Archives for 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.

Shared vision, Pentecost 23, Proper 26 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Hookworm. Largely eradicated in the U.S. for nearly a century, these tiny parasites are one of the leading causes of maternal and child mortality in the tropics and subtropics. Debilitating the immune system, they are a known cause of anemia, and hookworm infections can make the body more susceptible to malaria and HIV.

But in 2004, David Pritchard, a British immunologist, applied a bandage to his arm covered in hookworm larva, intentionally infecting himself. This wasn’t an act of self-destruction but was the beginning of years of study into the possible benefits of the tiny parasites.

The hookworm, like all of our earthly co-habitants, evolved alongside us, and in this case, within us, in an intricate balance. As it turns out, hookworms, in small amounts, can work to keep our sometimes overactive immune system in check. A small hookworm infection can serve to prevent certain allergic reactions in humans, to reduce asthma, and eradicate hay fever. Allergies, in their modern ubiquitous array of manifestations, may be, in part, a result of our attempt to sanitize our world and rid ourselves of this and other tiny parasites.

In our culture, we are obsessed with sanitation and control. For many of us, our vision of the reign of God, whether we call it that or not, is one of simplification, where there exist no unknowns, where the world is a mechanical, predictable, responsive, finite network, and where justice is a system of equal give and take.

The signs of this vision are all around us, as are the signs of its destructiveness. In our attempt to groom God’s creation into a controlled environment, we’ve cleared millions of acres of forestland, prairie, and meadows for single cash crops. We’ve dramatically reduced the biodiversity of our most populated areas in order to make them safe for a handful of domesticated species. We’ve developed simplistic systems of labor, talent, and currency equivalences. We’ve envisioned a world as white as individually plastic-wrapped disposable cutlery; the whiteness of a single-use fork to accompany our individually packaged organic spinach salad.

But today’s readings remind us that the world is a complex, messy place. Consider the reading from Isaiah. The Jewish people of the prophet’s time had a vision similar to ours: a world where simple exchanges could right the spiritual disorder, where quick cures would undo long-term spiritual decline and disease. Their hands were bloodied with their burnt offerings, their schedules were filled with church-stuff without really engaging the broken world surrounding them. But the justice of God asks more: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

One would think that these commands would be clear enough. Stop doing bad; do good. But God, speaking through Isaiah, admits to the fallacy of any system of symbols, even language. Isaiah, interpreting God’s revelation, speaks the beautiful line: “Come now, let us argue it out.” Or in other translations “Sit down. Let us reason together.” In an invitation, God, through Isaiah, admits to humankind that even God’s commandments, when written in human language, are insufficient to know and envision the reign of God.

God calls us into conversation, even argument, over what it is to follow God’s will, to resist, to listen, to adapt, to contest, to move forward in relationship with God. God speaks to the continuing revelation of God’s will in the world, a revelation dependent on relationship, on placed-ness, on the past and the present realities of human life from which we speak, and read, and act. It is in this “arguing out” of justice that God offers us the possibility of redemption, of the cleansing that makes us “like snow.”

But the whiteness of snow can be a slippery slope into the vision of a dry-erase world, where the past is forgotten in an attempt to not be bound to it. Who has not heard or sang of the cleansing power of the blood of the lamb? We are to be washed as white as snow by the blood of the lamb, by claiming him as our personal Lord and Savior. Sometimes we imagine that Jesus is the ultimate re-start button, that to find and be found by Jesus is to forget the past and simply live by love into the future. But that is not the Jesus we encounter in today’s gospel reading.

There’s a fun children’s song to tell the story:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down;
“For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”

But the story is not quite so simple. Zaccheus is a tax-collector and a rich man. His money had been made through the extortion of the people by the ruling empire, and by his own wickedness, as he tells it, in “defrauding” others. Having welcomed Jesus into his house, having come into personal relationship with him, having not only seen Jesus, but having been seen by and recognized by Jesus, he was transformed. As a result, Zacchaeus took it upon himself to make restitution for his past.

This is not a case of “Go and sin no more.” Zaccheus had to confront those he has wronged, paying them back four times what he has wrongfully taken. The restitution, the resurrection, is in the confrontation with God that results in a confrontation with ourselves, our pasts, and our world. The “arguing out” of God’s justice is a complex invitation.

