Archives for February 2012

The Hour Has Come for the Son of Man to Be Glorified, 5 Lent (B) – 2012

March 25, 2012

(Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33)

In today’s gospel reading we gain a glimpse of Jesus reacting with two of his disciples. Philip and Andrew came to tell him that some Greeks had arrived asking to see him. As he so often did, Jesus answered indirectly. He didn’t say, “Send them away” or “Sure let them come in.” Instead, he took the moment to teach – to lay out a reality that his followers needed to understand. It was as if Jesus were saying, “Oh, they want to see me, do they? Okay, I will let them see what I am all about. I will let them know what God is doing.”

His reply to Phillip and Andrew indicated his readiness for what would be his final days and the climatic encounter between the ways of the world and the way of God. He said that it was time for him to reveal what all humankind would see about him and his role in the divine drama. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

This must have elated and excited his disciples and the Greeks, if they heard him, because they surely thought that by being “glorified” Jesus meant he would make all things well. Having recently experienced Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, perhaps they thought he would work even greater wonders and bring an end to their difficulties in life. Or, maybe, they were thinking about one of the traditional expectations of how the Messiah would restore Israel – by a glorious military victory. Maybe they thought he meant it was time for him to prevail over all the world’s kingdoms, whose leaders would cower before his conquering feet.

Any such euphoria, however, would have been short-lived. It was a different kind of wonder that would be revealed, a different kind of conquest that Jesus had in mind – the conquest of the cross. Jesus immediately began to lay out the hard truth of what lay ahead. In a similar way, as we worship one week away from Palm Sunday, our gospel reading lets us see what lies ahead for us in making the Holy Week journey.

Jesus used a parable to explain how not only Greeks but everyone would see him. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” A seed, by itself, is only a small piece of matter. If eaten, it provides a little bit of nourishment. If left in the blazing sun, it can dry up and lose its value. If sealed in a jar, it can remain viable for centuries. But even then, it is only potentially powerful. But if it is buried and dies beyond its present condition, it can release all that is contained within – the very nature and substance of a whole stalk of ripened wheat.

His own death and resurrection would be the vehicle through which not only his disciples and curious Greeks, but all humankind, could see Jesus – truly see what he was all about. It was by dying that the power of God contained in Jesus would be fully released. By “glorified,” Jesus meant crucified. Jesus was saying that only by his death could true life come. Just as a grain of wheat, remaining unfruitful in the protective security of a barn, can only release its power by being buried and dying to what it has been.

Making sure there would be no mistaking the stark reality of what he meant, Jesus added this amplification to the parable: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” So, what was true for Jesus, he said, was also true for his followers. Those who would truly see him would know that only by their deaths to the values of the world could they gain true life. The Christian reality is that only in dying to self can the power of God be embraced and released. Jesus laid out this model not just for the disciples to see but also to emulate. He said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Often in the course of human experiences – those of past centuries as well as current times – this truth has proved itself out. When concerned and committed people are prepared to die for their cause, much can be achieved. It was by the deaths of the courageous faithful that Christianity first grew. This is summed up in a well-known phrase by Tertullian, a Christian writer in the first century: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Often, people become of real use to God by burying their own goals and desires. Think about the saints. Think about your personal heroes. Aren’t they the ones who put aside personal safety and security for the sake of others? Haven’t they abandoned selfish gain and the advancement of personal need to meet the needs of others? Whenever the world gains spiritual health, it often owes such a condition to those who spend their strength and give themselves away to God and to others.

In today’s gospel, Jesus lets us see an initial view of him as the prototype – the perfect example – of the kind of risk-filled living that love of God requires. The world teaches that we will live longer and prosper more if we watch out for ourselves, if we are careful and avoid risk, if we remain in our homes safe and secure. Jesus teaches that by so doing, we may life longer or in greater comfort, but we will not live as well. He helps us see that real living – genuine, meaningful living – involves much more.

Only by spending our lives, he says, can we keep our true lives. Jesus calls us into a “give-it-away” faith. He calls us into a realm not of our ordinary world, but into one that stands in sharp contrast – the world of God. Jesus calls us beyond the common, selfish goals of false security. He calls us to see him – to see his vision – a new view of life, a life of meaning and of glory.

Unlike his fellow Jews, Jesus viewed glory not as the acquisition of power or the ability to control their own destiny after centuries of foreign rule, but he looked at glory as the ability to serve others for a greater purpose. In the encounter in today’s gospel, he taught that only dying to self can bring forth the kind of redeemed life God has in store for us; only by spending life can we retain it. Only in this context can we do what the Greeks hoped to do – see Jesus for what he is for the world. Only in the context of dying to self and living in God can we see the essential Jesus. Only in this way can we see him for what he really is – the living image of God.

As we move rapidly toward Holy Week, we would do well to come as the Greeks before the Lord – asking to see Jesus – to discover what he is all about. As we witness the ultimate example that he provides, we can follow him into a life of true meaning and become transformed by what we see.

 

— 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.

Fear of the Dark, 4 Lent (B) – 2012

March 18, 2012

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

When you were a child, were you ever afraid of the dark? Did you imagine all sorts of scary things living in the dark of your closet or under your bed? Did a night-light give you that little bit of reassurance and comfort so that you could go to sleep safely? Most of us grow out of that fear rather quickly. Some of us adults might get impatient with our children who call us out of a deep sleep because there’s a monster lurking in the shadows. As children, we rarely make a friend of our imagined nemesis.

