Archives for August 2011

Let my people go, Pentecost 11 – Proper 17 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c (or Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8); Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

It is a hard job being religious. Perhaps we feel this the more when we compare our lives with those of the saints. Of course we have our excuses. The world was less complicated in their days. People had time to pray seven times a day, like the psalmist. We move from that excuse to a second: saints are people who don’t struggle with our temptations. A saint hears God say “go,” and she goes. Perhaps, we think, even today there are special people who just seem to find the Christian Life natural. They get excited about church, and even sermons! They attend Bible study and spirituality groups, work in the kitchen when the poor are fed, and subscribe to worthy causes.

These understandings or misunderstandings sell short our capacity to serve God. They limit us. So we come to church fairly often, put in a pledge, mutter a few familiar night-time prayers, and only occasionally feel a tug of conscience that perhaps God wants more of us. Like someone who never gets further than “Chopsticks” on the piano because there are pianists who bring an audience to its feet; like someone who doesn’t catch very well and so gives up because of the athletes seen at the ball game, we largely give up. And after all, clergy have been telling us for years that God gives unconditional love. So perhaps when we die we will be in the school for backward believers, but after all, that’s where we have always been.

The lessons today bring us face to face with two saints, Moses and Peter. Both were called to lead the church in the worst of circumstances and both succeeded. There we go again! How can we compare with these giants? But look more closely.

Moses is on the run and has found a home in the tent of a wandering shepherd, a Bedouin, and after being brought up in the King of Egypt’s palace, waited on hand and foot, he is now reduced to the role of assistant shepherd. He has killed an abusive Egyptian official and is on the run. How about that for downward mobility? What was his self esteem like?

Suddenly a bush seems to burst into flames, and Moses hears a voice, the voice of the God of his tribe, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great Patriarchs. The voice tells Moses to go back to Egypt and rescue the Jewish people, the Old Testament church. Well, you may be thinking, Moses did just that. He was special, different, unlike me. Look more closely. Moses argues with the Voice. In the portion of the story we heard today, Moses basically said that he had no talent or authority to rescue the Jewish people. “Who shall I say sent me?” he asks. God then reveals to Moses his true nature. The Voice said, “I am.” The Voice didn’t say I was, or I will be, but ever present in the “now” of every life and every generation. That Holy Name, which no devout Jew may utter, Yahweh, says to Moses, “Get on with it. This isn’t going to depend on your abilities or talents. It is going to depend on your keeping trust with me, because I am always ever present with you.” And so Moses obeys and goes back into danger, danger of being arrested and executed.

Now let’s look at the gospel. Jesus asks his friends what the gossip is about him. Who do people think he is or what do they think he is? Peter, whose tongue was always ahead of his courage, blurts out, “You are the anointed King, the Son of the Living God.” The story continues today, as you have just heard. Jesus says that Peter is right and that the way forward now is to Jerusalem, to danger and death. Peter argues with Jesus. “God forbid it Lord. This must never happen to you.” Jesus calls his friend “Satan,” the deceiver, because poor Peter is thinking in human terms, thinking about danger and death rather than trusting in God, whose Son, according to Peter, Jesus is.

Jesus then turns his eyes to us, for this account by Matthew was first heard by a group of Jewish converts to Christianity, disowned by their former friends and persecuted as Jews and Christians by the Romans. Matthew talks to the church, in whatever state it finds itself. He lets his listeners hear Jesus’ voice: Listen.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

The church, you and me, is offered no easy path to success. Doing right by God doesn’t depend on any special spiritual talent. Cross-bearing levels everyone, whatever their education, class, economic status, or religiosity. And God through Jesus is saying to us through these lessons, “Let my people go.” Moses rescued the people through God’s covenant, or agreement. Peter rescued the infant church through the new Covenant of the Cross. Jesus tells us that we are called to be outside our buildings, called into danger, even if that danger is no more than the mockery of friends. We are called to walk through the Cross into a new life, one to be shared, one sustainable despite our arguments with God, because God is “I am,” the ever present help at all times and in all places. We were not meant to attempt the life of religion alone. Religion in us becomes possible when we trust God and trust each other enough to be the church. God wants to do great things through the cross-bearing church. He wants us to see that being holy is all about freeing ourselves and freeing others from sin, oppression, and death. Do you trust him enough to be that?

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Father Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

God’s Mission has a Church, Pentecost 10, Proper 16 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 (or Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138); Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

It is not that God’s Church has a Mission, but that God’s Mission has a Church.

It is Peter’s day – the day he is renamed by Jesus. No longer Simon, but Peter. Which in the New Testament Greek makes for a kind of pun – for the word for “rock” is petra, while Peter is PetrosPetros is petra – the rock, the foundation upon which Jesus builds his church.

