Archives for July 2010

Teach us to pray, Pentecost 9, Proper 12 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Hosea 1:2-10 and Psalm 85 (Track 2: Genesis 18:20-32 and Psalm 138); Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

There was a little girl who lived on a street right next to a cemetery. Her school was straight across, on the other side of the cemetery. That cemetery frightened all the children who lived on her street. In fact, they took great pains to avoid the cemetery, walking all the way around it to get to the school, and then all the way around it to come home.
But not so our little girl. Every morning she would just head straight through the cemetery, and at the end of the day she would walk back, straight through, to come home, usually whistling all the way.

An elderly neighbor sat on her porch each day and watched and wondered. One afternoon, she called the little girl over as she returned from school and said to her, “My little friend, I notice that every day, all the children on our block walk around the cemetery to go to school and back, but you just walk right through. How can you do that? Doesn’t it frighten you to walk so close to death?”

And the little girl replied, “Why, no. I’m not frightened, because I know that I’m only passing through.”

Our Collect for today bids us pray for an abundance of God’s mercy, that with God as our ruler and guide, “we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.” Living faithfully has everything to do with how we pass through our daily lives. Living faithfully means always being connected with God as our ruler and guide, as with one another.

The way we pass through life each day – the way we walk – matters.

One of the riches of our Episcopal hymnal supplement, Wonder, Love and Praise, is hymn number 791, “Peace before us”:

Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet.
Peace within us, peace over us, let all around us be peace.
This beautiful prayer is, in fact, based upon a traditional Navajo prayer used regularly in congregations of the Episcopal Church in Navojoland. In part, that prayer can be translated:

Jesus Christ, just as I pray, you do it; guard me,
In my defense, stand, reach out,
Plead in my defense.
Let peace come to me from the forest stream,
Let there be peace from the lowly grass,
Let there be peace from the wind’s way,
Let peace come to me from passing rain,
Let passing thunder bring peace to me.
Just by me let the dew fall,
Just by me let corn pollen form.
Beauty before me,
Beauty behind me,
Into fullness of life I have come,
Into beauty I have come.
All is peace again.
All is peace again.
All is peace again.
All is peace again.
How we walk through life, day by day, matters. Moving from a state of anxiety and restlessness into a way of harmony and balance is a blessing of grace that keeps us centered through whatever challenges rise to face us.

Watching children grow, from shaky first steps into the ability to dart here and there, intent on escaping their anxious parents’ grasp for as long as possible, we know that it is human nature to try to cast out on our own, to make our own way. The playfulness of children is engaging, and – usually! – we smile to see their sport. Children yearn to be able to “do it all by themselves.” Doesn’t being “grown up” mean taking care of ourselves – all by ourselves?

This relentless drama certainly makes life interesting for the parents of any toddler, and often for the rest of us as well.

“Doing it all by yourself” is part of growing up. But being fully grown up involves more than moving from dependence into independence. Our lessons today teach that to be fully alive means to embrace an interdependence with one another and with God, in a faith-filled confidence that leads us from life driven by anxiety and angst into life blessed by harmony and balance.

“Grant that as we pass through things temporal, we lose not things eternal.”
The first step in embracing a healthy interdependence, is to chose to turn back from the initial exhilaration of striking out on our own, to return to right relationship with those whose love formed us to begin with. Like the toddler squirming away from the embrace of her ever-loving parents, there must be a moment – God willing, before damage is done! – when the child turns and recognizes a need deeper than the need to assert her independence: a need to reconnect with her parents. What happens in that moment is a gift of grace, a seed which, with God’s love and in God’s time, will germinate and then blossom.

That turning point, which opens the door to right relationship restored, is grounded in the abiding, steadfast love of God, which is a constant, no matter what we have chosen to do. God chooses to include us in the dance of reconciliation, waiting for us to turn and open our hearts in some way to return and receive God’s ready embrace in that steadfast love.

Consider the exchange between Jesus and his disciples in our gospel reading as just such a moment. Jesus has gone apart to pray, and upon his return, the disciples greet him with a question, a request, which is just such a turning with an opening heart: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

It is significant, first, that the request is made at all. To ask for help is a deeply spiritual action – and not one that we are often prepared to do gracefully. To ask for help requires that we acknowledge our need of one another. It is to confess faith, confidence in the one we are asking for help. To receive and respond to that help leads to growth in our relationship with one another. It involves, at some level, healing; for to receive help from another heals us, and in that action, we become healers ourselves. So, what seems a simple request from the disciples is profound: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

What follows, of course, is the prayer loved and used by so many, so regularly, down through the centuries. The Lord’s Prayer transforms those who pray it, teaching us to walk through life in a harmonious and balanced way. Let go of what makes you anxious and restless, and trust in what God is doing around and through you, that as you pass through your daily life, you may lose not the things eternal, which is your birthright by baptism.

