Archives for May 2012

Size can be deceiving, 3 Pentecost, Proper 6 (B) – 2012

June 17, 2012

[1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Psalm 20 (Track 2: Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14);2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34]

Jared Fogel became a familiar figure on television by revealing his dramatic weight loss through selectively eating Subway sandwiches. The national fast-food chain, however, has a current advertizing campaign, boasting that “Bigger is better. Biggest is Best.” This reference to their fountain drinks might make one wonder whether Subway actually originated in Texas rather than New York City. “Bigger is better. Biggest is Best” does sound like something Texans would say.

Texans love to brag about the fact that their state has a county bigger than Rhode Island, that it takes 900 miles of driving to get from the Rio Grande to the Oklahoma line. Its state song originally contained the phrase “largest and grandest,” but the admission of Alaska to the Union caused a painful identity crisis and forced the legislature to change it to “boldest and grandest.” Still, the phrase “Everything is bigger in Texas” continues as a matter of pride in the state. Of course, it’s not just Texans who are subject to such views. Claims that the United States has the biggest economy and functions as the most powerful nation in the world is a reality for almost all Americans. We are big, and we are proud of it.

Respect for bigness in Texas or at Subway or by anyone certainly has its place. It obviously has its value. Bigness can be good. Bigness can often accomplish what smallness cannot. Bigness can bring a richness of resources, useful diversity, power for the good and economy of scale.

But bigness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for sure. There is also a bad side of bigness – one that rural folk like to tout. They worry about computerization of everything in life – about Big Brother watching. They worry about regimentation and loss of individuality, depersonalization in a mass society in which one can become lost in the crowd, and the pitfalls of cities – traffic jams, crime, pollution and the like.

And there might be another negative about bigness that can harm us all. It can result in the sin of pride – of thinking that bigness, in and of itself, is so wonderful that it can accomplish anything; and that smallness is necessarily inferior. In this light, smallness seems ineffective, insignificant, powerless, second rate. All of us, including Texans and Subway, need to recognize this truth.

Maybe a way for us to think about the value of size is to imagine if this were the generation that God came in human form back to earth. Where would the modern day Christ be born? In America? In New York or Washington or New Orleans? That seems very unlikely. What about China or Russia or Japan? Surely not. Maybe a medium-sized country such as Mexico or Sweden? No. Not if the presence of God could reveal itself in the same way as in the first century. Probably Christ would come to some place like Bolivia or Rwanda or Thailand.

Look back to where Jesus was born and lived 2,000 years ago. Not in the powerful city of Rome or among the grandeur of Greece or in the Han Dynasty or any other major civilization of the time. Rather, as we know, he came to Galilee – in the province of Judea, a tiny, insignificant fourth-rate country. And yet – from that small place – came the greatness of God. That reality underscores the gospel view that the bigness of the world can easily become an illusion, and that God stands everyone on the side of the “little people” – the downtrodden, the sick, the poor, the lonely, the homeless, prisoners and captives, the victims of oppression.

Smallness is a focus of today’s gospel reading – the Parable of the Mustard Seed. From God’s perspective, things are often not what they appear to be at first. The tiny mustard seed may seem small and insignificant, but within it looms something very valuable, a usual part of creation. Doesn’t this parable help us realize that size can be deceiving? Doesn’t it help us understand that out of a small thing can come something grand and wonderful and powerful? In this parable, Jesus spoke to the truth that smallness has its strengths and advantages and possibilities.

Smallness is a norm to which Jesus returned again and again in his ministry. And we know, too, that smallness is the basis on which the church began. The church operates best when it carries into larger ministries the insights and techniques of smallness. We are at our best when we engage in individual ministries because we have but one ministry as an example – that of Jesus himself. He gathered around him a small band of followers, totaling at best two dozen people. He worked closest with a select band of 12 who gathered with him at the Last Supper and heard his message of servanthood. When the church was forming itself, it first felt empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry the good news of Christ out into the world. It found expression in a small group of 11 who became empowered by the risen Lord in an upper room of fear.