Most adults no longer fear the dark. But listening to our readings from Numbers and John today, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to put that fear of the dark behind us. Certainly, we no longer imagine monsters hiding in closets, but as adults, maybe we ought to look at darkness in an adult way. The Israelites in the desert actually did have a sort of real-life monster to contend with: poisonous snakes! Anyone with any sense will stay away from them, but these people were suddenly set upon by snakes that bit them, so many of them died. Yes, indeed, a real-life type of monster. We hear that this happened because the Israelites were grumbling against not just Moses, but God. Big mistake! But we can’t really blame them – they were wandering in the desert, hungry, hot, thirsty. They may have been desperate. They may have feared a death of another kind before the snakes came upon them. Of course, we know that God heard their cry – like a child waking a parent out of fear – and God had Moses set up the bronze serpent on a pole and those who would look on it would live. Our passage from Numbers talks about a real fear of bodily harm – a fear of death in a natural way. Yet, underneath that natural fear was the darkness brought on them by cursing God. It was their sin of not believing that God would keep the promise of bringing them to a land of milk and honey.

Children are usually much more trusting than adults. What happens to us as we grow to adulthood and suddenly begin ignoring the true darkness of sin? This is what Jesus is talking about in John. As he does so often in scripture, Jesus refers to the Old Testament, and he tells his hearers that he is the new caduceus – the new serpent wound around the pole that doctors today use as a symbol of their ministry as healers. He tells them that when the Son of Man is lifted up, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. God did not send Jesus into the world like the snakes to kill the people. God sent Jesus into the world to show how much God loves us.

Jesus goes on to bring out the importance of understanding light and dark as adults. There is something very frightening about living in the dark, especially if it is an interior darkness – a despair or hate. Jesus talks about evil deeds hating the light. Many of us might feel we could sit back right now and breathe a sigh of relief, because surely none of us are evil. None of us hate the light. If we did, we might be living in a situation that we see in so many thriller movies – skulking down dark, wet streets of a city with guns in our pockets and drugs to sell. We’ve read about people in the news or seen them on TV who have no conscience, no way to keep them from killing people for money or revenge.

But we can’t just ignore that darkness. We are all sinners. We all have a place where our darkness hides so others might not see it. It comes in many forms. We need to ask ourselves how we feel about discrimination. We might have family members that we no longer bother with. It might be their fault, but have we given reconciliation one more try? How do we feel about ourselves? Darkness could be our self-loathing for whatever reason. God does not want that of us. Each of is a child of God and glorious in God’s sight.

Maryanne Williamson, a spiritual activist and author, wrote a wonderful description of how we should look at ourselves. In it she said, “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”

Yes, indeed, that is what God expects of us, and if we throw that back in God’s face, couldn’t that be a type of darkness – a type of sin? Remember, the second great commandment is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves, we are giving our neighbors less than they deserve.

To do this, we must live in the light. John’s gospel is full of images of light and dark. If we go right back to the beginning of the Gospel of John, we hear those wonderful words: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” Hear those words: “to everyone.” That means us. We are fools if we choose to live in the darkness, especially if it’s a darkness of our making.

Unfortunately, we know that we adults do choose to live in the darkness. One of the most tragic verses in John’s gospel, maybe in all of scripture, follows that verse: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Here’s the crux of the matter. Jesus came to us. God took on the flesh of a human so that God could live among us and show us firsthand how much we are loved – and yet we chose not to recognize him. Not only that, we also chose not to receive him. That is darkness of a tragic type.

Lent is a time to consider our darkness – to see if we have been so grown-up in a foolish way that we no longer believe that sin can surround us with darkness. God so loved the world, God so loved you and me, that he came into the world, died for our sins, and rose again.

The light of that Resurrection is the light that can transfigure us all every day of our lives.

 

— 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.

Jesus, not always meek and mild, 3 Lent (B) – March 11, 2012

March 11, 2012

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Security is very important to most of us. There are things in our lives, some which seem very large, some perhaps insignificant, without which we feel totally adrift. It may be our home or family, or something little, like an old pair of slippers. Most of us love our parishes and churches. If our family has worshipped here for generations, that feeling may be intense. There’s a sense of ownership in our attitude to those windows or pews. To others, new to faith, the church building may be special because in it we celebrated a newfound or restored faith.

To a first-century Jew, all that sentiment and value was centered on one building, the Temple. Whether they lived close to it or far away in Rome or Babylon, the Temple was the magnet that drew them to its splendor.

The Temple Jesus entered was that built by Herod “the Great” in an attempt to curry favor with his subjects. It stood on the site of Solomon’s great building, destroyed centuries before when the Jews were conquered and enslaved. Its restoration symbolized not only religious revival, but the continuity of the nation itself. It was a bit like a combination of the Capitol and the National Cathedral in Washington, but more so.

The destruction of the Temple all those years before Jesus’s time had been a major disaster. Most Jews had been taken off to the East in captivity. Their nation expired. They also came to believe that God had left them, for God was said to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, a belief that God had called and chosen Israel to be unique had devolved into nationalism or what we term nowadays “particularism” or “exceptionalism.” Now the point was that Israel was special, specially called by God. Yet that setting apart – the word ‘holy’ has its root in that concept of being separated – was not intended to justify nationalism, but rather to remind Israel of its calling to be the presence of God for the whole world. Holiness was about what we call mission. Nationalism had caused their destruction, and with it, the destruction of the Temple itself.

In the gospel today, John paints a picture of an angry Jesus, entering the symbol of Israel’s security, whip in hand, driving out those who had turned the Temple into the center of a money-making racket. As you know, the Temple was the only place of sacrifice for the Jews. Sacrifice meant the offering to God of that which God created, whether in the form of wheat or grapes, doves or lambs, depending on the purpose of the sacrifice. Sacrifice meant the offering of life on behalf of individuals and families and once a year, on the Day of Atonement, on behalf on the nation itself.