Our Father: “Abba,” “Father,” “Daddy,” whose love for us is so certain, it cannot be broken,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come: may your way of justice be followed by all the people of the world.
Give us each day our daily bread: confidence that you will provide for our basic needs, each day,
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us: the way of healing is within reach.
And do not bring us to the time of trial: grant that as we pass through things temporal, we lose not things eternal.
Yes, the way we walk through life matters. Give us the blessing of a harmonious and balanced life together. And thank you for the gift of a prayer to be offered daily to keep us on that way:

Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet.
Peace within us, peace over us, let all around us be peace.

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Written by the Rev. Steve Kelsey
The Rev. Steve Kelsey is a retired Episcopal priest, living with his family in Arizona. He is currently serving part time with a team of ministry developers among the Diné (Navajo people) in the Navajo Nation.

Means of Grace and Hope of Glory, Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 11 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52 (Track 2: Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15); Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

There is an old vaudeville joke about a man and woman dancing in the Catskills, at a singles resort. “I’m only here for the weekend,” the man says. “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” responds the woman.

Martha is that kind of a woman, dancing around her house as fast as she can, trying to get things ready for her honored guest, and trying in her own way to make the most of their time together.

Our natural sympathies are with Martha. We recognize her condition. Were he expected, the visit of Jesus would probably have sent Martha and Mary scurrying ahead of time in preparation. And that may have been the case. But note also, this text does not give us reason to believe that Jesus was expected when he came to call: “She received him,” it says, which may mean little more than that she opened the door to his knock, not necessarily expecting to see him standing there. If that were the case, then there was much to be done post haste, as hospitality was always the rule of the day and the more unexpected the guest, the more lavish and bountiful the hospitality typically was. Such hospitality is the hallmark of the Jewish home, where even at Passover a spare chair is left for Elijah, should he come to call and partake of the family’s meal.

Martha is a sympathetic sister for our time because she is in the business of activity and anxiety: two chief preoccupations of our age. The Marthas of this world are intent upon doing the right and good thing at the right and good time. We all recognize them because we all have at least some of Martha in us.

Yet, look again, and you will see that Jesus does not deny the value of what Martha is or of what she is doing. He does not say to her that everything is all right and that there is nothing to do or to worry about. He says to her, in essence, that she has her priorities wrong. He recognizes that Mary knows that she has something to learn from Jesus. He would like Martha to know that as well. He seems to be saying to Martha: “Don’t just do something, sit here, at least for a moment. Listen to me.” He seems to want to slow her dance, to let her mind and soul catch up with her body.

It is not that Martha’s work is unimportant, and it is not that Jesus does not appreciate the work. But Jesus is about priorities; first things first. And he is unambiguous about what comes first here. He said it once before, in his sermon when he warned people about being anxious regarding what they would eat and wear. Remember, he concluded that remarkably practical address with the words “Therefore, do not be anxious … But seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

What was so important about sitting at Jesus’ feet? It seems certain that he had been a visitor before to the home of Martha and Mary. He was a great friend of the family, and we know of his love for their brother, Lazarus. The answer to the question comes in the words that introduce the story, “Now, as they went on their way…” This is the crucial context in which we understand not only this story but our own as well, for if we read the paragraphs and chapters before this we will find that “they” – Jesus and his followers – are on their way to Jerusalem and to the cross. It was Jesus’ last journey, his final earthly pilgrimage, not a day’s outing or excursion or Sunday drive, but a purposeful procession across the pages of history to the sure and certain death on the cross, and into the future which he would claim for God. Somehow, in some way, Mary had caught on to the fact that Jesus’ message on his visit to their house on this afternoon was of such significance, such urgency, that the routine must be interrupted in order to hear it.

It seems doubtful that it was Mary’s regular custom to entertain visitors by sitting at their feet while her sister did all the work. In fact, Martha’s comments suggest that Mary’s behavior was not her typical behavior. But perhaps, somehow, Mary sensed that this was not an ordinary visit. The Lord was passing by, and after he went, things would never be the same again. Mary sensed that the time he had with them was precious and to be savored.

We learn an important lesson from this story in the example of Mary and Martha. The mark of hospitality is the capacity to give. Martha was doubtless very good at that, and she was busy about that very work, giving Jesus a pleasant time, providing for his needs and comforts, organizing his stay under her roof. It is hard work and should be rewarded, as it usually is, with appreciation and gratitude. But just as Jesus interrupts the routine of the household in Bethany, he also interrupts the role, for he is not “guest,” he is now “host.” He is the Lord, and it is he who gives and others who are now invited to receive.

