Archives for November 2010

The kingdom of God is real, Christ the King, Last Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 29 (C) – 2010 

[RCL] Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Canticle 4 or 16 (Track 2: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 46); Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Sometimes, people want to know why, in the Gloria, we use the phrase “sin of the world,” singular, rather than “sins of the world,” plural.

Good question. But first let’s start with today’s gospel reading.

Jesus is mocked. He is on the cross, suffering the additional abuse of soldiers and criminals. “Some King you are! Save yourself,” they all taunt.

Save himself. Jesus could have saved himself, only hours before, through Pontius Pilate; but he chose not to.

Pilate would rather have been anyplace but there at the governor’s palace, deciding legal matters. But that was his job; he had no choice. And on this unfortunate morning, the Jewish leaders appeared and thrust Jesus at him. “This man claims to be a king,” they said, implying that Jesus claimed to rival Caesar. They brought this charge to Pilate because they knew he would have to respond. A charge of sedition is serious.

Pilate asked them, “What has he done?” The men had no real proof, so they become indignant. “If he weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have brought him to you.”

Ah. Jesus is guilty by arrest, not necessarily by crime. Jesus is guilty just because he is in custody. Sound familiar? The police wouldn’t have arrested him if he weren’t guilty.

“Try him yourselves,” said Pilate, suddenly feeling old, tired of his job, and tired of living in this foreign land.

“But we can’t put him to death,” they said. Not true. They could have stoned Jesus, but that’s not what they wanted. They wanted Jesus crucified, to be treated like a common criminal.

Pilate took Jesus aside and interviewed him privately, asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” This is where Jesus could have saved himself. He could have said no, and that would have been that. But he didn’t. Instead, Pilate was irritated by Jesus’ response: “My kingdom cannot be seen.”

“What have you done?” Pilate now demanded, echoing the Jewish leaders, presuming Jesus had done something wrong, otherwise they wouldn’t have arrested him.

And that is how this innocent man, Jesus, did not save himself. That is how he died at the hands of a lazy, short-tempered Roman governor.

One more innocent man killed. Completely innocent, yet adjudged completely guilty.

Did you know that the words “innocent until proven guilty” are not found in the United States Constitution? The phrase is not even true. If you actually commit a crime, you are guilty, regardless of your standing with the law. The criminal is not innocent until proven guilty any more than the innocent man wrongly convicted, like Jesus, is actually guilty just because he is convicted. A man convicted of murder years ago and now freed because of exonerating DNA evidence was always innocent.

Jesus, though innocent, chose instead to endure death alongside thousands, even millions, of innocents throughout the ages. The death of these innocents tarnishes society with a deep sense of injustice. Justice has not been served.

This pervasive sense of injustice is why we use the singular word “sin” and not the plural, “sins,” in the Gloria. Injustice is a darkness, a shroud over us. It exists because the human race somehow dances with darkness, is complicit with evil, and from that, we need a savior. We need someone who can take away the sin – the darkness – of the world.

Have you heard the story about the painter? A farmer hired him to paint a barn. The painter scrimped by thinning the paint too much. That night, after finishing the barn, the painter had a dream. A fierce storm blew through, and all the thinned paint ran down the side of the barn, exposing his shady dealings. The painter woke with a start, fell onto his knees, and sought forgiveness. Just then, an angel appeared, and said, “I have a message from heaven. Repaint! And thin no more.”

But that “thin” is “sins,” small “s”, plural, not big “S,” singular, “Sin.”

Darkness is the inability of the human race to do what it ought, and it continues to find itself doing what it ought not.

Long before the big prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, ancient Israel had God as king. God was their monarch. The system worked just fine, but the people started noticing their neighboring nations, all of which had kings. They became jealous and demanded a king of their own. God heard them and gave them kings, first Saul, and then David.

Monarchy is appealing, you see. For what a quaint concept it is to have someone in charge, someone making the tough decisions, someone taking care of you, and guiding you when life is especially complex.

You may think to yourself, we Americans don’t want kings. After all, our constitutional democracy intrinsically eschews any monarchy, and we explicitly rejected King George III almost 235 years ago.

But maybe our society still longs for a king. We are drawn to strong leaders. We want someone who will keep the innocents from dying, who will protect us from the pall of darkness, the Sin of the world. We want justice.

Of course, there is no such thing, no hero, no infallible king – not in this world shrouded by darkness. And yet …

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The day that reminds us that there is a monarch who is just.

Christ the King Sunday is new to the church. Pope Pius XI introduced it in 1925, a time when despotic rulers and systems began to take hold in Europe: Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin. The Pope wanted to advance a message of security through the rule of Christ over the chaos of tyranny.

