming tide of Jesus’ life and ministry and the Acts of the Apostles begins the outgoing tide, which has the gospel flowing forth to the ends of the earth.

The evangelist Luke is the beloved physician who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This two-volume set is fully a quarter of the entire New Testament. Our readings for today are at the seam where these two texts overlap to recount the last moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the genesis of the Christian Church. Through these readings we encounter a dynamic that is important not simply to understanding that point in history, but is vital to our own journey as followers of Jesus.

The Book of Luke begins in the temple in Jerusalem. The gospel begins the Good News of Jesus with the priest, Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies. There the angel Gabriel appears with the news that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s aged wife who was thought to be barren, will give birth. The son born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is the forerunner, John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke will then continually return to the temple, for Jesus’ naming, and for his teaching the elders when on a trip with his family at the age of twelve. Then through his ministry, Jesus will return to the temple. Finally the gospel ends with the final line verses, “They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”

The temple has a gravitational pull in Luke’s gospel, everything is always pulled back to that center. Then in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke opens in Jerusalem, but then goes outward to Judea, Samaria, and while not to the ends of the earth, he will reach to Rome and beyond. Along with the journeys of Peter and the other apostles, we get Saul the persecutor becoming Paul the Apostle.

In Luke, everything was focused inwardly on building up the group. In Acts, that group is shot out from the center point. Pentecost will come like a bomb going off, which sends out a creative rather than destructive force. Ascension Day is the seam that holds those two narratives together. This is where the inward focused turned and after a ten-day wait for the tide to turn at Pentecost, the outward focus began.

It is worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge that Ascension Day is a stumbling block for some. They will remark rightly that we know better than to conceive of a three-storied universe with heaven above, hell beneath, and earth sandwiched in the middle. We have pierced the sky, traveled to the moon and are even now being watched over by astronauts working at the international space station. What sense does it make to talk of Jesus disappearing off into the sky, a vanishing point of distance from earth ending his earthly ministry?

This knowledge need not distract us, as we know through our own faith journeys that God has a knack for giving us not just what we need, but what we are ready to receive. The disciples, or followers, were becoming apostles, or ones sent out, and they needed Jesus to leave in such a way that they would stop hanging around and get about the work of the gospel. Ascension Day accomplished that essential purpose.

On all the days leading up to that one, the disciples looked for their Lord. Their lives were centered on Jesus. Knowing more about the heavens doesn’t change the truth of Jesus’ leaving his earthly ministry to become once more the second person of the Trinity, no longer limited by the incarnation to being in one place at a time. After the ascension, the apostles began to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then with Pentecost, they were empowered to go out in ministry.

The truth is that Ascension Day worked. With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples became apostles. They stopped looking for Jesus here and there, and they began to pray for the Holy Spirit who would be with them always. On that day, Jesus’ followers were given what they needed to begin to change their focus.

What would it take for us to change our focus? After all, it is easy for a church to go from being about the mission of sharing the love of God found in Jesus with a lost and hurting world, to turn our mission stations into clubs. A church does not exist for its own sake, but as preparation for those who gather to take part in Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.

The word “member” should probably not even be used to describe aligning oneself with a given congregation. We are not to be members of a club, exclusive or otherwise, as if Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were for the purpose of starting a new institution. The institution of the church exists to further God’s mission – reconciling the world to God. We are missionaries working on the front lines of the mission of the church, which is what we each encounter every where we go.

This need to turn outward is so crucial, that it is a good idea to have someone at the end of Eucharist to step up and take the role of the two men robed in white who said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” These words were the push the apostles needed to stop focusing on the spot where they last saw Jesus. The words of the angels turned the disciples’ gaze outward to a lost and hurting world and so made them into apostles, ones sent forth on a mission.

After that push, the apostles would be prepared when the Holy Spirit came ten days later on Pentecost to begin the work of taking the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

In the dismissal, we have such a moment. The deacon or priest says, “Alleluia. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” or similar words that focus us outwardly. This is no idle moment. This is an active moment, a push to tell us to stop looking toward the altar – that point where we last saw the Lord. The dismissal is a reminder as our worship service is ending that while the worship is finished for now, the service is just beginning. We are sent out from every service to love and serve the Lord through loving and serving others in his name.

Most of us do not go out loving and serving the Lord right away. It is more likely that we go out to get something to eat rather than going to serve in a soup kitchen or to console a grieving friend. That is fine. But we should not leave worship untransformed. We should look at our waiter or waitress differently, knowing that this is a person whom we depend on not being in church, so that we can enjoy a meal after we worship. Treat that person as you would treat Christ if he were serving your table. For having seen Christ in worship, we should become better at seeing Christ in others. Then loving and serving the Lord will be much simpler as we will find Jesus everywhere we look.