The racket Jesus encountered was rather clever. For instance, a family brought its sacrifice to the Temple. It had to be inspected to make sure that it was of high enough quality to be acceptable. If the object was rejected, there were substitutes available at a price. When the head of the family offered payment, his money was rejected because it was the usual Roman coinage. Yet, guess what? These coins could be exchanged for pure Temple currency, at a price.

Those of us who have traveled abroad know how annoying it is to find our dollars exchanged for a foreign currency and having to pay the exchange rate. So something meant to be holy, special, unique, had been turned into a crooked commercial transaction. Jesus was furious. There’s no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in the gospel today. Jesus, whip in hand – imagine a well-aimed flick at a prominent bottom – drives out these crooked merchants, many of whom were priests.

Jesus then goes on to strike at the heart of Jewish security. He shouts that the Temple will be destroyed. To his listeners, that announcement seemed incredible. It struck at national security and national faith. Was God going to absent himself again? Indeed there were some who believed that God’s Presence had never truly returned.

Jesus was speaking about two things at once. His astounding claim to be “God with Us” rivaled that of the Temple. Later Christians would teach that Jesus is truly the new and substitute Temple, the sign of God among us. So John reminds us in this account that Jesus knew he would die and rise again; the Temple of his body would be destroyed and renewed. Yet early Christians hearing these words after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would hear Jesus saying that God’s covenant was now to be with all who believe in Jesus, the true Temple.

Now this gospel isn’t an excuse of anti-Semitism. It is rather a calling to us all to examine just how genuine our devotion to Jesus is, at this moment, in this place. Buildings are important symbols of the presence of Jesus-Who-Is-God with his people. They exist not to suggest that we are special people, or better than others; but rather that we are “holy” people, called people, people with a mission, God’s mission, to restore all things into Jesus-Who-Is-Lord-of-All.

Perhaps you are annoyed when you hear politicians parading their God in order to win votes. We have to make sure that we are not using our faith as a cover of respectability while ignoring the poor, mistreating those near and dear to us, parading our righteousness, or cheating God and his people by failing to pray, work, and give for the Kingdom. Lent exists for that purpose. We have to make sure that we know which Temple we serve: one which exists for our own selfish benefit, or one which exists for God.

And if we don’t repent? Watch out for that whip!

 

— Father Tony is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, and an examining chaplain to the Bishop of Northern Indiana.

Why must a person believe in God to be nice and do good things?, 2 Lent (B) – 2012

March 4, 2012

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Many people over the course of history have asked, “Why must a person believe in God to be nice and do good things?” Why, indeed? What separates our faith communities from other social activist groups like the Lions Club or Doctors Without Borders? The answer lies in our deepest motivation: following Jesus. With this understanding, we have a lens through which we filter everything.

Of course, we should all be nice, decent people, but to follow Jesus – that calls for something deeper, something more weighty. You can be a nice person without believing in God or following Jesus; but you can’t truly believe in God and follow Jesus without being a person of conversion: your heart must be where God’s heart is, as well as your hands and feet. This takes courage. It is often easier said than done.

At the time of crucifixion, some victims had to carry their own crossbeams to the hill where they were to be crucified. Imagine how terrible that road must have felt, as they walked themselves to their impending death, carrying one of the implements of their death on their backs? Then, once there, being humiliated by being seen in all your vulnerability as a human being – not able to care for your basic human functions while others watch; spending hours in unrelieved pain; having other people jeer and laugh at you and not see you as a person, but as an object of ridicule; all the while knowing that you are dying. When Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, he knows that this is what it will come to. Jesus chooses this vulnerability. He chooses obedience and courage and tells the disciples that if they are to follow him, that they must choose this, too.

It’s a lonely choice. This is not what a person would typically want for his or her life. As Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist says, “It’s no wonder that Jesus’ family was concerned about him. By his actions he was showing that principles which most people value above everything else – security, safety, and a good reputation in the eyes of others – meant nothing to him. How countercultural is that?”

To live within the integrity of God’s call to you instead of living within popularity can certainly be countercultural, and it can be lonely. Being a follower of Jesus means that we embrace this loneliness. As God came to be fully human in Jesus, so we too, understand what it means to be fully human through Jesus. This is where we find glimpses of grace.

But the idea of a vulnerable, suffering God is as unacceptable to us as it was to Peter in our gospel today. Peter saw the Messiah as something very different – an invincible war hero who would lead the Jewish people to freedom, and redeem them from their own vulnerability. Aren’t we all like Peter in our own way? Believing that Jesus is the Messiah – a Messiah who will save us from the cruel, harsh world that surrounds us? A tame Messiah that will come when we call and keep the bad things at bay? “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus demands of Peter. Get behind all of us so that we can have the clear and sobering view of the path of the cross.

When we are baptized, it is a joyous occasion of being received into the Christian community. But even as we receive the water of life, we are also handed a crossbeam of our own and pointed to the path of Jesus and told to hop to it. We look at that road and the figure of Jesus struggling in the distance and wonder if there has been some mistake. The road looks difficult, and at the end is death.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. All our lives end in death, as we are reminded in our Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of Lent. The difference for a Christian is the singular intention to live our lives following Jesus. We deny our notions of who we think we are in order to truly become who God created us to be. The more we know God, the longer we follow Jesus’ path, the more we become ourselves. There is true freedom in what Jesus asks of us – the freedom to draw near to God, to love and accept one another and ourselves without constraint. Jesus shows us how to do it. He keeps his eye on the prize: obedience to God’s will. And nothing deters him. We are asked to do the same in our own lives, but we have a guide. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, everything else falls away.