And this is what Christ’s rule means: no earthly system, monarchical or otherwise, is infallible. The shroud of darkness covers them all, covers us all. Injustice – innocents dying – will continue in this world. And yet, there is a kingdom that transcends this darkness. Jesus himself said it: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

This kingdom of God stands in stark contrast to the systems of this world. In this kingdom, there is justice. In this kingdom, the justice stands alongside mercy. In this kingdom, the innocents do not die. Or – dare one say it? – the painter thins no more.

The kingdom of God is real. It exists, here and now, just not in what you see. It is the kingdom that exists in the heart of men and women who give themselves over to the King of Kings. It exists in the hearts of men and women who give themselves over to peace.

It is because of the peace of that kingdom that we – who live both there and here, at once – can promote justice here. It is because of that peace that we stand against genocide in Sudan and elsewhere. It is because of that peace that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Justice, like a river, flows from that kingdom into this world, through you.

Surely you have heard the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran scholar who left Germany to escape Hitler. He moved to New York, but then he wrestled with himself. What good is his faith if he can live safely in New York while his parishioners could be killed at home in Germany for theirs? So he returned to Germany to fight Hitler’s evil. He was arrested and murdered. But they could not kill the ray of light that Bonhoeffer introduced into the darkness.

That is what the Kingdom of Christ means. It is otherworldly, and yet it is quite this-worldly. It is quite the here and now, light against darkness.

The light shone, and the darkness could not comprehend it, could not extinguish it.

And so, O Lord, please take away the Sin of the world. Through us.

Written by the Rev. Rob Gieselmann 
The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is interim rector at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, he practiced law for ten years, and since then has served in the Diocese of East Tennessee, the Diocese of Easton, and the Diocese of California. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008) and is the father of two wonderful children.

Needing reassurance, Pentecost 25, Proper 28 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Isaiah 65:17-25 and Canticle 9 (Track 2: Malachi 4:1-2a and Psalm 98); 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

We live in scary times.

Millions of people in this country and around the world find themselves unemployed or underemployed – in spite of the upbeat explanations of some economists that the recession is already at an end. The housing market, other experts tell us, has not stabilized. And the same is probably true of the vital banking system. Meanwhile, war – or near-war – continues unabated in many of the countries of the Middle East and in other parts of the world as well. Terrorism lingers as an ever-present danger. And global warming and critical environmental problems bring in their wake the threat of famine and other hardships. We could go on and on. The litany of problems facing the world today is seemingly endless.

Economic crises and wars have of course been a part of human existence from time immemorial. What we are going through in our present age is nothing new, no matter how vivid and painful it may be for us today. We have been through far worse. Just ask those who remember the Great Depression of the 1930s or the horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust. Truth is, no age and no place on earth is immune from the consequences of both human frailty and arrogance and the foibles of misguided leadership. It is all part and parcel of our fallen nature.

Throughout salvation history, the scriptures – both Hebrew and Christian – have come to terms with these and similar quandaries. What to make of the depravities of conflict and violence among the nations of the world? How to explain the vagaries of illness, hunger, betrayal, and even death? Are such tribulations somehow all related? Are they portents of God’s displeasure – or, on the other hand, harbingers of better things to come? Most importantly, where is God in all this?

And where are we?

For the evangelist Luke, such questions converge in his understanding of Christ and his mission on earth. And their answers are, for him, absolutely critical to the everyday lives of Christians in the here and now. Luke writes with the benefit of hindsight some decades after our Lord’s death and resurrection, seeking to bolster the faith of his contemporaries. He tells the gospel story with compassion and vigor: Jesus suffered the cross and thereby subsumed the sin and evil of this world into his own death and resurrection. He made possible an end to suffering and death for all time to come.

But for some in Luke’s day and age, the questions remained the same as those of the bystanders in today’s gospel account: When will this be? What will be the sign that this is about to take place? Has it already taken place? Where is Christ now when we need him? When will he, at long last, return and fix things for good?

And always lurking behind such theological probings, is the question: When will we, God’s people, be forever safe from harm?

Today’s gospel narrative is Luke’s profound – and perhaps profoundly troubling – response to these questions. For it seems to Luke that the troubles of this world are but sure signs that things are developing as they should and in accord with the Lord’s eternal plan. If the present age is replete with terror and fear, it is only because the world itself has been in some sense knocked off kilter – staggered by the power of Christ’ resurrection and his presence in the world.

Scary times, indeed.

Far from losing heart in the face of existing adversity, Luke asserts, Christians must come to know that these things – war, earthquake, famine, and plague – will but provide “an opportunity to testify” to the deeper truths of the gospel itself. For everything in the here and now already contains within it the promise of salvation to come.

