Archives for February 2011

Grace and Mercy, 8 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 27, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Here’s an experiment: read the gospel appointed for today to a group of friends, all of whom have jobs, places to live, and automobiles. Then – at least in your imagination – read this gospel to the 800,000 or so people in Haiti who have been living in refugee camps for a year. This message – don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because God will take care of you – might be heard by the well-off audience as an admonishment to keep focused on the things that matter, rather than material wants. But the second group doesn’t have that option.

If you have spent the last year or so worrying every minute about feeding your children, giving them shelter at night, and perhaps someday being able to get them some shoes, Jesus’ message cannot be easy to hear. What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing but worry.

Jesus is not saying that the basic necessities of human life don’t matter, nor is he saying that theses necessities will magically appear if we believe in him correctly. He is talking to people who have enough, it seems; otherwise his encouragement not to worry would simply be cruel.

But what about those who truly don’t have enough? How can they hear good news in today’s gospel?

Though the message is going to be perceived differently by those who have enough and those who do not, the message is really the same: don’t spend your time and energy and heart fretting about this stuff. If you have enough, be thankful, and beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need. If you don’t have enough, it’s not because God doesn’t love you. Jesus is working to disconnect the link that was commonly made in his day: those who please God have plenty; those who have displeased God will suffer.

If only it were that easy! Of course, there are those in our culture who spout off after every natural disaster or act of violence, claiming that they know what specific sin is being punished. It would simplify matters, certainly, to be able to draw a straight line between a list of do’s and don’ts and the corresponding benefits or punishments. For example, if you steal, there will be a tornado; its strength will be determined by the dollar value of what is stolen. Or if you cheat on your taxes, wham, a sinkhole will open in your back yard.

It seems that Jesus is encouraging his followers to look beyond that kind of straight-line thinking that attaches virtue to success and vice to failure. He is making a claim that God’s desire for us is that we all have enough, rather than using some complex calculus to determine precisely how blessed or cursed we will be. “No one can serve two masters,” he says. We’ve got to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values are probably not best focused on ourselves. Jesus is saying, “Look beyond the boundaries of yourself.”

In this light, the situation in Haiti doesn’t get magically better, nor does the person in desperate circumstances automatically understand this as good news. But it does sound like encouragement not to let dire straits reduce us all to complete selfishness. If we are sitting at the top of the comfort scale, we should not be worrying about getting more, but about how to share what we have. If we sit at the bottom of that scale, we should not regard that as permission to lie, cheat, and steal our way to comfort. But more than a moral admonishment, this message claims God’s care for everything God has made: people, lilies, the birds, you name it. While we have ample evidence that God doesn’t prevent disaster, Jesus assures us that God is deeply concerned with the lives God has created. In other words, we are not alone, no matter how bad things seem. And no matter how good things seem, we didn’t get there on our own. God’s love suffuses all creation. God’s careful design shows up in everything: mountains and mollusks, grass and the Grand Canyon, human lives in Poughkeepsie or Port-au-Prince.

The Sermon on the Mount, of which today’s gospel is a part, is not only subversive to the values of the empire, it’s a set of marching orders for those who want to follow Jesus. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world; this was true in Jesus’ century, just as it’s true in ours. Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad stuff by doing all the good stuff you can.

Today’s gospel is part of a larger message, and part of Jesus’ challenge to his hearers and to us: life in the kingdom of God has different values from life in the empire, or life in a profit-based society. Life in the kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. Life in the kingdom of God includes our privilege and duty to bear light to the darkest parts of the world, to salt the world with mercy and justice. Today’s gospel, taken outside this context, sounds unrealistic to someone who is suffering. In the larger context of this entire teaching, however, Jesus is reminding his followers – and us – of God’s profound love for everything and everyone God has created, and encouraging his followers – and us – to focus on the kingdom of God.

In a parish context, it is extremely easy to justify worrying about the basics. “How will we pay the electric bill? Can we afford full-time employees to clean or do administrative work?” Vestries and finance committees feel an understandable obligation to be sure that parishioners’ money is carefully spent, and many parishes hold a parishioner or two who want an accounting for every nickel.