We say “builds” because we know His church is still under construction in so many ways. The church is always growing, changing, under construction, searching for new, more nimble, more creative, more flexible ways of being God’s people. Each time a new member is added to our rolls, each time a person is baptized, we must be prepared to be called to new and different ways to “do all in our power to support one another in our life in Christ.”

A life which Saint Paul asserts is quite different than that of the world around us. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul does not envision a people focused only on our own lives. We are those people who trust that being in the right places at the right times – the places where God promises to be – God will transform. Our hope is not that our resolve will hold, but that God’s resolve will hold.

Consider the book The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittester, of the Order of Saint Benedict. Benedict lived a long time ago – just some 400 years or so after God in Christ walked this earth as Jesus. He tried to get away from the world – a world of Empire marked by power, wealth, violence, aggression. He tried to live in a cave, but others heard of his special gifts in finding a way to live with God so that he was coerced to join and lead a community of like-minded followers of Jesus. Benedict encouraged a disciplined approach to community life, work, study, and prayer. Some thought his methods too difficult and tried to poison his wine. Benedict was onto it, made the sign of the cross over the jug of wine, smashed it on the ground, forgave them for what they had done, and moved on to found a number of monasteries.

Benedict eventually put his ideas about how to know God down on paper, The Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with the words, “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” After just a few moments of reading Benedict’s Rule and Sister Joan’s reflections upon The Rule one feels that she or he had time-traveled back to that cave on the cliffs overlooking Anio to listen to the voice of a fellow traveler whose wisdom draws one closer to a place where God can have at us and transform us.

It is like bird watching – although bird “watching” is something of a misnomer. Watching and looking is not the primary skill necessary for seeing birds; but rather, listening is what leads the eyes to see that solitary magnolia warbler or indigo bunting. Bird watching is an apt metaphor for the spiritual life as Benedict imagines it: listen carefully with the ear of your heart, and God stands ready to show you the way.

Another book offers further insights into a life with God: Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love. It is a book that also has its origins in Italy, and it takes a look at how the architecture of a particular church, Saint Agnes’ Outside the Wall, expresses the very essence of what it means to join with Peter and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It examines every detail of what makes a church, a church – a living expression of God’s will – what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect. Visser explores how the center aisle invites one to understand the Christian faith as a journey, a pilgrim journey from the world outside in to the sanctuary of the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. We move closer and closer to the Tabernacle of the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus, God incarnate.

And she writes of how it is a church, not just a pile of rocks by the side of the road, but a living reminder returning us to those times and places where we met God along the way – those mystical, privileged experiences of the Holy. She is careful to distinguish that a church is not so much meant to induce such moments of epiphany as to acknowledge the experiences its visitors have had. It is a collective memory of such spiritual insights and mystical moments.

And with the obvious signs of the cross, crucifix, and Stations of the Cross, we are reminded that in order to live, we must die to self – choose the transcendent over the immediate present. The call to follow the Christ, the Son of the living God, is a call to look outward toward others and toward God. Only then can we know what it means to be fully alive. It is not that God’s Church has a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. And we are that Church, the Body of Christ.

The church in bricks and stone and wood and glass tells this story and invites all who would be Christians to continue this story, so at the end of the day we are sent away: Ite missa est – “Go, you are sent!” From which we get the word “mass”: to turn our lives toward others and toward God. To complete the work we begin in here, in actual fact we must return to the world beyond our doors. We are to live with other people and love them, just as we are to live with God and be loved by God. God’s Mission has a Church.

In another time and another place, Charles Moody wrote a song, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” that seems, due to recent events, to be more relevant today than ever:

Out on the perilous deep
Where danger silently creeps
And storms so violently sweep
You’re drifting too far from the shore

Drifting too far from the shore
You’re drifting too far from the peaceful shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting too far from the shore

It is all meant – Benedict’s Order, Paul’s Letters, this church, the gospels, Moody’s song – to make us ask ourselves: Are we willing to continue God’s story, be transformed by that story, and so become active participants in God’s transformation of the world in Christ Jesus?

Or have we drifted too far from the shore?

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and he may be reached at kkub@aol.com.

Great is your faith! Great is your love, Pentecost 9, Proper 15 – 2011

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (Track 2: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Have you ever felt as desperate as the Caananite woman in today’s gospel? Emotions seem to explode from us when we’re desperate. We’ve all seen pictures on the television of women and men wailing with grief over their children slaughtered in a bomb attack in the Middle East. They often collapse in unbearable pain over the bodies of their precious children. We’ve also see almost desperate happiness. Again, emotions physically explode in tears and dancing when an almost hopeless situation turns out right. Remember the flood of joy and relief when the men trapped in the Chilean mine were rescued? It was so different from the desperate sadness of the families who heard their loved ones had died in the West Virginia mine.