An ancient custom of hospitality in England holds that when a sovereign comes to your house, while in your home, it is no longer yours but his – or particularly at this point in English history, hers. A sovereign becomes the host under any citizen’s roof. It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is infinitely more difficult to receive than it is to give. It makes one beholden to the giver, and it makes one, in some sense, dependent. Try to give someone something and that person will insist upon returning something to you, wanting things to be even, not wanting to feel obligated. Giving is power; receiving implies need and weakness.

The Marthas of the world are so busy doing good and necessary things that sometimes they don’t have time to realize how deeply they themselves stand in need. When Jesus comes, he reminds us that we need the grace and peace he offers. Rather than be distracted by providing service, or being anxious and troubled about many things, we would do well to slow the dance we are doing, to stop, look, and listen.

This, then, is a parable about giving and receiving, doing and being, and about the presence of Jesus in the midst of the ordinary that becomes extraordinary. It is a parable about priorities, first things first, and it is a parable about two women who in their lives and attitudes give our Lord and his Church an opportunity to teach an important lesson for our time. It is also a parable of our worship, for it reminds us that what happens in our churches – our prayer, our praise, our instruction, and our fellowship – is not what we do for Jesus, entertaining him and busying ourselves with some sort of fast dance. But rather, we slow that dance, we come to “sit at Jesus’ feet,” and we come to receive from him the means of grace and hope of glory.

Written by the Rev. Giovan Venable King
The Rev. Dr. Giovan Venable King serves at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in San Marino, California, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Among her other ministries, she serves on the Program Group for World Mission and as a judge on the Ecclesiastical Court.

From belief to action, Pentecost 7, Proper 10 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Amos 7:7-17 and Psalm 82 (Track 2: Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Psalm 25:1-9); Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Today we have before us what is perhaps the most familiar story Jesus ever told: the parable of the Good Samaritan. Hearing it again might cause us to wonder, Is there anything new in this story that we haven’t already thought about or heard preached about? Hasn’t it been worn smooth? Hasn’t the parable lost its power to teach us because we know it so well?

After all, hasn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan become a cliché in our culture? We have Good Samaritan laws and Good Samaritan hospitals. We live with a common concept that any charitable act makes us Good Samaritans. But the parable means much more than that, of course.

Sermons on this parable often focus on those who encountered the beaten man on the road to Jericho – the two who passed by and one who stopped to help. Often preachers ask us, “Which one are you like? Which one do you want to be like?”

It would be interesting, however, to look at another character – to see how identifying with him might help us better understand what Jesus means for us to discover. Let us examine the victim – the one who was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead.

For many of us, it might seem difficult or inappropriate to identify with the victim. It’s easy for most Americans to feel too privileged and blessed and lucky to equate themselves with such an unfortunate soul. Looking deeper, though, can’t we all recall times when we have suffered? Life cannot be lived without some difficulty. Some of us have been robbed of possessions when thieves broke into our homes, and others have been robbed of time and energy by those whose irresponsibility forced them to do more than their fair share.

Most of us have been treated unjustly, and all of us have been beaten down by our own sin and failures and disillusionment. We have been left half dead by the knowledge of our own limitations.

We have been stripped bare by rejection and abandonment, and we have been stripped by those who told lies about us and tried to harm our reputations. We may even have been left half dead by rivals seeking to ruin our careers or reputations. And perhaps more devastatingly, we have been left half dead by discovering that there is nothing we can do to change such conditions or relieve the pain they cause.

In greater or lesser ways, aren’t we sometimes as helpless as the victim in Jesus’ parable? Do we not also pray for mercy? Does not each of us come as a beggar to the Lord’s altar with cupped hands seeking the true bread that gives life and saves us from desolation and despair?

So while we are identifying with the victim, what do we make of it? Was the beaten man deserving of help from the Samaritan? What did he do to merit an enemy’s taking a serious risk and sacrificing his time and substance to save him, loving him with no strings attached and with no hope of gaining anything in return? Maybe nothing. Maybe the victim was undeserving. Was he not foolish to have traveled on such a dangerous road alone?

The point is, of course, that it did not matter. The Samaritan helped him unconditionally. He showed mercy as God shows mercy to his children. Are we deserving of the love and forgiveness that God gives us? It doesn’t matter, either. This is the primary message of this parable. It illustrates the truth of God’s mercy – f God’s love poured out for us unconditionally, with no strings attached. Without our being deserving, God cares for us in this extraordinary way.

If we can feel the grace that the beaten man experienced when he was helped by an enemy, we will know what God intends for all his children. Not only will we know how God cares for us when we are hurt, we will see the love that fills us in a new light. As the love continues to flow in us, it can overflow to others as we become the Good Samaritan in response.