Being good stewards of what we’re given is important work. But in light of Jesus’ message today, it seems that an additional criterion for good stewardship should be in place. The question must be asked, “How are we serving the kingdom of God?” Are we worrying about stuff when really, there’s abundance all around us?

Anyone who has run a program that feeds or cares for our poorest neighbors has at least a couple of stories about how money or food or space or some unexpected gift has shown up at the right time for the right people. It seems that God’s desire really is for abundant life for all; and for those of us who have enough, this gospel reminds us that however we worry and engage in elaborate schemes to get what we think we need, there is actually a stream of mercy and grace available, directly from God. If we stand in that stream, we are going to have more than enough to share with those who need it.

There is no magical formula, such as “Do these 10 good things for others and get an equivalent number of blessings. Fail to do good things and get nothing. Do bad things and bad things will come to you.” That’s not the economy of God; that’s a limited human perception of virtue and value.

What Jesus proclaims, to refugees in Haiti and comfortable Americans alike, is that the kingdom of God is at hand. Grace and mercy are available to all. For those who already have much, it may well be that God’s grace and mercy come through us on their way to those who are in the deepest need. What an awesome responsibility! And what an amazing joy – to be a conduit for the care and love of God for God’s people and God’s world. Even Solomon in all his glory didn’t shine as brightly as those who share and give and work for the kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

 

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

This is difficult, 7 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Have you ever asked yourself: “What was Jesus thinking with this ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff? Are we supposed to be doormats for the sake of our faith? Is Jesus recommending that our calling card be ‘Mistreat me. I won’t retaliate’”?

A quick, simplistic reading of Jesus’ words might seem to indicate the “doormat approach” and yet, we see Jesus not as a wimpy, retiring, shadow of the Almighty, but as God with Us – the very Image of the Living God. We see Jesus as the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the maligned and mistreated. We see Jesus as Savior and Lord. None of these attributes equate to “doormat.” So how are we to interpret these words of our Savior?

Another relevant question might be, do we take Jesus seriously or is there some nifty interpretation that helps to explain away Jesus’ words or at least provide some general guidance in terms of when to turn the other cheek and love our enemies? The words that Jesus utters are not easy ones to follow, regardless of how conflict-averse we might be. We are created with a “fight or flight response,” nestled comfortably in that primitive area of our brains that is not always adequately governed by the reason of our cerebral cortexes.

Those primitive responses are pre-programmed to help ensure the survival of the individual, and thereby the species. We fight or flee, because our point and purpose is to “live to fight another day,” to preserve our well-being. But our job as followers of Christ is to stay close in confrontation and conflict – not fighting or fleeing – in order to follow the example of our Lord and to show the Power of God’s Love to overcome all things: bodily assault; legal prosecution; even kidnapping, which is mentioned in verse 41.

And while it is often easier and more pleasant to stay close to those whom we already know and for whom we already care, Jesus addresses that as well. As difficult as it might be to remain in relationship with those whom we already know and love, Jesus essentially says that we don’t get credit for working at those relationships; it’s the ones with the strangers, the relationships with those who we do not know or maybe don’t like – or who don’t like us – that count.

None of this makes any sense whatsoever without the gift of God’s Love. As the collect for today states:

“O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.”

It is only by this most amazing gift, delivered by the Holy Spirit, that we can hope to overcome our preprogrammed response to fight or flee and bear witness to the God that we serve.

But isn’t it possible to horribly twist this sort of logic? Isn’t it conceivable that we put ourselves directly in harm’s way and risk embarrassment, impoverishment, injury, or death? Isn’t it quite possible that we could become the doormats of the world, be considered weak and ineffective in our promulgation of the gospel? Yes, of course all those things are possible, even quite probable; but that is exactly the risk our God took in sending Jesus for us. That is exactly what Jesus did when he allowed himself to be beaten, accused, and crucified. We have the gift of access to relationship with a God who desires that relationship so much that even the only child of the Almighty is not withheld. We are given the opportunity to bask in the glow of a love so powerful, that even death cannot contain it.