The people Jesus chose to carry on his work were, by the world’s standards, small men – fishermen, unlearned, probably illiterate. One was a despised tax collector. They were simple people, ordinary people. Some of his band of followers were the very rejects of society. By all outward appearances, they were small people. This, of course, is based on the judgment and standards of quantity and wealth and education and worldly power.

But by the standards of quality and stature in God’s eyes, they can be seen as the greatest of people. And we can learn that, in the midst of a worldly culture that idolizes bigness, for the Christian there is a norm that honors smallness – the kind of smallness with which Jesus worked. We can see that no matter how large a congregation may grow in numbers, its success as a part of the Body of Christ depends on its ability to maintain standards illustrated by Jesus. This means maintaining concern for individuals, providing opportunity for ministry for everyone, promoting the feeling of worth in everyone, making sure that all are interconnected, so that, for example, there is somebody to miss you when you are absent. Small-town people and those who live in tight neighborhoods in urban areas understand the value of natural and easy connectedness, of fellowship in the Christian sense. Others in different settings do well to work hard to make this kind of small community connectedness a reality in the midst of a mass culture. Congregations, small or large, can learn to live into the power of such a dynamic.

If, spiritually, we become “too big for our britches” – if bigness and its illusion of power becomes a problem for Christians, individually or as a faith community – the mustard seed image remains instructive. The small size of community does not devalue its potential. From the right kind of “small thinking” can flow the values and mission that Jesus gave to his first followers who have passed it on to us. This parable reminds us that it is not the size that is important but what comes from it. It is not the size of the seed that is important, but what counts – in God’s eyes – is the quality of God’s love that we can spread among each other and into the wider community.

— 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.

God calls us to expand our family, 2 Pentecost, Proper 5 (B) – 2012

June 10, 2012

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) and Psalm 138 (Track 2: Genesis 3:8-15 and Psalm 130); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Family. We all come from one. Some are loving, some are quirky, some are dysfunctional, some are abusive, and some are a combination of those things. No matter what type of family we have, we have a role to play within it: the Peacemaker, the Pretty One, the Black Sheep, the Smart One, the Religious One, the Baby, and so on. But what happens when the Black Sheep starts acting like the Smart One? Or the Peacemaker becomes the Artistic One? The delicate system of roles is shaken and the other players must try to put the person back in their role or adjust to the new role that is being played. Guess which one folks usually choose?

Fear of the new role usually wins out, and people often try to sabotage the fledgling before anything permanent can happen. We think we know what is best for the other person because really, it is best for us. Take any self-improvement – losing weight, quitting smoking, going back to school, going to a counselor – and there will be people who will not be encouraging because it makes them look at the improvements they need to make and aren’t. They fear change in their lives, so why should they support the changes in yours? It takes a strong person to become who God created us to be and to continue to make positive changes when it puts personal relationships in jeopardy.

Look at Jesus coming back to his hometown where his family lived. People were crowding him to see if he would heal them, but some were talking about him, “He’s gone out of his mind,” and “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” People feared what they did not understand. Jesus’ family tried to restrain him, but Jesus faced the crowd. He was called by God to preach and teach and heal, and that was his focus. He knew his role, but it was not necessarily the role that his family or hometown thought he should be in. God was doing a new thing in Jesus. God was expanding what it meant to be bonded to another person the way we are in a family, and Jesus called attention to this. God knows what is best for Jesus and for us, not the other way around.

When Jesus declared, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” it challenged the Jewish culture around him. No longer are you close to God because you were born into a Jewish household; no longer do you just take care of your own kind; instead, your family is being extended to anyone who does the will of God.