As much as the Christians of Luke’s day might have wished for the Lord’s speedy return and an end to their trials, they were not to lose heart nor be “led astray.” It would have been all too easy for them – faced with persecution and mockery – to turn aside from the way of truth. But “not a hair of your head will perish,” Luke reassures them. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” It takes endurance – and great faith – to see Christ already present amid the turmoil of the age. But that is the challenge Luke sets before followers of Christ.

We face the same challenge today.

We, too, need reassurance of Christ’s nearness and imminence in our world. Everyone wants change. Every one of us wants a better future for ourselves and our children. Everyone, alas, also has differing views of the problems before us and the solutions to them.

It is easy to think that the world has changed significantly in our own time; that our current problems and challenges are unprecedented or that our age has undergone a unique “paradigm shift” in thinking and understanding. But the human heart does not change so quickly or easily. And, the truth of the gospel – and of Christ’s promise – remains as alive as ever it was. If we live in scary times, we also live in sacred times not unlike those of Luke in the first decades of Christian faith. Christ still has work for us to do.

Paul, by tradition Luke’s mentor in faith and mission, might challenge us as he challenged the Thessalonians of the first century: “Brothers and sisters,” he might say, “do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Brothers and sisters, we have our work cut out for us.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus has completed his ministry at “The Episcopal Church in Almaden” in San Jose, California, and is looking for work. Visit his profile at the Interim Ministry Network website, http://www.imnedu.org/PTSHegedus.htm.

Eternal comfort, Pentecost 24, Proper 27 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21 or Psalm 98 (Track 2: Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 17:1-9); 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

This, the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, in many parishes and missions, holds the place for All Saints’ Day. Many congregations – and the rubrics – allow for the celebration of All Saints’ to be transferred to the Sunday following November 1. But why? What is so important about the Feast of All Saints’ that makes it desirable, acceptable, and correct to move it to a Sunday?

In order to answer that, let’s pay close attention to the lections for today, not paying attention only to their substance, but their tone. As we pray today’s collect, read or hear read the appointed verses from the second epistle to the Thessalonians and the gospel of Luke, what images come to mind? As we meditate on the reading assigned for this Sunday, this twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, how are our imaginations guided and excited? How do we experience and see God’s message for us?

The collect speaks of eternal life and Jesus coming again and our transformation – taking on a fuller likeness of him in the eternal kingdom. The second epistle to the church in Thessalonica begins with: “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” and ends with “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” The gospel account according to Luke reminds us that God is a living God and is god of the living, not the dead.

Any ideas about what is happening or why these particular references? In an intentional and specific way, the lessons on this Sunday begin to turn attention to the “end times” or the eschaton. We are being led, being prepared to travel again, through the season of Advent. We are being reminded of God’s plan of salvation that reaches its zenith with the promised birth of the Messiah. And even more particularly, we are being encouraged to take heart and trust in the Lord and the promise of his second coming and new and unending life in God’s eternal kingdom.

This connection, following closely on the heels of the celebration of the Feast of All Saints’, brings our understanding of heaven and earth, death and life, hope and despair into proper balance. So often it is very easy for us to spend an inordinate amount of energy and attention on those things that are not right, asking questions about why God is allowing this or that, asking questions about how it is all supposed to work out, asking questions about when it will end, when Christ will return.

Ultimately today’s collect with the epistle and gospel point us to the reality of our salvation and the importance of our focus on the person of Christ. When we focus on Christ, we are focusing on love and healing, on hope and joy. It seems that our worry is nothing new, for even the members of the Thessalonian church appear to have been concerned about the what and when. The weight of the first paragraph of today’s epistle lection rests on calming the fears of the faithful and reminding them that they already have enough information about what is to come and how it will happen.

This has particular relevance for us in modern times, as so much seems to be happening that many wonder, “How much worse can it get?” Within and without our nation, people seem to polarizing along political, theological, economic, and national lines. So much of what is truly good and life-giving and Spirit-filled seems to be drowned out by the cacophony of discontent and vitriol. We, as believers in and followers of Christ, must be ready to remind each other of the promise to which we cling. We must be the ones who look into the difficult situations of our time, our world, our nation, our church and continue to see the promise of our salvation.

We have to be the ones who are comforted and then turn to comfort each other and those we are called to serve, with the message of the gospel and the understanding that even the difficulties of this life, even death itself, cannot change the fact that, as Jesus reminds us, God is the God of the living and not the dead.

We began our discussion with questions about the place of All Saints’ Day in our collective understanding and practice. The Feast of All Saints’ drives home the point we have evidence of our hope in the continuing lives of the saints who have gone on before. We acknowledge the memory and impact of those heroes and heroines of the faith who continue to live, not only with God, but in our collective memories. We hold fast to the reality that the path to Heaven has been well-established by our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ and has been followed by countless others – known and unknown – to the everlasting kingdom of the Almighty. We can draw confidence that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” and thereby have strength to always look heavenward and rejoice.