This powerful and rich parable reminds us of the essentials of our faith. It is a foundation of Christian ethical and moral values. It includes the familiar themes, that Christians are called to:
• avoid the faithless idolatry of those who pass by on the other side
• take risks for the sake of the gospel
• care for our neighbors
• recognize that “neighbor” includes everyone, everywhere
• affirm the calling to give ourselves away for the good of others
• give with no strings attached
• provide for those in need without regard for whether they are deserving or not
• love even those different from ourselves, whom we may even despise, and whom we consider unlovable and undeserving

Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus takes us into the depths of God’s love. He answers the question “Who is my neighbor?” by giving us an unforgettable example of love in action. He will not let us get away with failing to put our money where our mouths are. Believing and knowing what is right is not enough. Jesus’ model story of the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho forces us to see ourselves on the roads we travel – the roads that surround us.

Seeing from the perspective of the victim can help us move from belief to action. Jesus’ parable forces us to see that knowing the meaning of “neighbor” is not enough. We can only express adequate gratitude for what God gives us by acting toward everyone – our neighbors – as did the Good Samaritan toward the victim of robbery and beating.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Embodied in Jesus, Pentecost 6, Proper 9 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings presents us with a strange and complex story. The main characters are the Aramean warrior Naaman, who has what our ancestors called “leprosy”; and the prophet Elisha of Israel, chosen successor to Elijah, who eventually heals Naaman.

The King of Aram and the King of Israel both appear as characters, but they do not drive the plot; the plot is driven by nameless servants, who matter a good deal more in the story than do the pair of kings.

First we are told that Naaman’s wife has a servant girl from the land of Israel. There would be no story if this nameless servant had not suggested that her master really ought to go see the prophet in Samaria who could cure him of his disease.

When Naaman arrives in Samaria, the chief city in the northern kingdom of Israel, he has brought with him all his horses and chariots, a quantity of gold and silver, and “ten changes of clothing.” Clearly he expects that healing his skin disease will be an expensive and elaborate production.

Again we have a nameless servant: a messenger from Elisha meets Naaman and instructs the warrior to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is quite offended by this message; he thinks there are rivers back home in Aram that are better than the Jordan. Then we have more nameless servants. Indeed, if it were not for the courage and persuasive abilities of Naaman’s servants, the story would have ended right there, with Naaman “stalking off in a rage.”

The proud warrior listens to his servants, however, and immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, and just as the servant girl had indicated, Naaman is cured. The manner of the healing turns Naaman’s expectations inside out and upside down; the prophet Elisha is not even present, and there are no prayers, incantations, no laying on of hands, nothing one would have associated with healing at that time. But there is a powerful subtext to this story: the God of Israel has very strong powers indeed and can act directly and immediately without power brokers or mediators. Equally clear in this story, as in several instances with Elijah before this, is that God brings healing to foreigners as well as to the people of Israel. As St. Paul says several hundred years later, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”

The scope and reach of God’s authority and healing action is a theme echoed in today’s gospel reading from Luke. Having previously sent “the twelve” out on an exploratory journey, here Jesus sends out seventy of his disciples “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” The seventy go out as the bearers of God’s power in much the same way that Jesus did. Just as Elisha did not need to be present with Naaman, Jesus does not have to be physically present with his followers when they go out in mission. In both stories, the mighty power of God to heal and save undergirds all the human activities involved.

This immediate presence of God’s power is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

Through the disciples’ activities, God proclaimed his presence and power. And this direct, immediate, self-proclaiming presence of God amazed and excited Jesus’ disciples. They came back from their missionary journeys “full of joy,” and chattering “Lord! In your name even the demons submit to us!” This reaction betrays the fact that they were taking the success of their healings and exorcisms personally rather than as bearers of God’s presence. Jesus’ response to this inflation of their egos gently brings them down to earth: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

In the end, these readings are all about the amazing, even shocking capacity of our generous God to hand over holy stuff to human characters while remaining in the background. In the stories of Elijah and Elisha, we begin to understand that prophets do not act according to an instruction manual for blessings, healings, warnings, conversions, or curses. God grants them considerable freedom and initiative. We tend to think of prophets as “great communicators,” but Elijah and Elisha correct our insistent emphasis on the spoken word of God by the way they function as “great connectors.” Prophetic activity breaks through human boundaries, connecting the power of God’s presence to people beyond the land, and outside the covenant, of Israel.

This role of connecting the power of God to the people of the world is supremely and fully embodied in Jesus, but by derivation and gift, the role of connecting is ours as well. We do not all have the gift of being “great communicators,” but we can all be great connectors even if we don’t think of ourselves as prophets.

Like the nameless servants who drive the story of Naaman, our job is to be the connectors of God’s extraordinary, abundant, and life-giving power to those who need it. For love, peace, and justice, and for the repair of the world’s fabric, may the Lord make it so.

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