But this is not an easy reading today, my friends. It is also not an excuse to do nothing, for Jesus is speaking about our actions on behalf of ourselves, in our own self-interest. Our agency, our defense, our protection is not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. If we are to follow our Lord’s path, we are to use our personal power, influence, reputation, gifts, and wealth on behalf of those who have no power, influence, wealth, or reputation. Being “perfect” is treating the “evil and the good” and “the righteous and the unrighteous” as God treats them, providing them with the same opportunity to live as everyone else. Again, our witness is not true and authentic if we portray to the world actions that preserve only ourselves. Our witness is to be given in actions that show our desire to see that all know the benefits of the love of God.

This is difficult, because it forces us to move ourselves out of the center of the relationship; our center is focused on another. We are asked to submit – not told, coerced or commanded – to the love of God so that love can show us the way. That love is the way that we are ultimately made safe. We are only ever truly safe in the love of God.

Many questions might be forming and noisily calling for attention and answers, but the specific questions and situations have already been answered in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. We speak the truth that God loves all people, that God makes the necessities of life available to all – both evil and good, righteous and unrighteous – that retribution is not the way to show the justice of God.

When we are out there alone as Jesus was, in a community governed by power that seeks to preserve its own hold on others, we are subject to the persecution, betrayal, and death that Jesus endured. But we, as Christ’s followers, can be working to create systems and communities where we will not be out there alone. We have the benefit of the gospel and the knowledge of God’s overwhelming grace and love that is able to sustain us and protect us, and even overcome the power of death. We have the chance to work to nurture children and young adults that understand that their well-being is only secure in the securing of the well-being of others, all others. We are the people to whom God is looking to make the effort to see that all are treated even as God treats all.

So, are we to be doormats? Are we to meekly submit to the persecution of this world and our enemies? To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “By no means!”

What we are to be is those people who do not seek to simply protect what they have or what is their own, but who seek to protect others. This profound lack of self-interest and self-protection is rooted in the desire of a community of believers to protect one another, to make sure that all people in all communities, both enemies and friends, have access to the means of life and know the benefit of God’s awesome and amazing love.

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, N.C., and has served parishes in Baltimore, Md.; and Buffalo, N.Y. (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children.

Listen to the heart of God, 6 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 13, 2011

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

The church makes many claims about God – about who God is and what God does and what God is like. We make big claims, and the biggest of all, the one that is at the core of all our claims is that God is love.

Above all else, God is love. We sing songs about the God of love, we pray to the God of love, we offer the gift of ourselves to the God of love. And then, this morning, which happens to be the day before Valentine’s Day, we hear these lessons, most of which have to do with Law. And we may be taken aback, especially by our gospel lesson, which contains phrases such as, “if you call your brother or sister ‘you fool,’ you will liable to the hell of fire, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These are words from the God of love, the very heart of God made flesh, Jesus?

This is not one of those Well-if-you-read-it-in-the-original-Greek-text-it-sounds-very-different texts. There isn’t a way to get around this lesson. No, we need to go through it, get to the very heart of it, and therefore, to get a glimpse of the heart of God.

Listen to the heart of God. Today’s gospel says a lot about what we would hear if we listen to our hearts and if we listen to God’s heart.

We know the joys of listening to the sounds of the heart. We have felt, even heard the sound of our own hearts beating in excitement. Some of us have heard the heartbeat of a baby not yet born, but already audible and very much alive. We know that listening to our hearts can give us a diagnosis of a healthy or an unhealthy heart.

But we also know the heart is more than a vital physical organ. “Heart” means the core of our selves in all our most vibrant aspects. We talk about the human heart as the seat of loving, of compassion, or tenderness, of courage. Our language knows this: we say, “Take heart.” Be assured. If you have had a change of heart, you have had a shift of perspective, a shift of plans, a significant change in your outlook. Heart is the seat of memory: to know something by heart is to know it perfectly. Heart is the seat of yearning and desire: to seek with your whole heart is to pursue, search for diligently, strive for something with all the perseverance you can muster.