Desperate situations seem to make an outward show of emotion acceptable. When we’re surprised by events – death, new life, rescue, fear – we let ourselves go. Usually others around us or those witnessing an event on TV understand why people are suddenly acting differently.

But isn’t it interesting that we often also feel uncomfortable with a show of emotion? How often have we heard the words, “You’ll get over it,” or “Keep a stiff upper lip,” or “Don’t cry, it was only a dog”?

Somehow, our Western culture especially has evolved to a place where keeping it all inside is best. We don’t want to make others uncomfortable, even when we’re being torn apart inside.

Listen to the disciples in today’s gospel reading: “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us!”

The Caananite woman had a very sick daughter. What loving mother can bear to see her child in any kind of pain? And this woman was desperate. She was desperate enough to break many of that culture’s rules concerning encounters between women and men. She shouted not only at a man, but at someone special. But she not only shouted, she threw herself at his feet when he ignored her. But she not only did that – she argued with Jesus. She put herself in danger of severe consequences. Her desperation overcame her fear. Her concern for her daughter made her emotional! It’s easy for us to say, “Yes, yes, good for her!” But what might we have wanted to say to her if we’d been there?

Jesus isn’t at his “good old helpful Jesus” best today. He’d just been teaching about how people relate to others. He was very cleverly sticking it to those Pharisees who commanded the people to keep every law fastidiously while they themselves were – remember Jesus saying this – “whitened sepulchers.” Some Pharisees were less than good examples to their people, leading fairly self-centered lives, while demanding other people live very controlled lives. So Jesus is saying, it’s much more important to consider how you use words, how you speak to others, how you praise God, than to think only about what you put into your mouth. What comes out of the mouth builds up or tears down.

And God bless Peter! “What do you mean?” he asks.

Jesus reminds him that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. To the Jew, the heart is life. What we say can be life-giving or destructive. This isn’t news to us. So, we see Jesus being very frustrated in this passage. His followers don’t seem to understand. The Pharisees who were trying to trip him up were deliberately not getting it. And so, we’d imagine that when he got the chance to demonstrate, Jesus would immediately be helpful to this woman.

We’re surprised when he first ignores her, and then seems not only to ignore his own teaching, but he is rude to her. “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” What? Isn’t the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus said so himself.

Several things are going on here. We realize, first, that Jesus doesn’t seem bothered that the woman is shouting. It’s the disciples who are uncomfortable. They don’t want to be bothered by an emotional woman breaking the rules, demanding help. Jesus makes no comment about that at all. We certainly can’t presume ever to know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment in that time, but perhaps this is an example to us that her emotion and desperation were perfectly understandable and proper. What Jesus seems to point to is his own mission. He’s done this kind of thing before. Remember the wedding feast at Cana? His mother wants him to help out the wedding couple. “They have no wine,” she says. “What’s that to me, it’s not my time,” Jesus replies. Not quite the way we might expect him to answer his mother. But he reacts by expanding his ministry perhaps a little early.

Here, he is first mindful of his mission to the Jews, the first of God’s chosen people. This woman is pushing the boundaries. She’s a Caananite, not of the family. Like Jesus’ own mother, this woman knows he can help her. Jesus very well may have been impressed with her persistence, and he pushes just a bit. “It’s not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” How typical of that time. The Caananites were considered less than respectable by the Jews. But is it typical only of that time? Here’s another lesson this passage teaches us. How have we considered the “other” in our own cultures? If we’re honest, there are those we consider less than dogs today.

But this Caananite woman is not only desperate, she’s fearless. “Even the dogs get the crumbs on the floor.” A Pharisee might have slapped her down for that remark, but Jesus seems finally to get by his own frustration and see her as a woman of faith. Once again he expands his mission and breaks down a barrier to accept and include a non-Jew. This is a big step for him. Matthew is showing us how Jesus’ mission and ministry is growing, tearing down centuries old boundaries, and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. In both instances, Cana and the need of this woman, Jesus responds to the marginalized. In these cases, to women, but there will be many more – the blind, the crippled, children, outcasts of all kinds. Our first reaction to Jesus’ seeming rudeness is turned to an understanding of what he knows is happening. Jesus seems to enjoy fearless people who aren’t afraid to engage him on human levels of love and emotion.

