7 Easter (B) – May 20, 2012

The opposite of scoffing

By Craig Canfield

(Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19)

“Once there was a little girl who always laughed and grinned
and made fun of everyone, of all her blood and kin,
and once when there was company and old folks was there,
she mocked them and she shocked them, and said she didn’t care.
And just as she turned on her heels to go and run and hide,
there was two great big black things a-standing by her side.
They snatched her through the ceiling ’fore she knew what she’s about,
and the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!”

Did any of you go to bed as children having the poems of James Whitcomb Riley read to you? Well, for those of you who did, you might recall what was just read from the poem “Little Orphan Annie.”

So what has this to do with the major themes from our Bible readings of this week? Everything.

It is not that our little girl lost cannot be found, it is that she is on a bad road. “Scoffers” or, depending on your translation, “the scornful,” is something we encounter in our reading from the First Psalm this Sunday. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of the scoffers.”

“Sit in the seat of the scoffers.” Now here is a word we don’t encounter every day. Would that the actual adult scoffer be as absent as the number of times we come across that word. Perhaps the substitution of synonyms would ring more clearly to our ears – words such as “mockers,” or “deriders,” or “those who treat others or God with contempt or ridicule.”

If, on the other hand, we are reading verses from our Bible every day, then we will definitely come across the word “scoffer.” Countless times. The Bible is full of references to the scoffers. There is “scoffing at the Lord’s prophets,” and verses such as “All your enemies open their mouths wide against you: they scoff and gnash their teeth.” Then there are the scoffers that “will come in the last days.”

The readings today from Psalms, John and Acts are crucial in fostering a change of attitude not only among the mockers, but among those who are attacked by the mockers and the traditional ways in which people have learned to deal with their attackers. In these readings we are not only led away from the road of the scoffer, with their goblins of separation and alienation, but we are led away from the customary road of revengeful reaction to the scoffers. We are led toward the path of forgiveness.

Given that much has been made recently of the connection between psychology and spirituality, why not look at what psychologists have to say about the corrosive effect scoffers might have on others, the effect on people when they are mocked or negated, and of the effect such treatment has on our souls?

The word “therapist” is taken from the Greek word therapia, which means “soul server” – so helping the soul to expand, to reach God, is something that, if we do not limit ourselves to the pursuit of secular therapy, ought to be the work of therapists as well as clergy.

In the book The Politics of Experience, Erving Goffman is quoted as saying, “There seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing oneself alive, or by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shriveling up the reality in which one is lodged.”

The mocker is the blocker. He is the one, in comedies, called the blocking agent – the one who prevents the success of the hero’s action. But in the act of the soul’s journey toward salvation, this is no joke, no laughing matter. The scoffer is the adversary, the one who interferes, the one who stands in the way.

Other psychologists have written about how the words of the mocker can put one back into the acorn from which the soul is supposed to emerge as an oak tree, back in the cocoon from which the soul is supposed to morph into a butterfly. Many reclusive and traumatized people inhabit these shells, these prisons of isolation. Sometimes strong forces are needed to shake up the rigidity of such confinement. But we are looking at two forces: a loving force that is coaxing one to grow, and another that is thwarting all growth. Few realize the effect that scoffing or mocking can have on someone.

Mocking is betrayal that leads to alienation and separation; alienation of the mocker from what is mocked, whether it is man or God, and alienation of the one who is mocked, who may get caught up in a spiral of hatred and revenge toward the mocker.

Our gospel reading for today gives examples of Jesus’ way and the way he advocates for his disciples, and hence, the way for us to avoid such a negative spiral. In the passage from John, Jesus warns his disciples that because he has set them apart by truth, others will hate them. It is illuminating to see how, although aware of the hatred that comes from the world toward himself and toward his disciples, nevertheless, Jesus’ response is the opposite of scoffing. It is the choice of forgiveness.

If we can stop revengeful responses to the scoffers, take up our own crosses of moving beyond our egos, then we can employ Jesus’ healing energies to learn the way of forgiveness.

Referring to Judas, Jesus said, “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost, except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” Note the mildness of the language. Jesus does not issue a harsh condemnation, judgment or ridicule Judas, even after Judas’ act of betrayal.

Forgive the betrayer, forgive the murdering Roman soldiers. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Yes, forgive 70 times. That is the way, the highway, the road.

Hopefully the “old folks” in the James Whitcomb Riley poem with which we started our sermon were old enough and wisdom-filled enough to have arrived at the conclusion that scoffing, with its attendant belittlement and betrayal, might be met with forgiveness, by recognizing in the injustice of the other a real call for love. Hopefully the same can be said for us.

 

— Craig Canfield is a psychotherapist with a focus on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality, particularly dealing with the Biblical text.

Ascension Day (B) – May 17, 2012

By the Rev. Joshua Bowron

(Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53)

[NOTE: Dayenu is pronounced “die-YAY-new.”]

They say that the sequel is never the equal. The movie that comes after the original to expand the story never lives up to the first one. And it is even worse in movies that come in threes; trilogies are the worst.

Take the “Star Wars” movies, for example – the original “Star Wars” movies, mind you, the ones that came out in the 1970s and ’80s. The idea that George Lucas had back then was that there would be three movies that told a single story arc. So the second movie, “The Empire Strikes Back” would end on a low point: Han Solo is captured, the Empire is at the height of its power, Luke’s training was incomplete training, he found out that Darth Vader was his father and he lost a hand. This all makes for a pretty low point for our hero, and then it just ends! It just ends, leaving the audience feeling rather anxious and unfulfilled. But it is this feeling that the audience was able to bring into the final chapter of the saga and have all that anxiety relieved in the spectacular closure that “Return of the Jedi” gives.

The writings of Saint Luke are not altogether unlike the “Star Wars” saga, except the lines between Parts One, Two and Three are not as simple as the movies’ are. The Apostle Luke didn’t simply write The Gospel According to Luke, he also wrote The Acts of the Apostles. He prefaces both books with thanks to his patron Theophilus, whose name means in Greek “lover of God.” This has led scholars to suppose that Theophilus is a patron who paid for the accounts of Jesus and the Apostles to be written. There are others who think that Luke’s use of the name “Lover of God” might be a tipping of the hat to the reader – “breaking the fourth wall,” to use a cinematic term. What Saint Luke might be doing, then, is turning from writing the page to look directly at us, his readers, to say hello, and maybe even a wink through time, because he knew of the timelessness of his story.

What we have is something of a trilogy in the writings of Luke along with his engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures. Part One of the story of God is told in the life of Israel, especially the life of Moses and the Prophets. In the Gospel of Luke we get Part Two of the story of God, through the life and promises of Jesus Christ. And what we have in the Acts of the Apostles is Part Three of the story of God, this time through the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of the promises of Jesus Christ.

So in today’s readings we arrive at the end of Part Two, although it has little in common with the dour ending of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Indeed, the disciples are left with great promises and blessings, and leave in joy to continually bless God in the Temple. What more could you ask for?

What more indeed! Luke leaves the ending of his gospel on a high note but an even higher note is hinted at when Jesus tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they have been clothed with power from on high. Jesus is, of course, alluding to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and grants them power and authority, thus establishing the means for God continually to form for Himself a people – namely, the church.

Thus, the story of God is unlike any story that has ever been written or performed, because it never ends. It keeps going. The story goes on and on.

Our Jewish sisters and brothers have a special song that they sing at their Passover meals and prayers. The name of the song is “Dayenu.” The word dayenu basically translates as “it would have been enough.” The song goes, “It would have been enough for God to rescue us from the Egyptians, to split the Red Sea,” and it goes on, recounting every detail of the events of the Exodus. Each and every detail in and of itself would have been enough for God to show his glory and mercy. The song says that it would have been enough for God to establish the Sabbath and give the Law, and build the Temple, thus giving us all access to God. Dayenu. It would have been a sufficient showing of God’s grace for any one of these, but God keeps being gracious.

Here at the end of Luke, we get the preamble of the Christian dayenu – that the writings of those who experienced God in the life of Israel were somehow being enacted and fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth; that God raised Jesus from the dead, thus defeating death; and finally that the Holy Spirit would come upon them with great power. Dayenu. Each of these, by themselves, would have been enough of God’s grace.

It would have been enough if God had simply come as a person, incarnate, to stand with us in solidarity, to take our human nature and redeem it. As the Collect of the Incarnation says, “O God who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” Dayenu. This alone would have been sufficient.