We listen now to the songs of our hearts and of God’s heart in today’s gospel lesson.

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, teaching them what it means to follow in the path he would have them walk. Jesus is giving words to the love song of God’s heart. We hear a section of the Sermon on the Mount, a section that began in last week’s reading with these statements of Jesus, “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and “if your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” And lest this be lost to our modern ears, those scribes and Pharisees are pretty righteous. What follows in today’s lessons are the illustrations and implications of those statements.

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but apparently to make it even tougher, to make it more exacting. Jesus lists some of the big commandments: You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely. And were that all, it could make for rather dull preaching.

Yes, of course, the disciples would say, we’ve heard that before. We know that’s what God wants for us. But then Jesus goes on to breathe new life, new relevancy into these commandments by explaining what they mean in their fullness – by going to the heart of the matter. He explains what they mean if we are to love as God loves, because the law tells us what is in God’s heart. Law exposes God’s fondest desires of how we would live with one another. Law also exposes the difference between our hearts and God’s heart.

Listening to our hearts does give a diagnosis. God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep the commandment not to kill one another, we still hate and despise others. We are willing to kill relationship with others, to treat others as if they are as good as dead to us.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep a commandment not to commit adultery, we still can disrespect others by treating them as less than fully human.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we are still willing to manipulate others with our words, to lead others astray by what we say, to let our words be meaningless rather than let our yes mean yes and our no mean no.

Our hearts, though we are made in the image of God, do not keep time with the beating of God’s heart. While God’s heart sings out a love song, begun in creation and sung to us still, our hearts fall far short.

The diagnosis: our hearts are diseased, unhealthy, disheartened.

And so, in God’s mercy, God gives us law. In the teaching of Jesus, this is law that will not let our hearts fall short of loving as God would have us love. It is law that would have us love in a way that respects the dignity of every human being, as we say in our baptismal covenant.

And it is law that ultimately convicts us, because what it demands of us, we cannot do.

And here again the law shows us God’s love, by showing us our failing and driving us into the arms of our merciful God. St. Augustine put it this way: “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.” The grace of God is there, offered for us. We need only take it.

Listen again. Does all this talk of law and our failing to keep it bring you sadness? Good, said John Donne in a sermon, then it is a holy sadness, because a sense of our sin is “god’s key to the door of his mercy, put into thy hand.” God’s heart is a rich treasure house of mercy to which our sense of sin is the key.

Discovering our failure to love as God loves is not then a cause for despair. No – it is a call back to God, into the arms of God, who loves and strengthens us, and sends us out to love again; bids us love more fully, more perfectly, because although showing perfect love is impossible for us, nothing is impossible with God.

The sound of our hearts and the sound of God’s heart are different now. They’re meant to sing the same song. So we are given law, that we might know more completely how to love, and when we fail – because we do fail – we are given the key to God’s heart, the key to the vast treasure of God’s mercy that stands ready for us to take. The key to a heart that offers us true pleasure, true love.

Take heart. Because our God is a God of love. Our God is love. In that we can be sure.
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Jesus empowers, 5 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Sodium chloride – salt – has gotten a particularly bad reputation in recent decades. Even though humans require a certain amount of salt for survival, most of us take in too much, and ingesting excessive amounts has been linked to major health problems. Individuals who eat too much salt are at a risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even stomach cancer.

Those trying to eat healthy quickly learn the need to limit daily salt intake to an amount equal to one teaspoonful, including all that is contained in food itself prior to whatever we pour out of a shaker. They also discover that salt can be found in over-supply in cheese, butter, margarine, snack food, breakfast cereals, canned goods, soy sauce, and processed foods. It is used in many foods as a color additive, a binder, an element for giving texture, and a control agent in making bread.

Salt is very inexpensive in our culture. In addition to small amounts of salt for the table, we buy it in 40 pound bags for use in water softeners or on slick winter sidewalks and by the dump-truck load to melt ice on roads and bridges.