So what can we learn about ourselves here? Several things come to mind. The obvious lesson is to ask ourselves, whom do we accept as our neighbor? Do we still harbor in our hearts signs of racism? Whom do we think of as less than dogs? Living in our current culture of fear is hard. We’re bombarded with images and words coming out of some of our own leaders’ mouths that put the fear of the “other” into our hearts. Jesus might remind us,“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Today we have a lot to think about when we consider this.

Another thing we might learn from today’s passage is a simple thing. Emotions are a gift to us from God. We might consider how we react when we’re faced with either our own or others’ expressions of emotion. Do our own cultural boundaries cause us to keep it all in or expect others to do the same? Can we imagine ourselves ever allowing someone to share a real depth of emotion with us, or are we too quick to shut them down too?

We’re missing something if we don’t allow ourselves to be free. The Dalai Lama offers this wonderful saying: “The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your action will be.” This is exactly what Jesus shows us today.

Would that Jesus could say to each of us today, “Great is your faith! Great is your love.”

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Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz

The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

It is I; have no fear, Pentecost 8, Proper 14 – 2011

[RCL] Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b (Track 2: 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13); Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

If you ever decide to write a book about the gospels, here’s an idea for you.

You might want to tackle the central role of the Sea of Galilee in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. A great freshwater lake or inland sea about a third the size of Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border, it supported, in Jesus’ time, a sizeable population and a significant commercial fishing industry. The evangelists often use the Sea of Galilee – around whose shores many of Jesus’ stories take place – to advance their account of his work and mission.

By the way, don’t be confused. The Sea of Galilee goes by different names. Some texts refer to it as a lake, which of course it is. And others call it by the alternative names of Tiberias or Gennesaret. But it is all the same place. And of course, it is most definitely not to be confused with the Dead Sea. That is another place entirely. The Sea of Galilee was, in Jesus’ time, very much alive with great varieties and stores of fish.

Our Lord’s disciples were, for the most part, people who made their livelihood from the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus himself is often found near its shores, first calling his disciples there and later teaching the people along its surrounding heights and plains. You will remember that at one point he even began preaching from a boat anchored just offshore while the people gathered near him on the beach.

So, it is no surprise to find the Sea of Galilee figuring prominently again in today’s gospel narrative, as Jesus first sends his disciples off in a boat by themselves “to the other side” – literally forces them to leave, if you read the text carefully – while he goes off to spend some quality time by himself on a mountain in prayer. As morning dawns and the disciples’ boat is being “battered by the waves,” Jesus – seemingly out of nowhere – comes “walking toward them on the Sea.” Needless to say, the disciples are terrified and cry out “in fear.”

Of course they were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Well, maybe not Peter. At least, not at first. He bravely bids Jesus to call him forth from the boat and then hesitantly starts making his own way across the waves. But fear finally overcomes him too, and in his fright he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls out. And needless to say, this Jesus promptly does.

What to make of it all?

What those disciples needed, we might be tempted to think, was just a bigger boat, perhaps one better constructed and more suited to withstand the storm and the wind. Technology – human ingenuity – that is the answer. But then we remember. Every storm is the perfect storm if you are paralyzed by fear and worry. This gospel story has fundamental – perhaps even archetypal – implications in it about the human condition, a state that finds all of us suspended precariously between unknown and fearsome depths and the desire to be ourselves the masters of the wind and waves and world around us.

But weathering the storm paradoxically demands that we first come to recognize and accept our own vulnerabilities. There are, after all, few perfect boats. In spite of our occasional bluster, when the storm hits and the winds blow, most of us still call out for the Lord. Only in giving up our own certainty and our very selves do we find our true depth – and our salvation.

At baptism in many Christian denominations today – and in baptism as it was practiced in the early Church – one is quite literally drenched, or nearly drowned, in a stream or lake only to be caught up and raised moments later by the outstretched hand of pastor or minister. Not unlike Peter in our gospel account today. Jesus, it seems, still today, recognizes and surmounts in baptism our fear of death, our fear of drowning in sin and insignificance.

Our baptism and the gift of faith it signifies does not by any means guarantee a lifetime of smooth sailing ahead. The Sea of Galilee is, to this day, subject to squalls and storms. And like Peter and the disciples, we still find ourselves afraid and terrified and calling out to the Lord. But only Christ overcomes our dread and terror of what the waters deep beneath – and within – us may contain. And he does all this, as he did with Peter, by reaching out his hand in rescue. “Take heart,” he says to us again today. “It is I; have no fear.”

And from our own rickety craft, we proclaim as did the disciples centuries ago, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church, www.anglicanbudapest.com, in Budapest, Hungary.