As we move through the days to come, especially when we find it difficult to see past the immediate difficulties of the day, we might do well to remember the words of Isaac Watts, known to many as the words to hymn 253:

Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

Once they were mourning here below,
And wet their couch with tears:
They wrestled hard, as we do now,
With sins, and doubts, and fears.

I ask them whence their victory came:
They, with united breath,
Ascribe their conquest to the Lamb,
Their triumph to His death.

They marked the footsteps that He trod,
His zeal inspired their breast;
And following their incarnate God,
Possess the promised rest.

Our glorious Leader claims our praise
For His own pattern giv’n;
While the long cloud of witnesses
Show the same path to Heav’n.

 Download large-print version for MS Word

Written by the Rev. Lawrence Womack
The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has served parishes in Baltimore, Maryland; and Buffalo, New York (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children.

Watchful purpose, All Saints’ Day (C) – 2010

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

A year ago a young hotel clerk showed up at an All Saints’ Day service. He told the priest as he left that it was the one day he felt obligated to be in church. “I never miss All Saints’ Day,” he said. True to his word, he hasn’t been back since.

The Feast of All Saints has a particular appeal to Anglicans. It is one of the seven principal feasts of the church, originally observed in Rome from the ninth century, but there are references to a feast of All Martyrs from the third century. All Saints is understood as a “celebration of Christ and his whole Mystical Body – the ‘elect’ and the ‘saints,’” according to Marion Hatchett, author of the Commentary on the American Prayer Book.

The readings from scripture and the glorious hymns we sing make this feast one anticipated by many. The calendar allows it to be observed the Sunday after November 1 when All Saints’ Day falls on a weekday.

So, why the popularity? Why would a young man make this his one day of observance each year instead of Christmas or Easter?

The readings point us to some answers. First, we read in Daniel of an apocalyptic vision, the end of things as we know it. Today for all people of intelligent reflection there can be no doubt that we are rapidly depleting the resources of our planet. Our own greed and accumulation of material wealth has an apocalyptic consequence. It cannot go on for ever while the gap between rich and poor grows greater with each year. Something has to change, just as it did in Daniel’s time when Israel had lost her bearings and was under foreign domination. But Daniel’s vision includes “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” and later, in today’s reading, Daniel receives assurance that all shall receive the kingdom and possess it forever. An apocalyptic vision is followed by a vision of hope, something we need to hear in a time of anxiety.

The majesty of Psalm 149 brings all of creation together and all of humanity in a joyous hymn of adulation at the triumph of goodness and justice – a vision that many wait for in a time of short-term solutions and quick fixes that only postpone the inevitable day when the poor receive justice and the faithful who have served them are rewarded.

The passage from Ephesians celebrates the life of the church as a unique institution that is part of God’s eternal purpose where believers live in unity with God, one another, and those who have gone before, confident of the life to come where full union with those who have gone before us will be restored.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers the Lucan version of the beatitudes that are usually read from Matthew. The Lucan version uses the pronoun “you” rather than “they,” which make Jesus’ words focused on us. We hear the words of blessing as we are, poor or rich, hungry or satisfied; then we hear the woes for the part of us that has only heeded false prophets and gods of wealth and privilege.

Being a saint has never been understood as being just kind to your grandmother and not kicking the dog. Being a saint has meant hurting for and with a world in pain. Being a saint has meant being misunderstood for taking a stand for justice and against short-term self-interest. Being a saint has meant caring for the least and the lost. A struggling parishioner recently wrote: “I don’t know what God wants for me; I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Then I spoke with my spiritual director and she simply said to stop whining and jump into the whirlwind. I did that and now think I’m on the right path, but it wasn’t what I expected.”

The saints have always been the people who preached by their lives and words what the world did not wish to hear. The saints have usually been people who were born into ordinary circumstances but achieved extraordinary things because they followed God’s call, struggling and wrestling with God all the way. And many of them were folks just like you and me.

Recently a pastor presided at an interment in a rural cemetery. Many of the family of the deceased who had been in the diplomatic service came to the service. As they walked among the graves, some dating back to the early nineteenth century, they commented about the lives of the departed; they pointed to where they would one day be buried and talked about lying next to Aunt Ethel or cousin Fred. What moved the priest the most was their simple faith, their devotion to each other, and the way they cared for each other. In the midst of all the cacophony of election campaigns and the threats of a planet in turmoil, here were good people who went to church, said their prayers, and hoped for things to come.

While the young man might not say it in these words, he stands as a beacon for all of us who live with watchful purpose, praying that one day all of our hope will be fulfilled. He is one of the quiet faithful who see in life the connection with those who have gone before and those yet to come.

May that be the faith with which we all live on this feast of All Saints.

Written by the Rev. Ben E. Helmer
Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives in nearby Holiday Island with his wife.