Where is Jesus asking you to follow him in your life right now? Perhaps it’s time to take that step of faithfulness, of vulnerability, of being loved by God, of living and sharing the Good News; to take that step of becoming the human that God has created you to be. What are you waiting for?

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota, and co-coordinator of the 2012 Beautiful Authority Conference to be held in June.

Baptism is bigger than a simple ceremony, 1 Lent (B) – 2012

February 26, 2012

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

A long-running and popular show in musical theater is “Joseph and the Amazing Technical Color Dream Coat” by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber. This musical is based on the Biblical life of Joseph, son of Jacob, in the beginning parts of Genesis. Joseph was a man who could interpret dreams, and this made him a man who was envied by his eleven brothers. Through a series of tragic events, he is sold to be an Egyptian slave, and then ends up in prison, where he meets up with a couple of Pharaoh’s servants. When Joseph interprets the servants’ dreams for them, word quickly spreads that Joseph is a seer, and Pharaoh requests an audience with Joseph because he is having some troubling dreams that he is unable to understand. And it is toward the middle of this show that Joseph is taken to Pharaoh to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream, and as Joseph comes into his presence he sings, “My service to Pharaoh has begun. … Tell me your problems … mighty one.”

Baptism is the time when you are brought before God and you utter the words “My service to God has begun.” And so, baptism is an extremely important event in anybody’s life, because that is when your service to God began.

This morning, we heard Saint Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John. Buy why did Jesus do this? It was not to cleanse the stain of sin off his soul, but rather He did it for four very specific reasons. First, Jesus’ baptism marked the official start of His ministry here on earth. Second, He did it to show His, and God’s, support for John’s ministry. In a sense, this was God’s way of endorsing this type of ministry. Third, by being baptized in this way, Jesus is able to identify fully with our humanity. And finally, it was to give a lasting example to His followers.

Not only was Jesus’ baptism a turning point in His life, it marked the beginning of His ministry. And just like our Lord and Savior, our baptisms too are much more significant than simply having someone pour water over our heads while uttering the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

So what happens to us, the followers of Christ, when we follow in His footsteps? What happens at our baptism? You see, baptism is bigger than a simple ceremony that your family and friends come into a church to witness. And it is much bigger than the huge celebration afterward. At the moment of baptism, there are a number of things that take place, things that are beyond our sight.

First, you are adopted by God as one of His children. It is through this adoption that you become an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the moment when you become a citizen of heaven, when the gift of salvation offered through Jesus Christ is bestowed upon you.

The second thing that happens at baptism is that you are titled. A person can go to a university and spend upward of twelve years studying in a particular field. At graduation, when they are presented their diploma, they are titled. No longer are they John Smith, they are now Dr. John Smith. The same thing happens at baptism. Before your baptism, you were simply John Doe, human being; but as soon as you were baptized, you became John Doe, Christian, son or daughter of God.

The third thing that happens at baptism is that you are made a priest. Yes, you heard me correctly. You become a priest of God. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of priests, and you joined these ranks the moment you were baptized. You are charged with spreading the Good News of God’s love to all people, to live your life in accordance with the example given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be a beacon of light in the darkness of the world.

The fourth thing that happens at baptism is that you join Christ in His death. At the moment of baptism, you partake in Jesus Christ’s death. You join Him on that cross and you die. Your death is not a physical one, but rather a spiritual death. You were born alive to sin, and at baptism, you died to sin.

The fifth thing that happens at baptism is that you are resurrected with Christ. After your spiritual death, you are resurrected as a new person, with a perfect soul. The power of sin no longer has control over your life, and death can no longer contain you.

A popular form of baptism among some denominations is full immersion. This kind of baptism takes place within a body of water; some churches have pools that are just a few feet deep, some use streams or rivers, and some use lakes or oceans. The congregation meets at the edge of the water while the person who performs the baptism, the vicar or another ordained person, stands out in the water, close to waist deep. The person being baptized walks out in the water to the baptizer, and after affirming his or her desire to be baptized, the one receiving baptism covers his nose and mouth, while the baptizer puts one hand at the base of his neck, and the one being baptized leans backward into the water. The one being baptized is fully immersed in the water three times as the baptizer says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

That kind of baptism really illustrates the fourth and fifth things we were just talking about: death and resurrection. You are submerged into the water as a symbol of your death, and you surface as a symbol of your resurrection. You are buried in death, and raised in life.

The final thing that happens at baptism is that your service to God begins. Just as Joseph is brought before Pharaoh, we too are brought before God to begin our service. As Christians, we are servants not just of God, but of God’s people. We are called to serve the needs of our communities, to help the poor, to heal the sick, to comfort the grieving, and to save the lost. In essence, your baptism is the day when you were officially hired by God to work in His household.

Baptism is not the end-all-be-all of Christianity; it is only the first step. As Christians, it is our responsibility to learn from our Lord, it is our responsibility to create a firm relationship with Christ. If you were baptized as an adult, the full responsibilities to learn and grow would be on you; but when baptized as an infant, the responsibilities lie with all of those who stood witness to it. The parents and godparents shoulder the bulk of the responsibility and accountability; however, everybody who witnesses also shares in that responsibility and accountability. The newly baptized Christian needs to be raised to know Christ, to learn His teachings, and to serve the needs of all people.

Attending weekly worship is important for all Christians, as it allows us to refresh our weary souls, replenish our ammunition against the forces of darkness, and to bask in the Love of God and hear His word. Sunday school is a great way for young Christians to learn about the Glory of God and to know His Son, Jesus Christ. Summer youth camps are designed to help young Christians learn how to apply their faith to their daily lives and the camps offer a collaborative community of like-minded people.