Of course, the way in which modern people view salt – abundant everywhere – is decidedly different from those of centuries ago. Because in Biblical times salt was rare, hard to obtain, and considered a very precious commodity, we can better understand why Jesus used the image in today’s gospel story: “You are the salt of the earth.”

Jesus used an analogy they could easily understand to let them know he expected something extraordinary from them for the sake of God. He placed a high value on them and on what he required of them – just as the first-century culture placed a very high value on salt. He taught his followers to act for God in ways as important and varied as salt was in their world.

Our being salt to the world would help others learn to make life special and not be the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence described by Thomas Hobbes. Christian faith can provide spiritual seasoning that gives life joy and meaning. To keep life from being bland and unrewarding, we season it with Christian commitment and understanding of God’s love for his children. Being salt to the world means adding flavor to life wherever and whenever possible. It means adding a zestful spirit to life and love. It means pursuing meaning in all we do and in all we encounter. It means acting in love with all whom we touch.

In Jesus’ day, salt was often connected with purity. The Romans believed that salt was the purest of all things, because it came from pure things: the sun and the sea. It was used by the Jews to purify their offerings to God. If we modern Christians are to be the salt of the earth, we must accept a pure and high standard in speech, thought, and behavior – keeping ourselves unspotted by the world’s self-centeredness. Jesus calls us to be a cleansing presence, constantly witnessing to the good that is found in God and the values of God’s realm.

In ancient times, salt was valued as a basic ingredient of a good life. As salt in the world, we can serve as a basic nutrient for others. We can become nurturing agents for those around us – caring, helping, enriching, teaching, and bringing them to Christ.

Salt was also used to aid healing. As salt in the world we can promote healing through prayer, caring for others, and supporting the least, the lost, and the lonely – holding hands with one another and administering the holy oil of anointing.

We could do well also to make an application from the use of salt to thaw ice on roads. As salt in the world, we can help melt the iciness of life. Frozen relationships can be melted by applying the warmth of Christian love. We can take that love and wear down the indifference or lack of feeling that often overtakes human beings.

Salt has, for centuries, served as a preservative to prevent food from spoiling. If we, as salt in the world, become preservatives of God’s goodness, we can help prevent spoiling and corruption wherever we find it. As followers of Jesus, we are committed to preserving Christian principles that keep ourselves and others from going bad.

It might be instructive to note something Jesus did not say. He did not tell his disciples to become the “pepper of the earth.” Pepper calls attention to itself, as opposed to salt that, when properly used, only highlights what it flavors. Jesus does not expect us to call attention to ourselves in our salting efforts. Rather, we are to make others more acceptable, more meaningful, more loving.

We can focus on the immediate context of Jesus’ charge for the disciples to become his salty followers. It came immediately after his expression of the beatitudes. So the seasoning takes on the character of the values he exhorted.

Sometimes salt is discovered in domes or dried from water of the ocean as well as being found in boxes in our pantries or shakers on our dining-room tables. For the salt to become effective, to do its work, however, it must be released from its container. God can release us from what entraps us so we can truly salt the people of the earth.

God can release us to do the work Jesus commands us to do – to make a difference in the world: giving hope where there is no hope; forgiving where there is sin; embracing where there is loneliness and despair; tolerating where there is prejudice; reconciling where there is conflict; bringing justice where there is wrong; providing food where there is hunger; giving comfort where there is distress or disease.

Jesus empowers us to purify, to heal, to nurture, to thaw the frozen, to preserve, and to season the people of the earth. The power of God supports and sustains us and stands with us if we risk whatever it takes to become salt to the world. And when we fail in this effort, God will raise us up and renew us and give us strength to persevere, again and again.

Unlike many modern people whose health depends on moderation in eating sodium, we “salty” Christians do not need to go on a spiritual salt-free diet. Let us rather become the salt of the earth. Let us reach out to our communities in a world in desperate need of what Christian seasoning can provide. As Christians, let us remain pure and committed and let us accept the responsibility to help make ourselves and others a people more and more in keeping with the values of God.
— 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 in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.