That certainly broadens the margins and challenges those who took that relationship with God for granted. Today, it challenges us to look beyond our walls, our denominational lines, our socio-economic status, and our faith to see our brothers and sisters and mothers. God calls us to expand our family in ways that are just as shocking as it was to the Gospel of Mark’s first-century audience.

We should come to expect this from God. How successful are we when left to our own devices? In today’s Old Testament lesson from First Samuel, when the people request an earthly king to rule them rather than God, Samuel is in a difficult position. The very request is a rebellion against God. But the Israelites want to be “like other nations.” How often do we want the same thing? We want to be “normal,” we want to have what other people have and we measure our worth by earthly standards. We lose our focus and stop doing the will of God. Brothers turn against brothers, sisters against sisters, mothers against mothers. We get caught up in wanting approval from others and are jealous of what they have, which can leave us empty and seemingly worthless. We forget that we have value because God loves us. Jesus understood this. He kept his focus on following God’s will and was clear about it, despite what his family or the crowds wanted from him.

It’s easier said than done, of course. Anthony de Mello tells a story that reminds us of this:

A man traversed land and sea to check out for himself the Master’s extraordinary fame. “What miracles has your Master worked?” he asked a disciple.

“Well, there are miracles and miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God.”

We may smile at the story, but it speaks truth. Doing the will of God often means leaving our comfort zones. As Episcopalians, our Baptismal Covenant demands a life that follows God by continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, in the prayers, resisting evil, repenting and returning to the Lord, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. This is not an easy road to journey! Yet we readily answer, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot do this alone. Jesus’ single-minded focus on God’s will is an example to us. We must have God’s help to follow the call of Jesus in order to be the people we were created to be. May we go forth, as the blessing from St. Clare says, to “live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God’s blessing be with you always.”

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota.

One plus one plus one equals one, Trinity Sunday (B) – 2012

June 3, 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29 or Canticle 2 or 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

We live in an age of conflict. It was probably always so, but we hear about things instantly nowadays and even find ourselves watching the most dreadful scenes while we blissfully consume a frozen dinner.

Our nation seems locked in battle between contending parties and groups, and division and tension have wracked even our church. Perhaps we came here today seeking a place of peace. Let’s hope no one gets into a quarrel over the flowers or perhaps the homily.

It would be so good if we were absolutely sure that a group practiced unity. Indeed there was a time, in the beginning, when people said of Christians, “See how they love one another.” One of the reasons we divide is that we feel we can’t be truly human, truly ourselves if someone or something is challenging us or threatening us.

Perhaps you remember the beginning of being in love with someone. In those enchanting days you couldn’t do enough for your lover, and nothing they said or did got to you, and you didn’t have to watch what you said and did in response. Math was confounded. One and one equaled not two, but one. The blessed ones are those who, whether that remained true most of the time or even some of the time, grew through problems – not further apart but closer together. Perhaps you know an old couple who have grown so close, they even begin to look alike. They anticipate what their partner is going to say or do, and smile knowingly.

Today is Trinity Sunday, popularized by St. Thomas a Becket centuries ago. The feast of the Trinity became so important that until recently Anglicans numbered the long summer Sundays as “Sundays After Trinity”.

In Christianity’s “new math” one plus one plus one equals one: one God. So in the Creed we will recite, we affirm that we believe in One God and then go on to talk about “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” For centuries on this day the church recited the long and complicated Creed of St. Athanasius. It is to be found in the Historical Document section in the Prayer Book. No, don’t look it up now.

In one section it states, “Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” George Bernard Shaw used to mutter, “the whole thing is incomprehensible.”

That’s not a bad place to start. The lesson today from Isaiah tells the tale of the prophet having a vision, in which he sees God and shouts, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” In the face of the majesty of God, Isaiah recoils in fear, conscious of his unworthiness.

Perhaps we have lost that feeling of total inadequacy in the face of God? We tend rather to recoil from mystery itself. Yet God showed himself not to frighten Isaiah, but to love him and to send him out to tell others about God. God’s purpose was to adopt Isaiah and to fill Isaiah with strength and purpose.