Reciting daily prayers is extremely important, as this is the cornerstone of our relationship with Christ. It is communication, and as we all know, communication is the foundation on which all relationships are built. As Christians grow, their prayers, their conversations with God, also grow. Many of us started with a very simple “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer, then we slowly progress to a free-form, no-holds-barred prayer that we recite daily – and very often many times a day. As we grow, so does our ability to converse with God.

But Jesus did not identify with our humanity just by being baptized. He did it also by His willingness to enter the desert and face temptations. In His forty days, he was tempted and He overcame the challenges that often trip us up on our journey. Jesus knows from firsthand experience how difficult these temptations can be, and it is through this shared experience that we have found some common ground for our conversations with God. He has “been there, done that,” and so we don’t need to spend much time explaining to Him how it feels when we are challenged. Instead, this allows us to spend the bulk of our time talking about our specific challenges and how to overcome them.

So as we embark upon our Lenten journey this year, let us all take stock in what God has provided for us. Let us take on the yoke of Christ, let us face our temptations, and let us focus our eyes on the promise of what is to come. In order to prepare our hearts, minds, and bodies for the promise of the resurrection, let us take stock of the gifts that He has given us, and use our gifts to support one another, our church, and our communities. Our service to God has begun, and we are now officially “on the clock.”

 

— Christopher Zampaloni is a postulant seeking Holy Orders through the Diocese of Western New York. He currently serves three churches: Church of the Good Shepherd, a Native American mission in Irving, New York; St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Silver Creek, New York; and the Cristo Rey Hispanic congregation in Dunkirk, New York. He and his wife Carolyn live within a Native American community on Lake Erie.

We are welcome to rest, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2012

February 22, 2012

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Ask people how they’re doing, and often the answer begins with a single word: “Busy!” This one word is then followed by a recital of all the projects and tasks that have been demanding this person’s attention. The tone of the response may suggest that the person doesn’t want to be reminded of these manifold obligations, or that the person is desperate for someone to empathize with their troubles, or both.

When the question is: “How are you doing?” and the answer is “Busy!” and the tone is full of weariness and regret, then there’s another question floating around that begs for an answer: “Who’s running the world?” Because when we say, with weariness and regret, that we’re busy, then the implication is that the world is ours to run, and it’s a job too big for us.

Today begins the forty days of Lent, which prepare us for the great fifty days of Easter. These seasons equip us to deal with the question “Who’s running the world?”

Lent and Easter make it clear that the world is not ours to run, and that if we think it is, then no wonder if regret and weariness fill our hearts and voices. Lent and Easter make it clear that such a job is too big for us, and that the world is, in fact, God’s to run. Lent and Easter show us that our misunderstanding is forgiven, and something far better awaits us than an impossible task.

The way that Lent sets us free from this tragic and avoidable mistake is through the practices characteristic of this season. The three most important are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three practices are central to Judaism. Jesus endorses them in today’s gospel even as he reveals their interior significance. As practices, he almost takes them for granted. He does not say, “If you pray, if you fast, if you give alms.” Instead, he says, “When you pray, when you fast, when you give alms.”

These characteristic Lenten practices have this in common: each one helps us learn again that we’re not running the world; God is. Done in the proper spirit, as Jesus recommends, each practice enables us to let go, to rest, to have something more to say than “Busy! Busy! Busy!” And each of these three practices does so in a different way, in regard to a different relationship that we have.

Consider prayer. Prayer concerns our relationship with God; prayer is when we allow God to engage us. Insofar as we are praying and our prayer is true, then we simply cannot believe that the world is ours to run. Prayer takes us away from a false sense of responsibility that can turn us into driven people. The frame for our prayer is always that petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” We are free to rest, to rest in God.

Consider fasting. Fasting concerns our relationship with ourselves, as we are creatures of body as well as soul, flesh as well as spirit. Fasting from food or alcohol, television or shopping, makes us less dependent on those things. When fasting, we don’t claim to run the world, we allow some emptiness in ourselves and invite God to fill that emptiness with divine life. Not so much energy as usual is spent digesting, consuming, analyzing. We are free to rest, to rest in God.

The third practice is almsgiving. This means giving of what we have to meet the needs of people who otherwise would go without. Almsgiving concerns our relationship with other people and all of creation. It is a practical expression of God’s justice. When we give alms, we admit that we are not owners, but trustees: trustees of our possessions, our time, our lives. We’re not running the world, because the world is not ours to run. Together with everyone else, we are recipients of mercy. We are free to rest, to rest in God.

When we engage in these practices properly, then they bring rest. Not collapse from exhaustion, not even a lack of activity, but a deep restfulness that spares us from being so driven, distracted, and busy. We are able to find the joy that waits for us in what we do. We get a taste of resurrection in our flesh and bones, our moments and our days.

There’s a cycle at play here. The practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can bring us rest, and rest can make these practices meaningful, channels of grace rather than burdensome tasks.

I recall an essay about Desmond Tutu, retired Archbishop of Cape Town, in South Africa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and leader of the struggle against the old order in South Africa. He is portrayed as an outstanding example of the Benedictine spirituality that is such an important part of our Anglican tradition. In the essay, there’s a quote from his confessor, Francis Cull:

“As I ponder the prayer life of Desmond Tutu I see the three fundamental Benedictine demands that there shall be: rest, prayer, and work and in that order. It is a remarkable fact, and it is one reason at least why he has been able to sustain the burdens he has carried, that he has within him a stillness and a need for quiet solitude. … The ‘rest’ of which St. Benedict speaks is not a mere switching off; it is a positive attempt to fulfill the age-old command to rest in God.”