This is the transformation of Ascension Day. The tide is turning. Before many minutes pass, we will have been spiritually fed and empowered to act. Flow forth from this place to begin to fulfill that mission anew. This is the day for turning our eyes outward. This is the day for changing our focus to see Christ in the world anew. And having seen, we can begin anew to love and serve.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue served as the church planter for King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Ga. After a decade with that new congregation, Frank will become the Canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia beginning July 1, 2010.

Proclaim the Good News, 6 Easter (C) – 2010

May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Picture this scene. There’s a person we will call “Samantha,” who is a good, faithful Christian. She has attended church most Sundays for about a decade. She volunteers when needed and even served on the vestry for a term. She always attends special church events and Christian education offerings.

But somehow, Samantha feels that something is missing. She somehow senses, and secretly fears, that despite all this church activity, she’s not much different than her friends who don’t attend church at all, who go to yoga class, soccer games, or just sleep in instead.

Author Reggie McNeal, in his book “The Present Future,” describes people like Samantha:

“The faithful, maybe silently or not so silently, wonder when their ticket is going to be punched, when they are going to experience the changed life they’ve been promised and expected to experience at church. In North America, people have been led to believe that their Christian life is all about church, so this failure of the church not only creates doubt about the church, it also leads them to all kinds of doubt about God.”

Now picture another scene. A few first-century travelers set out on a journey. They are on fire with the Holy Spirit. Their traveling conditions are tough, funds are tight, and there is frightening opposition to the group they represent in some of the places they plan to visit. Despite all this, they set out with conviction and faith. They’ve mapped out where they will go, retracing the steps that one of them took on a previous journey. Then one night, one of them has a vision. Because they believe the vision is calling them to proclaim the Good News in a way different than they had initially thought, they immediately change their plans and set off in a new direction.

What faith. What dedication. What a commitment to sharing the message, story and life of Jesus Christ with others.

This is the scene from today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of Paul’s second missionary journey. J. Ted Blakeley, in his book “A Lector’s Guide and Commentary to the Revised Common Lectionary,” describes the setting of and background for this reading. On his first journey, Paul traveled with Barnabas to Cyprus and Galatia to proclaim the gospel and establish small Christian communities – we might call them “new church plants” today. On his second missionary journey, the one from which today’s story comes, Paul is traveling with Silas. Their plan was to retrace the steps from Paul’s first journey, checking to see how those who became believers on his first journey were fairing. By the point of today’s reading, Paul and Silas had been somewhat successful. They had been able to visit some of the places, but unable to visit others. They were now in Troas, a sea port, where Paul had a vision. Acting on that vision eventually led to the baptism of Lydia.

Contrasting the stories of modern-day followers like Samantha to early church followers like Paul, one sees a marked difference. Jesus’ early followers were alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, whereas many today seem to lack that fire, passion, and conviction. Perhaps the difference is because followers of Jesus in the early church were clear about what they were called to do, whereas some followers today lack that clarity. Followers in the early church were clear that they were to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we heard in today’s reading. How Paul and his cohorts accomplished this purpose can be instructive to us if we seek to reclaim and increase a passionate, fiery faith.

For example, Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ by listening for, and acting on, God’s word. If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we, like Paul, must also be willing to listen and act on God’s word.

Do we take the time to talk and listen to God through regular prayer and silent Holy listening? If and when we sense that God is leading us in a certain direction, do we test out that direction, seeking affirmation from church, family, friends and other trusted sources? If it does indeed seem to be God’s gentle hand acting in our lives and our discernment is affirmed, are we bold enough to act, or do we let fear, complacency, routine, or something else stand in the way?

We must listen for, trust in, and act on God’s will in our lives if we are to reignite a fire in our faith.

Another way Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ was by going to where the people were. “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” Note that they did not stay in a synagogue, or put up a new sign outside the synagogue and wait for people to come. Rather, they went out to where the people were.

If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we too must reach outside of our established churches. We cannot just open our doors and wait for people to come in. We cannot simply mow the lawn or make a new sign and wait. Instead, we must look at the needs of the people in the community, the places where there is hurt, where there is need for redemption and forgiveness, where there is spiritual longing, and reach out to address it. It is our personal responsibility as Christians.

In today’s rapidly changing social context, and in a society that is increasingly spiritual and decreasingly religious, searching out new ways to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ beyond our church buildings is mandatory. In doing this, we will find the fire of faith rekindled.

Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ, not limiting who was to be reached. Note in Paul’s vision it was a man of Macedonia who asked him to come over and help. However, as the story develops, he instead finds “a certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. … The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”

If we are to once again become on fire with the gospel message, we must not limit God by defining the people we are called to reach. We can seek the unexpected person who might be longing for the transformative message of Christ’s love, and risk sharing the gospel message.

With whom might God be calling you to share your faith?

Let’s return to Samantha, the woman we began with, who was feeling as if she wasn’t growing and changing despite her church activities, despite her commitment, despite her faith. There are people like Samantha in many congregations, people who aren’t experiencing the spiritual transformation for which they hoped. As one anonymous Christian missiologist observed, “They came to us seeking God, and we gave them church instead.”

Many congregations, despite their best intentions, seem to have lost focus and give those seeking Jesus a slate of church activities rather than avenues for spiritual growth that can be truly transformational. Our faith communities exist to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, and we, as people who are part of these communities, must ensure that our activities are in alignment with this purpose.

Today’s reading from Acts gives us three instructions for reclaiming our missional purpose. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ:

• by discerning and acting on God’s will
• by reaching out beyond our church walls as we seek to proclaim the message
• by being ready to share the gospel message with an unexpected person

By refocusing on our true purpose, we can help people like Samantha transform the smoldering embers of her faith into brilliantly burning flames.

 

— 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.

Welcome, 5 Easter (C) – 2010

May 2, 2010

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

The Collect for today asks for us to be able to know Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life that we may follow in the way that leads to eternal life.

Once there was a church that had the phrase “I am the way, the truth and the life” on a sign above its iron gate. The church and its message intrigued a young man, so he decided to go there on Sunday. He was not welcomed. No one spoke to him, or smiled, or offered him a handshake. After the service he left in a puzzled state.

What Peter discovers in the reading from Acts for today is a revelation and a revolution. God reveals that nothing in God’s creation is profane, that the purity code is a limitation imposed by humans, not God, and that keeping that purity could in fact be hindering God. This was something obviously lost on the folks in the small church that the young man visited. They were uneasy with somebody they didn’t know, so they kept their distance.

Have you ever thought about what is going on in the world today in terms of Peter’s experience? Have you ever wondered why many are afraid of immigrants, legal or not? Do you understand that Sunday morning can be the most exclusive, segregated, and separate time of the week? All week long we work with, bump against, commute with, and eat with people who are not like us, but often on Sunday we attend a church that consists mostly of people like ourselves.

There are exceptions, of course. But many of our churches do not look anything like the communities that we live in, the grocery stores we shop in, or the movie theaters we attend. Why is that? Do you ever wonder?

The writer of Revelation, our second reading for today, offers a passage often read at burials. The image of death having been vanquished, of mourning and crying being no more, and of God wiping away every tear is a powerful image, followed by the declaration that God is making all things new. One of those new things is surely the way we experience one another, as diverse gifts of the God who made us all. If we begin to think about people who differ from us in race or culture, then see them as gifts to us from God, that gives us a wholly different point of view toward the many people sent to us by God. We can turn away from them, but are we not then also turning away from God?

When we hear the gospel reading, Jesus’ own words call us to love one another, “Just as I have loved you.” This is not a phrase easily dismissed. Jesus’ entire ministry, including his passion and resurrection, hangs on this phrase. Jesus loved people in a radical way. Today he would be – and often is – in the supermarket talking with the checkers, the stockers, and the customers finding their way through a bewildering array of products. He is there because that is where all the community goes to buy food. He is there because that may be where a lonely newcomer to town gets a smile at the cash register, or even a query, “Are you new here? Welcome.”

But what about church? What about that Sunday morning experience that is often the place where we see only familiar faces, only people like us, only people we know? Is Jesus there? Of course he is, but he is there to welcome the stranger – whoever walks in that door timidly and tentatively looking for new community. Are we ready for that? Do we seek those persons? Would they be welcomed, truly welcomed here?

Not long ago the young man who had visited the church and was made to feel like an outsider was back in the neighborhood and walked by the church he had visited on that Sunday. It had been many years. The sign “I am the way, the truth, and the life” still stood above the iron gate. Then he saw that the church doors were boarded over, as were many of the windows. The church was obviously closed, and looked as though it had been for some time. He walked on, wondering what had happened.

We can draw our own conclusions, but if that church had welcomed him and others instead of being closed to what God was sending them on frequent occasions, the end of their story might have been very different indeed.

 

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