In the gospel today, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Isaiah experienced God in a dream by night, and Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Both sought something they lacked. Nicodemus, a leader in Israel, is curious. He has come to think that Jesus is particularly close to God in a unique way. He’s never met anyone quite like Jesus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to know what God is doing, he has to start from scratch, “be born anew.” Nicodemus finds that statement incredible. Here is a mystery and a seeming impossibility: how can someone possibly be born when they are old?

Basically, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to have a transplant, not unlike a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant. But by water, through the Spirit. Nicodemus has to be re-born. “How may this be so?” asks Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he alone has “gone up into heaven and he has come down from heaven, for he is ‘the son of man.’” We don’t have time today to unpack that statement, except to say that “Son of Man” is a phrase a first-century Jew associated with the Messiah, the Chosen One.

Jesus then says some words that are familiar. The Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright translates Jesus’ familiar words in this way:

“So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This you see, is how much God loved the world; enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world could be saved by him.”

So what has that to do with our vision of God the Three in One? The three “Persons” who are God are not drawn apart by their perfect individuality, but united into one through love. Jesus, in being lifted up, in dying, demonstrates what self-sacrificial love looks like. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and the story goes, all who touched the serpent were made whole. So we are invited to touch Jesus and to be made whole, and as whole people to be drawn into God’s incredible selfless love.

Why?

Isaiah, through his vision of God’s majesty was touched, made whole, and hears God’s call to serve the God who loves the world. Each of us, in baptism, have been “born from above” in order that we may witness to God’s love and share it in the world. We too have been called to give our lives, imperfect as we are, and in that act of sheer love and obedience, been made worthy to be God’s friends, his presence, as the church in a divided world.

We have been commissioned to show what real love is all about, as we are filled with the presence of God’s forgiving, restoring, compelling love. All we can reply is: “Here am I. Send me.”

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Speaking with strangers, Day of Pentecost (B) – May 27, 2012

By the Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter

(Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104: 25-35,37; Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15)

As a child, were you ever warned not to speak to strangers? This warning can be very helpful, and keeping our children safe is so important. Today, though, we hear that Pentecost is about when it is really good to speak with strangers.

That first Pentecost happened in the city of Jerusalem, but today’s story from Acts really refers to two cities.

The first city our story refers to is the city of Babel. It’s not mentioned in Acts, but it’s there, right beneath the surface, and the first readers of the Acts of the Apostles would not have missed it. We are less familiar with the Biblical stories, and may need to look it up. And you can sometime – you’ll find it in Genesis 11. Way back near the beginning of the Biblical story, we find the city of Babel. The story of Babel is told by our ancient Hebrew forebears in faith to explain the multiplicity of peoples and languages and nations. How is it, they asked even then, that humans must have had one common beginning, and yet, look at us – people speak so many languages, appear in so many colors, are spread all over the world? How is it, that if we all at some time came from one common beginning, we can’t understand one another – that when strangers from another land speak, it sounds like babbling to us? This is the story they told.

Way back when everyone still had one language, if you said, “bird,” everyone knew bird, and rock was “rock” and sun was “sun.” But the people decided to make a name for themselves. They were tired of trusting in God, and they weren’t all that good at it anyway. They were tired of letting God be the source of their security and identity, so they decided to build a city, and in the middle of that city they would build a tower reaching up to the heavens and bring themselves some fame. God heard about this plan and said, “This is not good.” And here’s the amazing part: God said, “Nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” In other words, if people can communicate with one another, they’ll be able to do anything they put their minds to. That’s how powerful the ability to communicate is. So, to save humans from themselves, God scrambles up their language. Bird is no longer “bird.” Now it’s also oiseau and avis and vogel. And sun is also shemesh and soleil and helios. The people can no longer communicate; they become strangers to one another. They scatter, and the city is called Babel, because that’s what it sounded like. That’s city number one.