Consider for a moment, my friends, this man Desmond Tutu. He served as archbishop of the Province of Southern Africa, a Christian community including millions of people in several countries. He was a principal leader in the fearsome, demanding struggle to free South Africa from the legalized racism known as apartheid. Upon retirement, he took up the responsibility of chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of his country, and thus led its burdensome work of restoring health to the soul of a sin-sick nation. And this man found it possible to rest, to rest in God. Indeed, were he among us here today, I’m sure he would tell us that doing these things would have been utterly impossible for him if he had not found rest in God.

Desmond Tutu’s example invites us to enter into the same cycle. Each of us in our unique way can give priority to rest, rest in God, and allow divine life to fill our spiritual practices and everything we do and everything we are. And each of us can engage in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in a way that leads to deeper rest, a rest closer to the heart of God. That this is possible for us is the good news of Lent and Easter and the entire Christian life.

The forty days of Lent that begin today call us to leave behind the spirit of “Busy! Busy! Busy!” We are welcome to rest, then to pray and fast and give. We are welcome to pray and fast and give, and find these practices to be channels of grace, ways by which we can rejoice that – thank God! – we do not run the world and God does.

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).

As they were coming down the mountain, Last Sunday After the Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (B) – 2012

February 19, 2012

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Recall the last verse from our reading today in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark: “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

The mission of the church is both foreign and domestic. In the most obvious understanding of the phrase “foreign and domestic,” it means there are individuals within our own nation, even our own neighborhoods, who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ; and there are individuals who live in places outside of those domestic boundaries to whom the mission of the church is extended. Thus the mission of the church is to the whole wide world.

It can also be seen in today’s gospel reading, the telling of the events on the mountain that we know as “the Transfiguration of Christ,” that from a different perspective, the foreign and domestic mission exists not only wherever the gospel has not yet been accepted, but within ourselves, we who are the church. We often are in need of preaching to ourselves.

But from either perspective, the calling, the display of brilliance, the overshadowing cloud, the voice of God, and even the command to wait to tell, all has to do with the power of God released for the sake of the mission to be successful. The power of God.

The beginning and the end of the mission of the church is meant to be conducted in the power of God.

That conclusion is found in today’s gospel reading, and pointed to in another verse from the ninth chapter of Mark that is not included in today’s reading. The first verse of Chapter 9: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Indeed the Kingdom of God has come with power. From the work of God in creation, through the prophets as we heard in the story of Elijah and Elisha, to the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the miracles of Jesus retold in this season after the Epiphany, and now to this moment on the mountain.

This power of God is intended to be revealed to the world, both foreign and domestic, through Jesus in the preaching and proclamation of the church, the Body of Christ.

You see, as both Matthew and Mark record, it is not simply that Jesus “was transfigured,” but that “he was transfigured before them,” the three disciples. It is not simply a display of power; it is for the benefit of the witnesses, to remind them, and us, of the eternal name Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” If God is with us, then so is His power; and that is exactly as He intends.

Sometimes, though, is it not difficult to see the power in the church? We all have stories about how the church has faltered in its mission to the world, rather than portrayed the life-changing, transfiguring, transforming power of God. Blunders are not limited to Peter.

Take for example, the bloopers in church bulletins, which are often very funny, although sometimes they hit a little too close to home. A bulletin from a Methodist congregation read: “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.”

Another church bulletin, prompting the Prayers of the People, read: “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.”

Certainly, there will always be failures within the church, but if the beginning and end of the mission of the church, the Body of Christ, is meant to be conducted in the security of the power of God, then where in the gospel do we find our guidance for doing it properly?

In regard to that Mission, one major failure of the church has always been paying so much attention to ourselves that we neglect the mission of proclamation. It might be because we have decided we have to be polished as Christians before presenting ourselves to the world. But who will ever achieve perfection to prove their worth? Certainly not Peter, James, and John. Yet God worked through them mightily despite their imperfections.

On the other hand, we may be paying more attention to ourselves because – just like the rest of the world around us – we continue to be in great need of the healing Love of God. Placing ourselves into the gospel story, we desperately want to be the recipients of God’s call as His “sons and daughters” whom he loves. And yet there is only One about whom God is speaking at that moment. And through that Son, Jesus, is the love of God revealed to all of us. We can’t set aside Jesus.

We need to know what Mission is. Our guidance here in the Gospel of Mark will be found in Jesus’ instruction to the disciples. As they come down the mountain Jesus tells them they are not ready to tell about “what they had seen.” Looking for direction for mission, in that phrase, our eyes are turned back to what happened

What did they see? They saw the power of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

And what did they hear? They heard the voice of God saying about the Son of God, “Listen to him.”

Here, then, is the most basic definition of the mission of the church: pointing to Jesus and telling others that the Almighty God has proclaimed who he is, and to do what he says.

This is what a missionary is called to do, just as the three in our readings today were called to be apostles and called to be witnesses on the mountaintop. We pray for missionaries and for their sometimes perilous work in foreign or domestic lands, who also have also seen Jesus and have heard from God the Father. We pray that we all may understand our baptismal duty to point to Jesus and proclaim him as the only begotten Son of God, the Lord and Savior.

So now we come to the question again: If the beginning and end of the mission of the church is meant to be conducted through the power of God, then where in the gospel do we find our guidance?

Do you hear release for mission in the gospel reading? In fact, as we look again at verse 9, we hear restriction, not release: “Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

The key word is “until.”

So we turn our search to those few chapters where we hear of the discussions, and learn of the appearances of the risen Jesus. And in our search we find in the first chapter of Acts that Jesus tells the disciples, once again, to wait. Wait for the promised Holy Spirit.

Jesus is very precise, too, in that first chapter of Acts, in the purpose of waiting, and the purpose of the coming Holy Spirit: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.”