“Cease to do evil.” What is the evil we turn from?

“Learn to do good.” Who will teach us the good?

“Seek justice.” How will we know justice when we find it?

“Rescue the oppressed.” Who, indeed, are the oppressed and how are we called to rescue them?

“Come now, let us argue it out.”

As a faith community, we have often found it sufficient to say we are “open and affirming” or tolerant or inclusive. We have hung banners and said, “All are welcome.”

But have we truly wrestled with the reality of the experience of people who are oppressed? What might it look like to pay back fourfold what we have wrongfully taken in terms of dignity, social place, relationship, and of life? Not just to this community at this time in this place, but to all those we have wronged and continue to wrong? What might this type of justice look like? We must “argue it out,” with God, with each other, and ultimately with God present in those we have wronged.

The question is not whether we should stop trying to eradicate hookworm or move forward into more inclusive communities. The issue at hand is confronting the reality that we are not operating in the artificial whiteness of a lab, or in the mansions of an imagined hereafter. The vision that we share with the ancient Hebrews, that vision of a sanitized and simple world that can become a productive, predictable, controllable machine operating within the confines of human logic, will always be a violent and destructive dream. At the end of the day, we will always be called from real lives with real relationships to make real sacrifices for the sake of real justice.

The crumbs will always fall to the linen, the wine will always drip from the chalice, and, by grace, the body will always be broken open and shared. Come, let us argue it out.

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, Washington, and holds a BA in American Studies from Stanford University.

Merciful God, Pentecost 22, Proper 25 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65 (Track 2 OT: Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22) (Track 2 psalm: Psalm 84:1-6); 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In the early years of our country, one Southern family stood out in offering leadership to a fledgling nation. Most renowned among the first families of Virginia, the Lees were wealthy, capable, intelligent, and dedicated patriots.

Using the legend of this family and what some consider a bit of overexposure, lyricist Sherman Edwards crafted a clever song for his Broadway musical “1776.” In a classic scene, John Adams asks fellow Continental Congress member Richard Henry Lee to help the cause for independence. He challenges the Virginia representative to get his colony’s House of Burgesses to pass a resolution calling for independence from England. In the course of their conversation, Adams prays, “God help us.”

Lee replies confidently, “He will John. He will.” Then, as if to prove his statement, Lee launches into a delightful song that includes this wonderful stanza:

They say that God in heaven is everybody’s God,
I’ll admit that God in heaven is everybody’s God,
But I tell you, John, with pride, God leans,
A little on the side of the Lees, the Lees of old Virginia!

This humorous song rings true because it is so natural to think that since we are faithful, we must be special, and that God must be on our side. It’s a good example of what Jesus was getting at when he told the parable in today’s gospel reading.

The Pharisee in today’s parable was basically a good guy – a member of what might be considered one of the first families of the faith. But like Lee in the play, he lost sight of his place in God’s world. He knew that thanking God was a good way to pray, but he allowed his prayer to degenerate into prideful boasting.

And he forgot about the need for repentance. As a human being, he had a dark side, but he tried to hide it. He made the mistake of choosing to look on his good side. He attempted to boost himself by comparing his good qualities with what he perceived as the negative attributes of others. He set himself up as the judge of his behavior over against the actions of others.

We can imagine the details of his thought process, because we are tempted to engage in the same delusion:

I may have told a white lie, but I thank God I don’t cheat on my income tax.
I may be a thief, but I thank God I’m not a murderer.
I may have turned aside when the poor family asked me for help, but I thank God I’m not responsible for the starvation in Africa.
I may hold back on my pledge, but I thank God I’m not one of those reprobates who never gives.
I may not get to church as often as I might, but I thank God I belong to a church.
I may not study the Bible as much as I should, but I thank God I’m not an atheist.

These examples may be a little over the top, but Jesus was using the self-aggrandizing statements by the Pharisee in comparison with the prayer by the truly faithful man who asked simply, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus makes it clear that it is dangerous to compare our relative goodness, whether real or imagined, with that of others. This is because such moral manipulation drives a wedge between us and God. It is especially tragic in its use of religion as a divisive element between us and our brothers and sisters. Such action works against us all by inevitably separating rather than unifying the human family.

Sometimes we can get into trouble even if we use the standard of today’s gospel, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” as a way to compare ourselves to others. For example, Rabbi Joshua Davidson tells a wonderful old story from the Jewish faith that illustrates the danger:

A rabbi decides to model repentance for his congregation. Humbly he beseeches the Almighty for forgiveness, and he beats his breast proclaiming, “Before You, God, I am nothing. I am nothing.”
The cantor sees him and joins in: “I am nothing. I am nothing,” she cries.
The temple president, sensing that he too must get in on the act, now comes up. “I am nothing. I am nothing,” he sobs.
In the silence that follows, the rabbi turns to the cantor and whispers, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”

In truth, our measure is not one of comparison with others but rather against the values of the gospel, against the Ten Commandments, against the summary of the Law. How well do we compare with these standards? In doing so, we can stand to our full height, whatever it may be.

But then we take the test of the truest measure. How high do we stand when comparing ourselves against the final, and only, model of our faith – Jesus himself? The ultimate comparison can only be between ourselves and God’s perfect desires for us. Of course, such a test leads us to only one conclusion. We fail, and can only offer the tax collector’s prayer: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Only in this way can we move forward in the right kind of humility, asking for forgiveness after darkness invades us, the darkness that we have given into through our sin. Such repentance can renew us as we listen to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We will become humbled, cut down to size, and this will lead us to the exhalation that comes from a life in Christ.

Standing in the knowledge of our need for God’s forgiveness and love, we can become not only the prayerful people Jesus calls us to be, but we can also act in the faith that despite our sin, God will empower us as children. We can pray, finally, “Lord use us sinners to do your work. Use us as instruments of your peace and grace and love and active concern for your children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

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.

Pray without ceasing, Pentecost 21, Proper 24 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Today’s psalm, Psalm 119, gives us 176 ways to say the same thing: “Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord,” and “Oh, how I love your law!” and “All the day long, it is in my mind.” At 176 verses, it is the longest of all psalms. It consists of 22 eight-line stanzas, each stanza beginning with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is an astonishing exercise in puzzle working, poetry, and praise.

Psalm 119 calls for the kind of continued learning Paul commends in his letter to Timothy. As a subject of our recitation and meditation, it offers an entrance into a life of continued, endless prayer. So Jesus tells a story to underscore our need to pray always and not lose heart. It is what Paul elsewhere commends: “pray without ceasing.”

And note the forceful summary by Jesus: for those chosen ones who pray day and night, justice shall come and come quickly.

Are we even aware of this linkage? That our prayers are to be linked to justice?

Don’t we often tend to be rather selfish in our prayers? We would always like immediate results – but would like those results to be centered on what we want rather than what we need.

And what Jesus says we need is to pray always and not to lose heart.

There is no better place to begin to pray always than with Psalm 119. One hundred and seventy-six verses reminding us to have Torah, God’s law, in our minds all day long. The word “Torah” or one of its synonyms appears in almost every one of the 176 verses: Torah, law decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances.

A rabbi was once asked, “What does a rabbi do?” He replied, “A rabbi is to lead God’s people to study Torah so that one day everyone will know Torah. On that day when everyone knows Torah, everyone will be a rabbi so that there will no longer be any need for rabbis.”

This is the dream of God as revealed to the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” God wants us to become experts in loving the law and living the law.

We in the church tend to suffer grave misunderstandings about this word law. These misunderstandings come from misreading of Paul, compounded by particular Christian theologians throughout the ages. The word “law” sounds static with the sole purpose of convicting us of sin and misdoings.

Whereas a regular reading of all 176 verses of Psalm 119 would reveal a much richer range of meaning. The “law” is a treasure, a gift, really, that makes one wise and happy. The psalm is written in the first-person narrative voice, making the words of the psalm personal, words that belong to us, words that are given by God to be ours. Torah is not a static set of rules, but a map that provides a personal way of life, a guiding force, a pathway from which it is all too easy to stray but is sweeter than all alternative paths available.

At its core, Psalm 119 as a source of our daily prayer and meditation directs us to endlessly reflect on the Decalogue – the fancy theological name for the Ten Commandments. The first “table” or “tablet” of the Ten Commandments focuses on our love of God; the second “table” or “tablet” focuses on our love of neighbor.