It would have been enough if God had raised Jesus from the dead, to destroy death for us. As our Easter Collect says, “Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life.” This is more than sufficient. Dayenu.

All these wondrous graces aside, it would have been enough if God had only given us his Holy Spirit, to provide a means of grace and hope for glory by the giving of His very self. What an ongoing ending to the wondrous saga of God!

God is dayenu; every single act of God is sufficient for our salvation and sustenance. So what we find now, with today’s reading, is that we, the church, are enrolled in God’s story, God’s ongoing and enduring drama of love and adventure. And for that involvement we say, “Thanks be to God.”

 

— The Rev. Joshua Bowron serves as the senior assistant to the rector at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.

 

6 Easter (B) – May 13, 2012

Love one another, as I have loved you

May 13, 2012

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

This is my commandment, Jesus tells his disciples, that you love one another, as I have loved you. The language of commandment is deliberate; the author of John’s gospel is making an explicit reference to God as law-giver to accomplish at least two purposes: to affirm Jesus’ divine mandate, and to help readers to understand the weight given to loving one another.

The law was given to Moses as a gift – the gift of a loving God who desires the best for God’s people. The requirements of the law are not a test that will be graded at the end of life; they are “requirements” for a life lived in God.

Jesus’ commandment to love functions in the same way. The commandment is not expressed as “love each other, or else.” Instead, Jesus reminds his followers that he has loved them, and they are to love one another in the same way – offering themselves to one another with humility, vulnerability, respect and delight. In John’s gospel, Jesus embodies his commandment by washing his disciples’ dusty feet before they eat together; he takes on the role of a servant. This makes it abundantly clear that his command to love is not about fond emotion, but about action. In order to obey Jesus’ commandment to love, his followers have to do something.

The early church history found in the Book of Acts gives us story after story of the earliest followers of Jesus trying to obey this commandment. As the stories of Acts unfold, it becomes gradually apparent that the first Christians are challenged, over and over, by the Spirit of God to reach past their usual boundaries in order to share the love of the risen Christ with surprising people. Apparently, when Jesus commanded them to love one another, he meant everybody: eunuchs, Greeks, women and even the Roman oppressors, which brings us to today’s story from Acts.

In today’s lesson, we hear the very end of the story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. It’s a story you’ve heard before: Peter is praying on the roof, when he has a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals in the sky, and hears a voice telling him to get up, kill something, and eat it. In the meantime, Cornelius, who is described as a God-fearing man, also has a vision while he is praying, a vision that prompts him to send some of his men to fetch Peter.

Peter’s experience of the voice from heaven, telling him not to judge things as unclean that God has deemed clean, prepares him to go meet with Cornelius. It’s hard to overstate what a challenge this must have been for Peter; his culture and his religion both told him that going to the home of a gentile was both wrong and a little nauseating. Peter has to do something that is completely contrary to what he feels in order to obey the heavenly vision.

Peter manages to go to Cornelius and tell him about Jesus, or at least begin to. No sooner does he begin to speak than the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household, and Peter is forced to realize that, though he thought he was making a big concession by agreeing to visit this gentile at his home, and though he thought he was bringing the Good News like a gift, and though he thought he had the upper hand, God’s Spirit bypassed everything he thought and came upon Cornelius and his household in some unmistakable way. Somehow, Peter must acknowledge this experience of the Spirit at work in people who look, speak and eat differently from him.

This is the continuing challenge of the church, as we work to heed Jesus’ commandment to love one another. It is human nature to want to draw a circle around ourselves and maintain borders that define who is part of us, and who is not. It is the Spirit’s nature to push us past our borders, and ask us to grow. If there’s a surefire test for whether the Spirit is prompting us or not, it’s this: if we think we are called to shrink our borders, include fewer people, be more selective in our society, we can be absolutely sure that those feelings don’t come from God. God’s desire, embodied for us in Jesus and demonstrated for us by the early church, is that we expand our understanding, make the effort to love people who are not like us and to accept with grace the fact that our vision of God and God’s kingdom is necessarily limited. We need to hear about the vision of others to broaden our perspective.

As Peter discovered when he went to the home of Cornelius, we do not have anything like exclusive access to God’s truth, God’s Spirit or God’s love. We have a piece of the puzzle, and others – people who in all likelihood don’t look or talk like us – have other pieces. God is bigger than we are, and by definition, not comprehensible in full by humans. It takes all of our puzzle pieces – and more – to begin to comprehend the reality of the Holy among us.

There is a humility required of us if we are going to manage to love one another as we are commanded to do. If a person believes that he or she has all the answers, that person has no need of community, except perhaps to make him feel superior. If, however, we understand ourselves to be limited beings, loving an unlimited God, we might choose to seek God wherever God might be found – in the least and the greatest, in the communities of which we are a part, and outside their borders. We might find ourselves stretching our boundaries, bother personally and in community, to include multiple voices, harmonizing the same theme: love God, and love one another.

It might be helpful to remember that Jesus loves us all. Jesus loved Peter, a Galilean fisherman with a tendency to speak first and ask questions later. Jesus loved Cornelius, a devout Roman soldier. Jesus loves you, and Jesus loves me. Jesus doesn’t love me any more than you, or vice versa. By grace, we are all beloved, and all have the opportunity to exercise that love in how we treat others.

The medieval mystics who contemplated the astonishing love of Jesus that we are commanded to embody found a perfect image to talk about it: they described Jesus as our mother. Anselm of Canterbury, a major theologian of the 11th century whose work dealt with such weighty questions as proving God’s existence and atonement theory, wrote: “Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.” He goes on to compare Jesus’ agony on the cross to the labor pains of a woman giving birth.

Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. And the way he has loved us is with the sacrificial love a mother bears for her children – all her children. Like the early church, we are still caught up in the question about just whom we are called to love, just who belongs; but Jesus has no such questions. Elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” No asterisks, addenda, or exceptions.

We are one, in spite of all our pretending otherwise. And somehow we are also each unique. What we can learn from Peter and Cornelius is that not only are we in equal need of God’s love and grace, but we also need one another so that our vision of that grace can expand. Each person we meet and each person who meets us brings something to the party.

We are called by this story to step over borders and push through boundaries. We are called to seek commonalities, respect and honor differences, look for the spirit of God at work in the lives of people who are not like us, push ourselves to give and receive hospitality as a sign of the reign of God, where all are called to the table by God’s grace.

So. We are led, inevitably, to the table. In the Eucharist, we meet the risen Christ whose ongoing presence continues to fracture and remake the world of our understanding. We also meet each other, and the bread and wine are signs for us of that deep unity that undergirds and precedes all our differences. In the self-offering of Jesus, we find a model for the kind of self-offering we are called to do, across the boundaries that divide us. Every meal we eat, every bit of hospitality we offer, every encounter with the unknown in another reminds us of God’s deep, abiding grace that binds us, in spite of our differences, into one body.

Here is Anselm again:

“Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us;
In your love and tenderness, remake us.
In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness,
For the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.”

Amen.

 

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

 

5 Easter (B) – May 6, 2012

Is there an app for abiding?

By Stephen P. Hagerty

(Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8)

Unfortunately, some of us feel that if we don’t check our smartphones every few minutes, we will miss out on something crucial, maybe the event of the year or the e-mail that will change the course of our lives. And it is even more embarrassing when we don’t seem to be aware that we are doing it, and someone brings it to our attention – often the person we should have been listening to!

A common lament, whether working in an office or as a full-time parent, is that there simply are not enough hours in the day. Schedules are too full, responsibilities too numerous and commitments too demanding. Given this, a common reason as to why we don’t eat better or exercise more or even pray more regularly is simply, “Who has the time?”

We can easily mishear the invitation in today’s gospel passage as yet another demand on our time. We can make the mistake of assuming that what often works well in one aspect of our lives, works equally well in our spiritual lives: in this case, the motto of every controlling and rushed person – which is all of us at one time or another – “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” But listen to Jesus today, “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” And Jesus goes on to tell us very clearly who is doing the work, and it is not you or me, my friends. “He removes every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”

This image of the people of God as “God’s vineyard” is a very old one, going back to the Jewish psalms, as well as other places in the Old Testament. Listen to part of Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” Again, notice that it is God who is doing all the planting here, not us. And think of all the other I AM statements found in the Gospel of John: “I AM the light of the world,” “I AM the gate,” “I AM the resurrection and the life.”

All these I AM statements in the Gospel of John point to the reality of God’s availability. It is ironic that Christianity has the reputation of being an other-worldly religion, focused almost exclusively on how to get into heaven. Maybe you have seen the bumpers stickers declaring, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” or “Friends don’t let friends miss out on heaven!” It may sound surprising, but this kind of theology of a “distant god” is what most of us are comfortable with, because it ultimately pushes God to the sidelines and we can remain in control. We are very good at being busy and taking responsibility, and we rather prefer this to being on the receiving end of change. But as Jesus in today’s reading, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses us twice with the phrase “I AM the vine.” There is a promise here. “I AM the vine, and you are the branches.” Jesus is asking each of us to simply be with him. This sounds deceptively easy. Listen to the words of the Collect for Purity, as if for the first time: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” It’s OK to relax a bit and stop worrying about hiding those parts of ourselves that we don’t want others, and surely not God, to see. We can abide with God, instead of busying ourselves to keep God at a distance.

The promise of Jesus, the Vine, the Gate, the Light, is abundant life here and now, not just in some future time. God is doing more in our lives than any of us are aware. God in Jesus is simply inviting each of us to take the time to notice. But the trick, of course, is to let God do what God needs to do and for us to get out of the way. Jesus is very clear on this point when he says: “I AM the vine, you are the branches.” That is what abiding in the power of the Word is all about, not placing impediments in God’s way by trying to do for ourselves what God wants to do for us: reshape our hearts, bodies and minds to receive the forgiveness being offered.

Hopefully, now, you can hear Jesus’ words as the beautiful invitation it truly is: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

 

— Stephen P. Hagerty is a postulant in the Diocese of New York and will be pursuing his Masters of Divinity at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 2012. He currently resides in Brooklyn with his spouse, Fred, and two Chihuahuas, Mojo and Kiki.

4 Easter (B) – April 29, 2012

Only one voice calls us each by name

By the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek

(Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18)

As is often the case, what is not included in our lessons may be of utmost importance in our hearing what is going on in these lessons.

For instance, in Acts a lame man has been healed, and Peter and John have been hauled before some sort of ecclesiastical court to explain why the lame man is not still lame. And our gospel narrative begins way back in Chapter 8 where Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon, and in Chapter 9 when he heals the blind man by the Pool of Siloam.

Then comes one of the great “I AM” passage, “I am the good shepherd,” which we have a portion of this morning, and which ends:

“There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the saying of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”

In this we hear what is perhaps the central question of faith, “Why listen to him?”

Why listen to Jesus? Why do we listen to Jesus at all?

After all, there are so many other voices competing for our attention. Take, for instance, cable news networks, reality shows, singing competitions, dance competitions, “Law & Order” on three channels simultaneously, not to mention the commercial advertising that makes all this television possible in the first place!

Then there are the politicians of all stripes: the president and his surrogates issuing “important announcements” and speeches almost daily, not to mention those on the primary circuit; mayors and governors all demanding we listen to them, while their opponents on city councils and state legislators are crying, “Don’t listen to him, listen to me!”

Corporate interests such as big coal and big oil insist that the environment is just fine and would actually be improved if we could find a way to use more fossil fuels; and then there are the investments schemes, weight reductions schemes, this-can-only-be-purchased-on-TV schemes, all the way down to the Pocket Fisherman scheme designed to take more money out of our already empty pockets.

There are family members unhappy with the family, neighbors unhappy with the neighborhood, immigrants seeking just some shred of dignity, talk-show hosts who know it all, and of course every lay person, deacon, priest, and bishop trying to convince us that they know what is best for the church!

Like those at the end of the story, and those in the Acts of the Apostles, who are offended by what Jesus says and does, there are all these competing interests and voices trying to get us to turn away from Jesus and turn our lives over to them instead.

Lord, You have spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me! Lord, I know you want me to listen to you! Lord, if you are listening for just one minute, just for one second of one minute, can you please shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians, and commentators for just a few minutes of silence? Lord, can you please still the waters, can you please make me lie down in green pastures, can your rod and your staff please, Lord, comfort me, touch me, protect me, and heal me? Lord, please give me the time, the place, and the space to listen to you!

When we look and listen to the shrill voices that surround us on all sides every day, we begin to know the plight of the one who gave us the Twenty-Third Psalm. And if we are paying attention at all, we will stop, and listen for the Good Shepherd – the Beautiful One. We will stop and listen for Jesus. And what we will hear if we are listening closely is just two words: “I am.”

For people of faith, for people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, those are the only two words we need to hear: “I am.”

Jesus says, “I am.” The people of God have heard these words before. Standing barefoot, in front of a bush that burns and is not consumed, we hear a voice and we ask, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, “Who are you?” The answer comes back, “I am who I am. … I am what I will be. … Just tell them I AM sent you.”

The one who says “I am” also says, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Let’s pause for just a moment and understand what is being said here. We are known. We all want nothing more than to be known. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows us, or even more fundamentally, to know ourselves. There is no doubt about it, the most fundamental human condition: a desire to know and to be known.

All these other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. Can’t possibly know us. But there is one who does. The one who says, “I am,” wants to know us. In fact, the one who says, “I am,” already knows us just as the Father knows him.

God knows us. And in that knowledge, we know God. If we really let ourselves hear what Jesus is saying, we can come to know God. Not a lot of propositions about God, not things about God, but we can experience the reality that is God.

This naturally frightens us. But such fear is not mere sentiment, but rather manifests itself in a way of life, as the First Letter of John speaks about it – a way of life that shows we respect the majesty and power of the God who says, “I am.” A life that ought to “lay down its life for another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

And not just in what we do, but in who we are.

For all those who listen to Jesus – the shepherd who becomes the Paschal lamb slain on the feast of the Passover to save us from our sins– we are the sheep of his pasture. We are poor sheep like those he tends and leads beside still waters. We become his people, his body and blood for the world. We are sheep turned to shepherds through the mystery of the breaking of the bread.

The one hope is that as folk come to know us, they find not the sheep turned to shepherds, but in truth, the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the Beautiful One. It will be so if we abide in Him and He in us. It will be so if we let him set our hearts on fire with the breath of his Holy Spirit. It will be so as he opens our hearts to the Word of God. The lame will walk, the blind will see, if when he calls us by name we will only listen.

There are many competing voices. But only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us by name. Only one voice speaks the great, “I am.” That voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 

— 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.

3 Easter (B) – April 22, 2012

Like the disciples, we are called to experience and value this Earth

By Frederica Helmiere

(Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48)

The Jesuit priest and renowned teacher on prayer Anthony de Mello suggests an interesting spiritual practice based on the questions of Jesus. He urges us to enter a prayerful state and then imagine that Jesus is asking us one of the questions that he poses in the gospels.

Today’s gospel reading presents several questions. The first two that Jesus asks are “Why are you frightened?” and “Why do doubts arise in your heart?”

Most of us would respond to Jesus’ questions with a litany of personal concerns for our families, our health, our jobs. Expanding our realm of concern somewhat, we may tap into anxieties over an uncertain economy or our nation’s involvement in violent conflicts at home and abroad. Taking a step further back, many might express deep fear and doubt over what is arguably the most pressing and far-reaching crisis of our time: ecological degradation so vast that it threatens Earth’s capacity to sustain life as we know it.

Today, April 22, is Earth Day – a worldwide day of awareness and action for the Earth’s natural environment. And since it falls on a Sunday this year, churches across the country and world are called to contemplate the created order around us, repenting of the church’s responsibility in furthering the destruction, accessing our Christian tradition’s rich resources to address the crisis, and sharing together the hope that, as the psalmist writes, “we might see better times.”

There is much “dishonoring of God’s glory” to lament today. We humans are destroying the life-support systems of the planet at an alarming rate. The data keeps pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil, jeopardizing the health of humans and other species. Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise due to the increasing use of fossil fuels, with 80% emitted by only 19 countries. Oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, most of the world’s mountain glaciers are diminishing rapidly, and forest area has decreased by 750 million acres since 1990. Each year 27,000 species created by the Author of Life go extinct – gone from the face of the earth forever. In short, Creation is groaning as never before.

Today’s gospel reading in Luke describes a reappearance of the resurrected Christ to the disciples. Jesus appears, to the shock and terror of his disciples who initially surmised that surely this was a ghost.

Many Biblical scholars believe that this particular appearance story was included in Luke to refute some problematic beliefs held by an early heretical group known as the Gnostics.

Gnosticism was a sect in early Christianity that believed, amongst other things, that matter was evil and that spirit was good. Gnostics were obsessed with achieving a release from one’s body, and escaping the evil realm of enfleshed earthly existence. Some Gnostic groups even believed that Christ was not a flesh and blood human, but instead was something like an illusion or a hologram, because surely the goodness of God could not become material.

Even though Gnosticism itself was rejected by the early church councils, the Gnostics’ tendency to separate everything into a superior and an inferior camp was very influential. For two millennia, western thinking perceived a dualism between spirit and matter. This dualism aligned spirit and reason with good, and saw matter (including Earth) as either evil, inert, or insignificant. In fact, for many years, Christians considered Earth to be nothing more than the backdrop for the human drama, a place to be endured until one could escape to heaven, far above the corrupt Earth.

The worldview that resulted from this dualism included the perceived right of humans to dominate Earth, the right of master classes to subordinate all others, the dominance of men over women, and the superiority of the white race. All acted as engines of colonialism, shaping the material circumstances of life on Earth. The process was not a pretty picture. Nor are the results.

But Christian thought is replete with messages that affirm the importance of matter, and the Luke passage is a prime example. In response to the disciples’ bewilderment and fear, Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet. “Touch me and see,” he says, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” This passage in Luke is a direct contradiction of the Gnostic idea that spirit was superior to matter. On the contrary, matter is extremely important. Matter is the stuff of this Earth, and here was Jesus, incarnate, in the flesh, emphasizing the importance of the material life on Earth.

Like the disciples, we too are called to experience and value the stuff of this Earth, to see the divine spirit of God infused into the natural world around us, and to prevent its suffering. We too must respond to Peter’s call to repent, even though we may “act in ignorance,” not knowing the consequences of our actions. Peter called the Israelites and their rulers to “turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” What sins against Earth must we repent from? What times of refreshing can we imagine here on Earth?

As Christians we know that conversion and resurrection are possible. Picture the scene during the first Earth Day in 1970, as described by the Earth Day Network: “Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental concerns: [in fact] ‘Environment’ was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news.”

Today, many locales experience a different picture: awareness of climate change and ecosystem degradation is increasing, recycling is becoming more mainstream, children are learning about the environment in schools, energy efficiency is on the rise, and we see a growing market for organic products. In addition, more and more people of faith and congregations understand that their faith calls them to care for all God’s creation. The Episcopal Church has taken strong stands against environmental injustice, called congregations to reduce their energy use, passed policy endorsing strong federal action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and called for “responsible lifestyles” that seek to live more simply in light of the constant push to overconsume. The Episcopal House of Bishops issued a powerful Pastoral Teaching on the Environment in September of 2011 in which they write: “This is the appointed time for all God’s children to work for the common goal of renewing the earth as a hospitable abode for the flourishing of all life. We are called to speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.”

We return to the questions that Jesus asked his disciples: “Why are you frightened?” To be frightened for the environmental consequences of unchanged behaviors makes sense. But Jesus also asks, “Why is there doubt in your mind?” As believers, we resist the doubt and hopelessness that we might associate with environmental realities of our time. Our tradition is a wellspring of hope, vision, and courage. Christianity’s vital role in addressing the environmental crisis is offering a moral horizon, hope and courage for facing reality. This enables us, empowered through Christ, to counter hopelessness, denial, powerlessness and to live toward more just and sustainable alternatives.

On this Earth Day, may we recall the words of 1 John: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we are capable of as a human community and as the body of Christ, is, perhaps still untapped.

 

— Frederica Helmiere teaches environmental writing at the University of Washington in Seattle and serves on the board of Earth Ministry. She holds an MAR from Yale Divinity School and an MESc from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Freddie and her husband John serve a new church start in South Seattle called Valley & Mountain – a spiritual community rooted in deep listening, radical hospitality, and creative liberation.

 

 

2 Easter (B) – April 15, 2012

My Lord and my God

By the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano

(Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31)

Martin Luther once said, “That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” Luther was talking about what it means to have a god. He says, “A god means that from which we expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in Him from the heart … that upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

Here Luther provides a classic description of faith as trust. For Luther faith is more than simply believing that something is true. It is being prepared to act on that belief and relying upon it. It is about setting our hearts upon something, about putting our trust in someone. It is about that something or someone from which, when we are really honest, we expect all goodness to come and to which we would turn when times get really tough. To make his point Luther contrasts faith with historical knowledge. Luther says to believe in the historical reliability of the gospels is not saving faith. In his provocative way, Luther says demons are perfectly capable of believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died on the cross and that he rose again on the third day. Rather, true faith or saving faith, for Luther, is the trust or the faith that Christ died for me and that Christ rose again for me, that Christ has accomplished his work for us and for our salvation. There is a difference between believing that certain things about God and Christ are true, and having faith that those things about God and Christ are true for me, true for us. One type is abstract and general; knowing it barely affects our lives. The other is specific and personal; knowing it changes everything.

To get at what Luther means, we might think of the first type of belief as being like our beliefs that it is currently 88 degrees in Hawaii, that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and that the Goldfinch is the New Jersey state bird. All these things may very well be true. But our belief in their truth will hardly affect our lives. Faith in God, according to Luther, is different, or at least, should be. If our response to belief in God is roughly similar to our response to belief that the Goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey, then either our belief in God lacks genuine trust or our belief in Goldfinches is quite extraordinary. Faith is not merely believing that certain things are true, but rather trusting that certain things about God are true for us personally and being willing to respond to those things with our whole hearts, with our whole lives.

To use another example, when we say something like “I have faith in my brother,” we are not saying that we believe our brother is six foot two inches, has wavy black hair, and brown eyes – all of which may be true. Rather, what we mean when we say, “I have faith in my brother,” is that we can count on him when we need him, that we can pick up the phone and he will be there, that if times get tough, we know he will be there for us. For Luther, faith in God is not primarily about believing that certain things about God are true in some general or abstract sense, but rather trusting that God is faithful, loyal, and trustworthy, that God has acted to save us, that Christ is Christ for us.

Our gospel lesson for today is the story of Doubting Thomas. Many of us are familiar with the story. We hear it every year on the Second Sunday of Easter. In the evening of that first Easter Day, the risen Lord appeared to his disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When the other disciples tell him that they have seen the Lord, Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later the risen Lord appears to his disciples again, but this time Thomas is with them. Jesus tells him to see his hands and to touch his side. And Thomas responds by saying, “My Lord and my God.”

Now there is a lot to be said about this passage, more than we can possibly say in a single sermon. We have probably heard many sermons on Doubting Thomas, on the relationship between faith and doubt, and evidence and belief. And these are important topics, and they were, no doubt, very good sermons. But today let’s focus not simply on the belief of Thomas, but rather on the trust and confidence we find in his statement “My Lord and my God.”

Part of the reason for this focus is because the Greek word translated as “to believe” in this passage, pisteuo, actually means “trust” and “confidence” much more than our English word “believe” conveys. But it is also striking that Thomas’ confession of faith is notably formulated not in a general statement like “It is the Lord,” but rather in personal language, in the declaration “My Lord and my God.” There is no doubt an element of belief in this statement, but it also seems to be much more than that. It is also about personal trust and faith in the risen Christ as “my Lord and my God.” It seems like Luther’s notion of faith as trust, as that upon which we set our heart, is more to the point here. This is not just an abstract statement about the crucified and risen Christ, but about Thomas’ faith that the crucified and risen Lord is there for him and for his salvation.

This type of faith makes all the difference, because it is basically the good news of Easter becoming real in the heart of Thomas. That Thomas believes means that he has confidence and trust that the promises of God are true, are trustworthy, and not just in some general and abstract way, but personally, for him. His Lord and his God has been raised from the dead, and that means everything has changed. Cruelty is not the last word. Death does not get the final laugh. Sin and death and evil are not the ultimate powers of the universe. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Forgiveness and love and life are the final realities of the universe. We need no longer be afraid. The power of God is stronger than any tomb. God has conquered the future and promised us a share in the eternal life of Christ. We can lead our lives with courage and with confidence because the Lord of all life is on our side.

When Thomas sees the risen Christ he says, “My Lord and my God.” It is more than simply a matter of historical knowledge. Rather, it is about the transformation of Thomas’ whole life, because in the risen Christ, in his wounds, he sees his Lord and his God, who is there for him and for his salvation. The most important part of the story may not be that Thomas put his hands in the nail marks or in the side of Christ, but rather that he put his trust in his Lord and God.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.