Right mission depends on power, and that power comes from the Holy Spirit.

At the Transfiguration they saw it. And they lived with it, in Jesus. And that power would be proclaimed, and lived. The mission of the church, from beginning to end, when done the way God wants it done, is accomplished through the power of God.

Lord God, empower our missionaries in the Holy Spirit as they go, and as they point to and proclaim Jesus. May each of us be open to the invitation to go ourselves. We pray that all of us may be empowered and living in the Holy Spirit that we will all live the mission no matter where we are, to the Glory of God and the building up of Your Kingdom. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Robert G. Eaton has been the rector of The Episcopal Church of St. John, Tulare, California, in the Diocese of San Joaquin, since 1989. 

 

How far are you willing to go?, 6 Epiphany (B) – 2012

February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

What would you be willing to do if your life depended on it?

How far would you be willing to go to save yourself?

We can never know what we would do when faced with those sorts of life-or-death choices until the moment comes for us to make such a weighty decision. Yet, there are ways in which small, seemingly easy requests can contain more than meets the eye.

In our reading from Second Kings, the commander of the Aramaean army is afflicted with leprosy. Just before our reading, Naaman learns from an Israeli servant girl that he might find healing through a prophet in her home country. The girl knows of Elisha, the great miracle-working man of God, and she holds out the hope of healing if Naaman will travel to the Israel to find this prophet.

Aram is modern-day Syria. The first wrinkle in this plan is that in Naaman’s day, as today, Syria and Israel were not on the best of terms. Far from being even Facebook friends, much less genuine allies, the two nations had in recent memory fought a pitched battle at Ramoth-Gilead in which Naaman led the Syrian troops to victory. War was the norm at this point in Israel’s history. Elisha’s time in Israel was characterized with only brief periods of peace in the midst of ongoing fights with neighboring countries, including Aram. Beyond those larger battles, Aram was conducting continual raids into Israel, which is how Namaan’s wife came to have an Israeli girl working for her.

Yet despite this, Naaman decided to heed the words of his servant, which shows how desperate he was to find healing. He still had to convince two kings to go along with the plan. The king of Aram dispatches a diplomat to go with Naaman to their enemy, bearing gifts for the king of Israel. This is seen as inciting war, which could well have been the motive for the Aramaean king. Either way, God has another plan. Elisha reaches out to his king with a solution: send the leper to me. Once Naaman arrives at the prophet’s house, Elisha sends a messenger and asks him to wash himself and be made clean.

That is all. One simple thing: wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be cleansed. For Naaman, who has negotiated with kings and traveled a great distance in search of healing, this might seem easy enough. Yet, the prophet’s prescription is problematic. The servant doesn’t quite grasp that Namaan has been asked to do something very difficult.

If Elisha is right, then this Syrian military commander, who has led his troops into both pitched battles and smaller raids against Israel, will have to acknowledge that his healing could come in Israel, but not in Aram. While he was willing to allow that Israel might have a prophet connected to God like no other, admitting that Israel was uniquely blessed by God was a lot to ask.

At the same time, if Elisha is wrong, then this military leader will be publicly embarrassed by abasing himself in a ritual anyone could have known would never work. Already, Elisha has dishonored him by sending a messenger rather than coming out to meet the great man face to face. Then he was told to wash in the river. Everyone knows that river water cannot wash away leprosy. If it could, Naaman would not have traveled to see the man of God. Elisha’s simple request requires great risk. Naaman could have traveled all this distance to be made a fool.

In facing one easily understood request that is decidedly difficult to fulfill, Naaman is far from alone in scripture. In fact, God has a knack for asking the one simple thing that costs so much.

Adam and Eve could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden, save one. As far as we can tell from Genesis, the only food they ever ate was forbidden fruit.

The prophet Jonah was given a message from God to cry out repentance. The only problem was he was to call on Israel’s great enemy Assyria to repent. For Jonah, this was too much, as it risked the salvation of the enemy. Jonah preferred traveling to the ends of the earth and even being thrown into the sea in the midst of a storm to doing the one simple thing God asked.

Jesus told the rich man that all he had to do was sell everything, give it to the poor, and he could follow. Then he asked the man who only wanted to bury his father to leave that task to others.

Throughout scripture, God asks us to let go of the one thing holding us back. For Naaman, he was asked to let go of nationalistic pride and bathe in the Jordan. For each person, the simple thing God asks is the hardest to accept. We are taught to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Whatever it is that holds us back from this is what we are asked to offer to God.

Jesus called us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. These twin commands contain all that is expected of us. They are stunningly simple requests that are very difficult to follow. For at some point, there will come the rub. Actually living into that love will demand something we don’t quite want to give.

We may have to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply. We might have to trust God with our finances by actually giving back from all we have been given through our first fruits rather than what’s left. We might have to stand on the side of justice when it could cost our standing in the community or our job.

To practice the faith that is in us, there will come points where even a simple request will seem like too much. At each of those points along the way, we have to decide whether to be faithful even when it costs. The path deeper and deeper into the heart of God means stepping out to do the simple things God asks that cost more than we are first willing to give. This is the way of healing and wholeness.

How far are you willing to go?

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.

That same grace is offered to us, 5 Epiphany (B) – 2012

February 5, 2012

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

It’s a simple little story, but the reading we just heard from Mark is one of the most moving, and most challenging, parts of this gospel. It’s from the first chapter of Mark, and it describes the second part of a sort of model day in the ministry of Jesus. We heard the first part of this day last Sunday. Jesus is in Capernaum, a small town northeast of Nazareth – and it’s his first stop on the road since his baptism and temptation. He’s had a heck of a day – he taught in the synagogue, drove out some unclean spirits, and healed, first Peter’s mother-in-law, and then, it seems, a good percentage of the whole town. In short, Jesus impressed the socks off everybody; he was probably the most exciting thing that had happened to the town since somebody burned down the tax office. But as interesting as all that was, the real crisis, the really important thing, was what happened next.

Very early the next morning, Jesus went to a lonely place to pray; and while he was there, Peter and the other disciples tracked him down and told him that the whole town was searching for him. Now, there are a couple of hints in the text that something big was going on. First, Mark specifically mentions Jesus in prayer like this only three times in his entire gospel – and each of these times is associated with a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Second, the Greek word used to describe the crowds searching for Jesus is sinister, which implies malice or misguided motives. So it’s very significant that Jesus, quite suddenly and without looking back, just up and leaves. Now, since Jesus was a big hit, this certainly wasn’t a lynch mob after him – that comes later. In fact, it was most likely exactly the opposite.

Most likely, the town really liked what Jesus had done, and they really wanted to keep him there so he could keep on doing it. The group searching for him was probably the first-century equivalent of a joint committee of the ministerial alliance, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Economic Development Board.

They were working on an offer to Jesus that he couldn’t refuse: they wanted him to set up shop in Capernaum – establish the Jesus of Nazareth Preaching and Healing Mission. The pay and benefits would be great, the hours negotiable, housing would doubtless be provided, and taxes could be deferred indefinitely.

There was no doubt that Jesus could really put Capernaum on the map. The tourist trade and healing business would be good for everybody – think Lourdes with a money-back guarantee – the tax base would grow wonderfully, business would improve, and the citizens would have their own miracle worker around the next time they got sick. It was a swell deal for everybody. Really, it was a good deal.

Now, one of the ways in which we deny Jesus’ humanity – and in doing that, remove his life from our lives – is by pretending that all of Jesus’ decisions were easy and automatic; that it was all reading from a script. That’s not how it happened. Jesus knew that the delegation from Capernaum was offering him security, safety, prosperity, and respect. These are things we all want, things everybody has always wanted. They are also things that Jesus knew he would never have if he left that town. If he became their resident rabbi, he wouldn’t have to be poor, his family wouldn’t think he was crazy, he could have a normal life, he wouldn’t have to be cold, hungry, or afraid for his life. In fact, his life would be easier and better in every way we consider important.

As we all know, Jesus would not have been the first to trade challenge for security; to exchange the possibility of greatness for the assurance of competence; to swap the call of God for the rewards that come from giving the crowds what they want. Not by a long shot. No, Jesus’ decision did not come easily. It was so hard that he did exactly the same thing he did on the night before the crucifixion – he went off by himself to pray, to sweat out a tough decision, to decide which voice to follow: the voices everyone could hear rolling up the hillside chanting, “We want Jesus”; or the other, quieter voice that said, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”

He had to choose. There is a very real sense that all of creation held its breath, waiting to see what would happen.

Of course, Jesus’ story is our story – in basic ways it always is. We know the power of security, prosperity, safety, and respect – especially these days. We know how easy it is to settle – to settle for being just a little less than who we know we can be; to listen to those loud voices; to let their expectations rule. After all, there comes a certain point when questions like this begin to matter; when they begin to cost, when things get painful. And when that happens, the sense of who we are – of what it means to be the beloved child of God – can easily fade into the background. So we have to make choices, and whether we know it or not, the Lord of heaven and earth waits, to see what will happen. That’s one way we live out this story.

Another way is that we, as the church, have to make pretty much the same decision that Capernaum had to make. We have to decide what to do about Jesus. We have to decide what to do about this guy who comes to us proclaiming the kingdom of God, and bringing healing, and hope, and a vision of new life. In Capernaum they decided to take the part of Jesus they liked best – a good preacher, an effective healer – and capture it, institutionalize it.

They decided to locate him in their place, at their convenience, and for their purposes. They didn’t want to be challenged; they wanted to be coddled. They didn’t want to see beyond his gift of healing, to see what that gift might ask of them. They wanted to keep repeating the neat stuff. And in exchange, they were willing to offer him a very gilded cage.

Both throughout history and today, the church has faced this temptation of trying to hire Jesus – of assuming the Lord has come for our convenience, as one more resource we have for carrying out our plans. When we yield to that temptation, as yield we have, we find, sooner or later, and in spite of our best efforts, that the nice house we built for him is empty, and that he has gone on to the next town.

To be sure, we need to know him like the people in Capernaum did: we need to hear his word, and to know the power, the mercy, and the grace of his healing love. We can do nothing without that. But if we stop there, if we try to limit or control where the Lord is or what he does, if we try to pay him to keep up the good work, then we’ve missed the point.

Perhaps the only person in Capernaum who really understood all of this was Peter’s mother-in-law. We don’t know her name, but we do know, from her, the truth. It’s simple. “He came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up. Then the fever left her; and she began to serve them.” She didn’t try to put Jesus in the medicine cabinet or in a shop down the street. She served. She moved beyond herself and the gift she had been given, to the Lord and his calling.

Such is our choice as we live out that part of today’s gospel. As the church, we can try to hire Jesus, or we can strive to serve him, which means to serve as he did. It really is a hard choice, as hard as our personal choices between comfort and faithfulness, as hard as Jesus’ choices between taking the cushy job or moving on.

Through the grace of God the Father, Jesus rose from prayer and told Peter and the rest that it was time to go. The people searching for him were disappointed, and the Kingdom of God grew in power. That same grace is offered to us, to all of Christ’s Church, as we are called to rise from prayer and to move forward in service. For the Kingdom of God continues to break into our world. And all of creation is waiting to see what will happen.

 

— 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.