Jesus spent much of his time discussing the law, Torah, with any and all persons he could. Jesus demonstrates that continual focus, discussion, and meditation on God’s law is what leads one in the way of life that is really life, and offers justice for all people. Torah, as understood at the time of Jesus, was a continual unfolding of God’s will, new each day, new in each age. Torah, or law, was not confining, but empowering, and necessary to being God’s people in the world.

And meditating on the law day and night, as Jesus lives and instructs us to do ourselves, reminds us of our God-given responsibilities to love and care for our neighbors, especially those in greatest need.

It turns out God does have a plan to care for those in greatest need: we are that plan.

How wonderful it would be if all of us, every day, would read all of Psalm 119. How might the world be different if our love of God’s law was something we treasured in our hearts all day long? For Jesus this is faith: Torah in action every day.

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

Have mercy on us, Pentecost 20, Proper 23 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-12 (Track 2: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111); 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’s a good prayer to know. The story of the ten lepers is really a story about life and death. It is really a story about our lives, and about our deaths – and about the choices we have. It’s a simple story, very familiar. But it is easy to miss what is really going on.

We need to remember what it meant to be a leper. Being a leper meant being worse than dead. Lepers were considered evil and unclean. They were excluded from every part of community life. They could not live, worship, eat, walk, or talk among “normal” people. They had to stay at a distance from life and to survive, as best they could, on the leavings and the charity of others. The horrible progress of their disease was probably far from the worst thing they suffered. They had nothing, and no hope, yet they could – from forty paces – watch the real world, and real life, happen just outside of their reach.

Ten of these lepers met Jesus. They stood at a distance from him – as was required by the law – and shouted for mercy. Doubtless they had said the same thing to every passing rabbi, to every hustler and holy man with a reputation for healing who had wandered within earshot. A simple prayer: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” A good prayer, a very good prayer. Jesus granted them mercy. He just did. No reason is given or needed. Jesus heard their prayer and showed them mercy. He gave them their lives back. He told them to present themselves to the priests. Now, this was more a medical act than a religious one. The priests were the ones who certified that the lepers were cured and could rejoin the world.

They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so off they went toward the city and toward the priests. And as they went, their leprosy went away; they were cured. Jesus stood there and watched. He gave them their lives, and he put no conditions on the gift, and he just stood there, and watched and waited. Nine of the ten just kept going.

I know of no clearer picture of what our culture is mostly like, and of what our lives are mostly like, than the picture of Jesus standing there, watching those nine people running just as fast as they can run, watching them get smaller and smaller the farther away from him they got.

They weren’t ungrateful. There is no way anyone could have such a thing happen to them and not be grateful. Those nine who showed Jesus their backs were doubtless thrilled, ecstatic, and generally tickled pink. It is easy to imagine them, happy, laughing, making plans, feeling just wonderful, and running just as fast as they could away from Jesus, in a terrible big hurry to get on with it.

I’m quite sure that if someone had asked, they might have slowed down long enough to say that God was really swell to do this for them and that Jesus was the most wonderful person in the whole world. But it would have been hard to catch them. There was so much to do, so little time.

No, the issue wasn’t gratitude. The issue wasn’t feeling good about Jesus or anything like that. The issue was that those who had received so much were running so hard in the wrong direction.

They were so full of what they had received, of their gift, that there was just no room for the giver, the source of the gift. They weren’t ungrateful, they were just busy. That’s all; they were just terribly busy. There we are. There is our world. There is our life, in one small, bitter nutshell.

It’s impossible not to see ourselves. It’s impossible not to ask questions such as : What direction are we running? What are we running toward? What are we leaving behind? How often do we stop, or even slow down, long enough to pay some attention, not only to our gifts, not only to all we have and all we have to do, but also to the giver, to the source of it all? Are we so busy running, so busy using what we have, that we can see no farther?

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Only one came back. Only one was actually drawn toward Jesus, and not away from him, by the wonderful gift. Only one. And this one alone received the fullness of what Jesus had to give.

Our English text makes it harder to see this. All ten lepers were cured – the Greek verb is a medical term, and it means their disease went away. And all ten stayed cured, whether they came back or not – God gives freely, without conditions. But to the one who came back, to the one who saw what was going on the most clearly, to him and to him only something more was said. To him Jesus said, “Rise up and go your way, your faith has made you well.” The Greek for “made you well” is a different word, a theological word; it means “being made whole,” or “being made complete.” It also means being saved. Go your way, Jesus told him, your faith has made you not just cured, but whole, and saved.

All ten were healed, all ten were given their lives, but Jesus had more to give than that. That’s why he watched and waited, that’s why coming back was so important – because Jesus had more to give. But you had to be there. So only one was made whole, only one was fully made well. All ten were given their lives back; but only one was given the fullness of life.

The one who came back was a foreigner. That’s important. The one who came back, the one who actually gave thanks, who actually changed the direction he was going and did something different, the one who focused not only on the gifts, but also on the giver, this man was a foreigner.

I doubt this is an accident or a coincidence. I think that the really hard part of this story is the realization that if we are ever to discover fully what that tenth leper discovered, if we are ever to know fully what it means for the Lord to say to us, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well”; if we are to know that, then we must also, and first, discover what it means to be a foreigner. We must discover what it means to belong somewhere else, for our first loyalties to be elsewhere.

The one who made it back to Jesus didn’t fit in quite as well as the others. He didn’t belong to the world quite as much as the others; he didn’t have quite as much to run to, or quite as much to gain. So he, and he alone, could see clearly. He, and he alone, could see beyond the gift, could see beyond all that there was to do, and so could see the Lord. Everyone who belonged, all of the natives, ran the wrong direction.

This is hard stuff. We have long been established in the land, and we are very busy, and we have a lot to lose. It’s hard to imagine what it might mean to be an alien, to stand one step removed from everything that makes us run so fast and so hard.

But remember that only the foreigner looked back; only the foreigner was able to see beyond the gift to the one who gave it. Only the foreigner received all that Jesus had to give. The rest were just too busy, the rest had too much going on. And it is a matter of life and death.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’ a good prayer to know.

Written by the Rev. James Liggett
The Rev. James Liggett is rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Engage wholeheartedly, Pentecost 19, Proper 22 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Even listening attentively to Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we are probably not going to want to go the distance with Paul when he invites Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel … relying on the power of God.”

It’s really easy to hear “Join with me in suffering” and then just zone out. “Suffering” is an unappealing sound bite, even for those of us who listen without Bible Attention Deficit Disorder. We do not want to suffer any more than we already do; indeed, have we not come to church precisely because we need to get away from suffering, or at least hand it over to Jesus, who can do something about it?

Perhaps this is why we do not ordinarily find the Book of Lamentations in Hebrew scripture very useful, either in church or at home. The book is a series of five lengthy poems of inexpressible sadness, raw pain, and deep sorrow. The poets put into words our ancestors’ experience of living through enormous public and personal suffering as their home city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C. For our ancestors, that city was the focus of dreams and hopes, the sign of God’s presence, the promise of God’s fidelity to them; its hills, its Temple, its walls and gates all spoke to travelers and residents alike of what they treasured. And now the place was gone, and they wept. They wept for being invaded, for their national identity and security damaged; they wept for abandonment by their kings; they wept for old ones killed and unburied; they wept for children dead in the streets. They wept for all the questions shouted, sighed, and whispered to God that the heavens did not answer.

We can, each of us, relate to that; but we would much rather not.

Yet it is there, in the five long poems of lament, there for us in the Bible, the living word of God. And the lamentations are there because the loss, the weeping, the suffering, and the pain goes on.

As it says in the opening verses of Lamentations:

“How lonely sits the city that was once so full of people!
How like a widow she has become
she weeps bitterly in the night,
her cheeks wet with tears
and she has no one to comfort her.”

The ancient poet imagined the city as a lonely, abused woman, grieving. At best, we apply the scenes of Lamentations to Good Friday, Jesus on the Cross. We transpose the lament from Hebrew scriptures to the women who stayed with Jesus to the end, and grieved at the foot of the cross as they watched their friend and Lord dying.

But when Paul invited Timothy – and by extension, us – to join him “in suffering for the gospel,” Paul was not asking Timothy or us to be observers. Paul knows what we also know: that Jesus repeatedly told his followers to take up their cross and follow him, not to sit somewhere watching his cross and weeping for him. For the sake of the gospel, for witness to the good news, we have somehow to engage the suffering, enter the lament.

“Join me in suffering for the gospel … relying upon the power of God.”

Like our ancestors who watched their beloved Jerusalem invaded, ravaged, desecrated, and devastated, we have been watching so much of our world and our planet suffer before our eyes. The power of God seems a bit ambiguous and even flimsy when we see the arctic ice mass retreating or that in Africa there is almost no snow left atop Kilimanjaro. The landscapes and languages of all our cities have been invaded by “others.” Un-finish-able wars are being waged with new weapons and even newer peacekeeping goals, yet men and women still suffer and die for a cause, a name, or a flag. These are losses as surely as Babylon invading Jerusalem was a loss, and pogroms and holocausts are loss. Yet the suffering has brought forth into the public arena not the poetic cadences of lamentation, but uncharted depths of anxiety and resentment, rage and fear.

“Join me in suffering for the gospel … relying upon the power of God.”

We are the ones who share bread and wine at a common table of thanks-giving. We are the ones covenanted to honor God in worship, study and prayer. We are the ones who promise to repent of indifference, brutality and greed, and return to the God of engagement, compassion, and generosity. We hold in our hearts and in our minds’ eyes the raw and bleak edges of violence, and at the same time the glorious vision of God at work in the world about us. Where certain talk shows, tabloids, tweets, and blogs daily degrade the realities of poverty, injustice, and oppression by manipulating the media bites, we are the ones who notice and resist such manipulations. We resist because we are called to live, notice, pray, act, and share in a context where, in Christ, our lives are made one with those who suffer such realities and the consequences of such manipulation. In our time and place, this is what it means to be the ones called to “rely upon the power of God.”

The poets of Lamentations look fearlessly at the consequences of the loss of Jerusalem. They speak terrible things, such as “The Lord has broken my teeth on gravel and ground me into the dust. My life was bereft of peace, and I forgot what happiness was.” The voice of lamentation is fierce and strong – and it is followed almost in the same breath by “But this do I call to mind, and therefore have hope: the kindness of the Lord has not ended, his mercy is not spent.”

It is only by remembering the acts of God in the past and by engaging the living word of God in the present that we can also engage wholeheartedly in both fierce lamentation and in boundless hope.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Rev. Angela V. Askew lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Forgiveness is central, Pentecost 17, Proper 20 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9 (Track 2: Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113); 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Jesus didn’t really say that, did he?

Imagine the disciples hearing this story. They probably ask Jesus to repeat himself, clean the wax out of their ears, and look at each other for verification: did he really just say that?

It seems he did. Someone remembered this story, and Jesus has demonstrated a knack throughout Luke’s gospel for telling memorable stories. Most of them are parables, which invite us to remember the story and mull on it. It is always a mistake to treat parables in the same way we treat allegories, and this story in particular could represent real trouble for the interpreter who treats it as allegory. Who is God in the story? Who is the dishonest manager supposed to represent?

That’s not what Jesus is doing. It’s difficult to know precisely what he is doing, but he hasn’t stopped believing in and demonstrating the kingdom of God, a reality that includes perfect justice and mercy; so we assume that the dishonest manager, who operates entirely out of self-interest, isn’t a direct stand-in for God, or for us.

This story highlights our need to take great care in interpreting pieces of scripture in light of their context. If we were to read this passage under the rubric that we are to take everything in the Bible literally, we’d find ourselves in real trouble, and probably in jail.

Clearly, the startling image of the dishonest manager as the “hero” of Jesus’ story will help us to remember it. But if it’s not literal, what are we supposed to make of it?

The story in Luke that comes immediately before today’s story is the much-beloved story of the prodigal son, the cranky older brother, and the ridiculously forgiving father. Today’s story may well highlight the same situation: someone in trouble stumbles into grace practically by accident. In the story of the prodigal, the younger son does not acquit himself well. He makes some very selfish choices that offend nearly everyone, and only comes to his senses to the degree that he realizes something must change so that he can survive. Continuing to act in his own self-interest, he returns home to discover that grace and forgiveness have been waiting for him the whole time, and we have a sense that he may finally get what it means to be loved.

In today’s story, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation, and for the same reason: he has acted entirely selfishly without concern for how his actions will affect others, just so he can slip some money into his pocket that doesn’t belong to him. When his employer figures out what he’s done, he figures his goose is cooked, and so he continues to act in his own self-interest by cutting deals with his employer’s debtors. What he wants is for these people to owe him something, because he is sure that manual labor is beneath him, and begging is so embarrassing. What’s disturbing to those of us listening to his story is that it works! It works even better than he had planned; not only do the people who owe money to his boss get a better deal, the manager himself has regained some status in the eyes of his employer because of his shrewdness.

This is just crazy, upside-down grace. We who hear his story want him to pay for his dishonesty, not to get out of a sticky situation smelling like a rose. What kind of moral example is this?

Well, it isn’t one. What Jesus seems to be highlighting in this story, which we can perhaps see more clearly by comparing it to the story of the prodigal son, is the ridiculous nature of God’s grace, and our call to live in it.

This foxy manager and self-serving younger son sound a lot like Jacob, whose name became Israel; he connived and manipulated, wrestled and argued, when God’s blessing was available to him from the beginning.

Jesus commends the shrewd – and shady – manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says this manager – who is “of this world,” meaning someone whose values are entirely plebian and self-oriented – has managed to scratch and claw his way into a better situation; what can Jesus’ followers do, he asks, with the grace of God behind them?

What Jesus thinks his followers are capable of is what he himself has been busy doing: healing, reconciling, truth-telling, and proclaiming the kingdom. We must be as clever as the manager in today’s gospel, with a different goal: serving our self-interest, alongside the best interests of the world that God loves, by building the kingdom of God.

Today’s collect contrasts being “anxious about earthly things” with “loving things heavenly.” It would be simple to imagine that “loving things heavenly” means some kind of ethereal, spiritual experience, bathed in light, with some harp music playing in the background. However, the stories Jesus has been telling in this long narrative of his journey to Jerusalem don’t sound ethereal at all. They are earthy, everyday stories that connect right into regular human lives. It’s once of the central ironies of the Christian life that in order to “love things heavenly,” we must turn toward the dust and dirt of which we are made, and try to envision and build the reign of God.

Today’ gospel is a reminder of a couple of things: when we get anxious about money, status, power, what letters come before or after our name, what kind of car we drive, what brand of clothes we wear; when we get anxious about those things, we end up using our best skills for ourselves alone. It’s also a reminder that in spite of ourselves, we are bathed in grace and forgiveness.

We are called to be shrewd about recognizing grace and sharing it. We are called to love things heavenly, by loving God’s creation, seeking justice for everyone,

Perhaps most importantly, today’s gospel is centered on one action: forgiveness. The manager intends to make his own situation better when he forgives his master’s debtors, but the more he thinks about it, the better it gets: the people who have owed his master more than they’ll ever be able to repay are suddenly going to have their burden lightened, and that’s going to make the master look good, and that’s going to make the master happy, and that means the manager won’t lose his job. Everybody wins. Forgiveness – which is an act, not a feeling – has positive consequences for everyone.

We can get hung up on the undeniable fact that the person in the story who forgives is acting dishonestly and manipulatively, and we’d like to distance ourselves from that kind of behavior. But Jesus chooses his story illustrations carefully, and this one sticks in the memory precisely because it’s outside the boundaries of any conventional morality tale.

Forgiveness and its consequences are central in this gospel and in the story of the prodigal that precedes it. No matter who does the forgiving, it’s going to create ever-widening circles of positive consequences. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is the starting point for building the kingdom of God, and of course, this cycle begins with God’s grace toward us. If God kept score, we would be in some serious debt, like the people who owed more than they could pay in today’s gospel. But God’s grace precedes our entire existence, and if we choose to be kingdom-builders, we begin by accepting God’s grace, and extending our own forgiveness to others. There is really no other way to transform our limited sense of tit-for-tat justice into an expansive sense of God’s justice and mercy.

The Good News is today’s gospel isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s there; forgiveness is the engine that drives our journey toward the kingdom, and we who receive it gladly are called to share it freely.

 Download large-print version for MS Word

Written by the Rev. Kay Sylvester
The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s in Tustin, California. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.