Now come to the city of Jerusalem. It’s 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus has told his followers to wait together in the city because Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to comfort them and strengthen them and guide them into all truth.

But Jesus’ followers aren’t the only ones in the city. Jewish pilgrims from all over the world have come to Jerusalem, because what became our Pentecost began on a Jewish holiday, 50 days after Passover, a yearly festival when the first fruit of the wheat harvest were presented, and God’s covenant with Israel was celebrated and renewed. This was one of the three great festivals of the year. So faithful Jews have gathered from all over the world. Jerusalem is abuzz with the sounds of a multitude of languages.

Suddenly, to the followers of Jesus, comes the Holy Spirit. First the rush of a violent wind. Then tongues of fire rest on each of them. Then, as they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages. Galileans speaking Persian and Latin, Arabic and Elamite. All those strangers from all over the world can hear their own native language being spoken. They can hear and understand in their very own language.

If you’ve ever traveled to a place where they don’t speak your language, you know what a grace that was. A young couple was traveling in Europe. They were in Germany and left the rest of their study group to go explore. They got lost. It started to rain. They wandered off the edge of the map they had and had no idea where they were. It rained harder. It got cold out. It got dark. They tried to get back on to their map, but there was no one around to ask for directions. Finally they found a little restaurant, and, drenched and chilled, stepped into its light and warmth.

None of the people inside spoke English. But surprisingly, none of the people inside spoke German either. Some people in the restaurant motioned the shivering and wet couple to a table, and the couple waved their wet map. “We just need directions,” they said, probably loudly, as if that would help, pointing at the map. The couple couldn’t speak the locals’ language; the locals’ couldn’t speak the couple’s. But the people in the restaurant did speak kindness. They brought the couple towels and pressed hot drinks into their hands. They made sympathetic sounds and seemed to share the young people’s dismay at not having the right words to communicate. The couple saw two of the men leave, holding jackets above their heads as they went out into the downpour. After awhile the men came back, accompanied by a third man, who came to the couple’s table. He spoke enough English to tell them that this was a Hungarian family restaurant, the drinks were on the house, and how to get back to where they needed to be.

In Jerusalem on Pentecost, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the gift of being able to communicate, the obstacle of Babel was undone. On that day, the diversity of languages was not a curse, but a marvel. And this is important: God undid Babel, not by bringing the whole world back into speaking one language. Pentecost affirms the diversity of the world, the richness of the multitude of peoples and languages, and the gift when you hear and understand, when people can communicate, whether across the barriers of languages, or the barrier of simply being one stranger speaking with another.

The Book of Common Prayer summarizes the power of the Holy Spirit in this way: “The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ.” And “we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” In other words, we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we stop being strangers with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all creation.

Today, throughout the church, we are going to welcome new members into the family of Jesus Christ through the sacrament of baptism. In this family we celebrate the gifts of Pentecost. We acknowledge and rejoice in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We recognize diversity as a good thing. We believe we can, we must, communicate – speaking and listening and making friends out of strangers. As the baptized, we make promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, not just people who look like us or talk like us or believe like us. We promise to respect the dignity of all people. We promise to love our neighbors – even people strange to us – as ourselves.

This kind of love – this kind of welcome of others, speaking and listening to others – will look very strange to people outside the family. It did on that first Pentecost. About all this harmony amongst strangers and communication across barriers and love flying around like tongues of fire caught by the wind, onlookers said, “What’s going on here? They must be drunk!” When we’re living with the reckless joy God makes possible, when we are emboldened to work for justice and peace among all people, when we delight in diversity, and see no one, ultimately, as a stranger, but rather as someone who bears the very image of God, they may wonder what’s gotten into us. They may ridicule us. They may think we’re a little strange.

Or perhaps they’ll want to join us, being brought into love and harmony with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all creation, and we’ll be strangers no more.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland.