Archives for August 2012

Who is Jesus?, 16 Pentecost, Proper 19 (B) – 2012

September 16, 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 (or Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-8); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus?

Have you ever been asked that question? Have you asked it of yourself? Or does this seem like nonsense? It would seem natural to think that after 2,000 years of Christian history, we should not have to pose such an inquiry. We might add that it’s obvious – Jesus is our Lord and Savior, the son of God, the second person of the Trinity to whom we pledge our faith through the creed every Sunday.

Still, the question presents itself to us today: Who is Jesus? St. Mark takes us back to the very heart of the gospel. It was a critical time in Jesus’ relationship with his closest followers, a moment when the truth of what God was doing in and through Jesus came into sharpest focus. It was an encounter that clarified once and for all the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”

Certainly, for each of us – as for every generation of Christians – an understanding of who Jesus is cuts to the core of our personal faith. What Peter and the others experienced so long ago is what we go through again and again as we decide whether we are willing to match what we say we believe with how we follow Jesus in the actions of our lives.

Today we find Jesus with his disciples in a decisive moment of teaching and of a gut-wrenching reality check. Near the end of his public ministry, Jesus sought an evaluation of its effectiveness. And he needed his closest allies to understand, really understand, what God was doing in and through him, to know where it all led, for the sake of the world. He asked the disciples what people were saying about him. Who was he in their eyes? He received several answers: John the Baptist, Elijah come back to life again, or maybe a modern prophet.

But that was just the warm up. What Jesus really wanted to know was who his disciples thought he was. Peter, always quick to act, spoke boldly for them: “You are the Messiah.” Peter had come to understand him as the one who would fulfill God’s promises, the one whom God had sent to save the world.

So far so good, Jesus must have thought. But no doubt, he knew that they didn’t fully understand what he meant. Jesus knew that Peter and the others still interpreted the meaning of Messiah according to the old order. They saw him as the one who would usher in a climactic day of God’s deliverance as a mighty warrior. One capable of returning Israel to independence, free from Roman oppression.

The truly revolutionary nature of what Jesus was doing required him to continue to teach, and perhaps test them further – to tell them what it meant for him to be the Messiah, what it would take for the world to be saved. He revealed what would result in the events of Holy Week – his trial and death, before rising again.

Proving that he really didn’t get it, and with his usual impetuousness, Peter responded to this news by reprimanding Jesus for having said it. He didn’t like what he heard. It didn’t fit his view of how God would save the world. Imagine how much it must have troubled Jesus to experience such treatment from his most trusted follower. So challenging was this rebuke that Jesus had to take the strongest of measures to make sure he was not misunderstood. He called Peter “Satan,” and insisted that his view was one of human thinking and not of God.

Jesus might have expected this. It is probably why he told the disciples not to tell the people about their knowing him as the Messiah. The people would surely have more trouble understanding than the twelve. They had to know that the gift of God in him – the love, grace and forgiveness poured out through him – would come at a price, not only to Jesus but to his followers, as well. To follow Jesus, to walk the way of God, would require going against the most basic urges of human nature. It would require that they deny their own needs and desires and – speaking words they would only truly grasp after his death – they would have to take up crosses of their own, like the one he would bear on his way to die on the cross of Calvary. It would not work to focus on saving one’s life – that would be the surest way to lose it spiritually. Every value of the world, he said, pales in comparison to what one could have in living a life with God.

That is the nature of “who Jesus is.” That is what it means to know him as Savior. That is what it means to follow him in the way of God. That is how it becomes personal for us. That is how we match what we say we believe with how we follow Jesus in the actions of our lives.

To say that Jesus is our Savior is to follow him willingly into salvation. Today’s gospel reminds us that to do so is to deny ourselves – to lose self, to let go of the ego, to put ourselves aside for the sake of greater values. It is giving up ourselves for others, in the way of sacrifice and unselfishness. It is giving up particular interests or time or possessions when the purposes of God require it. It is letting the will of God take the place of our own will. It is putting God, not ourselves, at the center of life. It is, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, renouncing all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.

The figurative cross that we carry following Jesus represents the price we pay for our Christianity, the cost of discipleship, the way we remain connected with God, the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”

Though the answer – the response of losing our selfishness for the sake of God – is highly personal, we do not act upon it alone. We are lucky to be able to carry crosses in the company of a faithful band of followers of Jesus. We stand beside one another as we meet Christ at the Eucharist where we relive Jesus’ sacrificial death. Together we gain sustenance for the difficult challenge Jesus sets before us as we eat and drink with him and of him. We take what he is into our bodies and our spirits as we become renewed and empowered by the spiritual energy that is Christ. So empowered, we go forth into our weekday, workday world as we act out the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”


— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.


Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – Sept. 9, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the deaf man, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark 7:34-35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (or Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23

Social justice and the proper use of wealth is a common theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The author of Proverbs begins this section by putting a commonly held truism of the time in the context of riches: the only thing that survives after your death is your good name, not your wealth. (Recall that this text precedes the belief in an afterlife.) Additionally, no matter whom we think we are, no matter what status we perceive that we have achieved, we share a common bond with all – we are creatures of God.

Verses 8 and 9 illustrate much of the theology of the book of Proverbs – there is a deeds/consequence matrix to life (i.e., good is generally rewarded, and evil punished). While we know that this is not always the case, we can see that the authors of Proverbs are trying to impart skill in living. Their goal is the “good life,” and their lessons here are exercises in character formation. For these sages, social justice was constitutive of a life well lived.

Finally, verses 22 and 23 underscore Israel’s preferential option for the poor. If one is to be wise and live a life suffused with wisdom, one will be attentive in one’s dealings with the marginalized. God is watching such transactions, and we should beware that God’s wrath is stirred when the poor are defrauded.

Who are the poor? Are they only those who are economically disadvantaged?

Why do you think the wisdom teachers felt compelled to unite the themes of social justice with wisdom?

Psalm 146

Like the reading from Proverbs, this psalm also links the themes of wisdom and justice. While the psalm is initiated and concluded with praise (the last words of verse 10 transliterally read “hallelu yah”), the listener is invited to ponder the one power that is true and eternal – the Lord. The psalmist apparently has timeless perceptivity. How often do people of our own age “live for” ephemeral things: their jobs, entertainment idols or what other people think of them?

Once again, the theme of justice for the poor is underscored. It is striking to note how often this topic reappears – in the Torah, prophets, writings, the teachings of Jesus and the other biblical texts. Verses 6 and 7 literally refer to God as the “maker” of heaven and earth, and the “maker” of justice. A recent trip to the Galapagos Islands and the jungles of Costa Rica brought these realities into stark relief for me. I was awestruck by the sheer power and creative genius of God, the one who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,” as seen in the vast oceans and diverse animal life of those wonderful places. Such a power is unfathomable and frighteningly mysterious. And according to this psalm, that awesome power has a long memory (God “keeps faith forever”) and chooses to act on behalf of those who are oppressed. An awareness of this reality is what the wisdom tradition refers to as “fear of the Lord” (i.e., recognizing that there is a God, and it’s not us!). Simply calling to mind and living one’s life according to the wisdom and ethics of this psalm is itself a form of praise in the eyes of the psalmist.

Where have you experienced the creative power of God, who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever”?

How do you interpret the psalmist’s linking of God’s majestic power with the theme of social justice?

James 2:1-17

The epistle of James is primarily concerned with faith being implemented in action. This text contains the oft-quoted line “So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Many commentators have referred to this epistle as “wisdom literature,” so it is fitting in light of the themes of our previous two readings. Once again, the theme of social justice and proper treatment of the poor are paramount. James presents a scenario in verses 1-6 to illustrate his point. He suggests that we are inclined to treat a stranger with great honor who appears to be wealthy. But a stranger who appears to be poor, we dishonor. In light of the way we often initially react to those we encounter in our everyday life, it’s hard to believe that James was writing for a first-century Near Eastern Israelite-Christian community, not 21st century America!

Following an exhortation about the importance of free dedication to the law, meaning that one follows the law out of love for God and respect for God’s will, not fear of punishment, James states that compassion is a constitutive element of true wisdom. It is not zealous legalism that the Lord desires, but mercy for the weak. This echoes the teaching of Jesus, as well as that of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Finally, James addresses the necessity of faith manifesting itself through action. Luther found this passage troubling, especially in light of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone, but in sagely fashion James is saying that truth faith is transformative. Orthopraxis (right action) is just as important as orthodoxy (right thinking). If the transformative power of Christian discipleship does not lead to a radical change in one’s living – to a way of mercy, compassion and an ardent desire to live God’s will for love of neighbor – then one’s claim to be a faithful follower of Jesus is diminished in authenticity.

What are signs of a faith that is “transformative”?

How might we as sagely Christians resolve tensions between the letter of the law (be it biblical or ecclesiastical) and the biblical injunction to mercy and compassion?

Mark 7:24-37

Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman is the only instance where we see him lose an argument! But it is also an episode where Jesus appears to change his mind. At first, Jesus responds to this woman with disdain. Dogs were not domestic pets in his culture, but rather we seen as unclean scavengers. The woman’s persistence, despite the insult, indicates her trust in Jesus as a holy man. Jesus is often recognized as a master of language, in that he always has a response for his interlocutors. (Recall that in this culture no one every publicly asked a question of another to gain information. Rather, the hope was to inflict shame by catching one’s opponent unable to answer.) In this instance, we can almost sense a pregnant pause as Jesus is stumped by this woman, considers her plea, which involves expanding his healing ministry to non-Israelites, then affecting the cure of her daughter.

It has been suggested that prior to this, Jesus saw his mission as exclusively to the house of Israel, but he matured into the sense that this good news was for all nations. If this is the case, Jesus’ actions here are a clear challenge to the closed religious mind that is unable to evolve.

After the healing of the woman’s daughter, Jesus takes a circuitous route through “gentile” territory. Perhaps this is Mark’s way of presaging the church’s mission to the wider world, as well as Jesus’ apparent shift in perspective. The story of the healing of the deaf man highlights a number of notable elements. Let’s briefly consider two.

First, Jesus utilizes a ritual in his healing of this man. The use of spittle, the touching of the ears, looking to heaven, and the ritual words, all speak to the importance of ritual actions. Such gestures impact us on a very soulful level, and have the ability to open our hearts in singular ways to the grace of God.

Second, note the reaction of the crowd in verse 37. Their words allude to Isaiah 35:5-6. In that text, Israel was looking forward to a glorious future under God’s reign. The implication is that in Jesus’ ministry that glory has been inaugurated. It is especially important to realize that physical wholeness was to be one of the blessings of the coming kingdom of God. Unfortunately, throughout much of Christian history the body has been subjugated to the soul. But for Jesus and the Israelites, the body was an essential part of what it means to be a human person, and God is deeply concerned about physical well being.

What are the implications for contemporary believers of Jesus “changing his mind”? How might this challenge us?

How does Jesus’ attention to and compassion for people’s physical maladies tie into the themes of the other readings we have today?

The gospel is a verb, 15 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – 2012

September 9, 2012

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (or Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Where is the Good News in today’s gospel? Jesus casts out a demon and heals a deaf man, and that might be enough good news; but this lesson begins with a woman getting rough treatment from Jesus. In our current age of political spin, it’s hard to imagine why the author of Mark included this part of the story; it challenges our picture of Jesus as admirable and remarkable. It seems he is capable of the public gaffe too.

But Jesus did not have a publicist – at least, not until later, when the gospels were written. He had a real life, real feelings, and in today’s gospel, a real moment of conversion. His understanding of what he was called to do was changed and expanded because he listened to a gentile woman’s challenge. And from that moment, he moved forward, and kept up his work of healing and feeding and teaching, with an expanded awareness of who this Good News was for.

Because this story is in Mark, which focuses so much on the actions of Jesus, we are not given any information about what Jesus thought, only what he did and said; so we’re not offered any reflection on this incident. Jesus just picks up and keeps working tirelessly to demonstrate the Kingdom of God.

It seems that the gospel is a verb, at least here in Mark. It’s several verbs: teach, heal, listen, touch, feed, reach across boundaries, make God’s love real in people’s difficult lives.

This is extraordinarily good news; that God wants us to be whole, and God demonstrates that in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, God wants us all to be whole, whatever our particular circumstances. Jesus woke up to this reality when confronted by the Syro-Phoenician woman, and he never looked back.

The Good News here has two sides. The first is that God’s love is boundless, accessible by all, available to us in every challenge, in every moment of pain or difficulty. But the second is that we ourselves are called to enact the gospel, to remember and demonstrate that the gospel is a verb.

The letter of James is emphatic on this point: faith, without works, is dead. This author was tired of people who claimed to follow Jesus behaving as though believing was enough. He had watched far too many people in need come to the Christian community, only to be ignored in favor of the wealthy and well connected. James wanted his readers to remember the whole gospel, not just the believing part.

The church has spent an enormous amount of time and energy over the centuries arguing about belief: from the Council of Nicea in 325, to the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century, to the 20th century crises in churches confronted by world wars and social upheaval, the church has struggled to define itself and understand what its core beliefs are. Some churches have taught that believing the wrong things can exclude people from God’s salvation. Certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity teach that a notoriously evil person who claims faith in Jesus just before death will be saved, while a good and kind person who has never accepted Jesus as his personal savior will be damned.

James is quite clear. Faith can only be seen in what we do, not what we say. The gospel is a verb.

The late Verna Dozier, Episcopal teacher and theologian, put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

Jesus, when confronted by a person who came from outside his comfort zone, did not go away to the hills to study the matter; he shifted and enlarged his understanding on the spot, and did what she needed him to do.

We are challenged to move ourselves from narrow perception to broad perception, to understand that God’s love is for everyone, and that we are agents of that love.

To be agents of God’s love does not mean that we develop halos and a saintly patience; it means to remember that the gospel is a verb, and act accordingly.

Verbs, of course, come in two categories: doing and being. We can’t “do” our faith every minute of every day. We must also take the time to “be”; to breathe, rest, pray, listen, be still. Jesus did this regularly, in the midst of an extraordinary schedule. If all we do is run from action verb to action verb, the verbs we’ll encounter are “collapse” and “die.”

A gospel life – the life to which we are called, as followers of Jesus – will contain a lot of verbs: pray, rejoice, encourage, offer, remember, imagine, love, share, embrace, give, rest, be. The verbs that aren’t welcome, according the Jesus and the letter of James, are: judge, reject, exclude, limit, hoard, forget, despair.

When learning a new language, it is easiest and best to start with the present tense. When we learn the language of the gospel, it’s also useful to begin right where we are, and move forward. The past imperfect is, thank God, in the past; today and tomorrow we can make stronger, better choices to embody the gospel and share God’s love. Jesus is our example in this: after his confrontation with the woman in today’s gospel, he learned from his mistake and moved on to the next person in need of his healing touch.

There is an urgency to Jesus’ movement in the Gospel of Mark; he is constantly on the move, relentlessly demonstrating the kingdom of God he proclaims. It can be both exhilarating and exhausting to read and to imagine, and for those of us who follow Jesus, it sets a high bar. If we accept that the gospel is a verb, we might feel a relentless pressure to be doing something all the time, as Jesus appears to do in Mark. But Jesus also takes the time to renew himself through rest and prayer. The point is not constant, urgent action, but an attitude of readiness, and faithful response to the situations in which we find ourselves. James puts it this way: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

The flip side of faith without works is a muscular, life-changing faith, a self-offering, world-loving faith, faith that understands the gospel as verb and not noun.

So look around yourselves; where is the gospel verb needed? What incomplete sentences surround you and your community of faith? Who is hungry? Who is lost? Who needs a helping hand? What verb are you called to be for those in your neighborhood? Almost certainly, God is not calling you to argue theology or liturgical precision with your neighbors, but to serve them in Jesus’ name.

You have been given gifts that you are capable of sharing, no matter who you are. You can teach someone to knit; you can cook a meal to be shared; you can fix a car; you can write a poem that soothes hearts; you can lift heavy things or help someone to support a heavy burden. You can listen. You can offer the wisdom of your years or the energy of your youth. You can change your community; some of you have enough of what it takes to change the world. All you have to do is decide that you, yourself, are a gospel verb; let go of the past tense, and move, with God’s help, into God’s future tense, the reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.


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

Laurel Mathewson

Laurel Mathewson and her husband Colin are seminarians at Sewanee: University of the South and postulants in the Diocese of San Diego. Check out their blog:

Read Laurel’s comments on the RCL readings for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 17 (B).


Bible Study: 14 Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – Sept. 2, 2012

Discussion Leader: Laurel Mathewson, Sewanee

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 (or Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 and Psalm 15); James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

What an invitation! There are few more evocative, alluring images of joyful satiation than this excerpt from the Song of Solomon. In fact, this brief book is filled with such sweet, colorful and tantalizing images, it’s worth a fifteen-minute read. Interestingly, you’ll find that there is nothing sentimental or superficially romantic about this poem. Alongside does prancing in gardens and moonlit rendezvous, you’ll find scenes of confusion, loss and violence: these lovers encounter each other in a city prowling with armed guards and cultural, if not racial, prejudice. Enjoy this song of songs for its unbridled joy, and grant also that it speaks to a vision of the fulfillment of time wherein love enters into its most profound consummation.

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

Does kingly language work for you? Why or why not? If you do happen to find the monarchical overtones grating, try this: imagine this psalm was written by a poet in the king’s court. Let’s also assume the psalmist was male. What was his purpose in writing this verse? Was it praise to God, the king, or both? While we may never know exactly who wrote the psalms, it can be helpful to imagine different authorial perspectives. It can also be spiritually fruitful to imagine Jesus reciting the psalms in Hebrew in his first-century Palestine synagogue. What did this psalm mean for him?

James 1:17-27

That’s quite a powerful concluding statement on the nature of “pure” religion! Intriguingly, the author’s two exhortations appear to stand together tensely, almost in contrast. Caring for orphans and widows, at least today, can be a very messy activity – certainly not one I’d take on if I intended to remain unstained by the world. Did the author mean for this tension to exist, or is this something read into the text by its contemporary audience? For the two projects to complement each other, perhaps the author is imagining an “unstained” church in which orphans and widows behave in orderly fashion (!). Or perhaps he refers to vague aspects of “the world” not necessarily involved in the complicated care of the disenfranchised. The idea that the “church” and the “world” are distinct has gone in and out of fashion over the past two millennia; how does this distinction work for you? If the church is the people of God, then where is the church Monday through Saturday? What is it doing? And where?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It’s hard to discern the emotions behind the words, but if the Pharisees and scribes tossed their question to Jesus innocently, then Our Savior’s response was not entirely gracious. It feels like a bit of an overreaction, really. Of course, the question may have snapped with snark, instead. Either way, it appears that the questioning of whether Jesus’ teaching resided within or outside of the “tradition of the elders” struck a nerve. Jesus didn’t see himself as the founder of a new religion, but rather an interpreter of his own religion, Judaism, as understood through a mysterious and profound relationship with God.

How much ought we to trust tradition in our religion? When does tradition constrain or enable our personal and collective spiritual growth?

Becoming doers of the Word through obedience, not ritual, 14 Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – Sept. 2, 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Ritual is essential in life. National, religious or familial, rituals offer us the comfort of repetition and familiarity as they lend beauty to occurrences that otherwise might be considered mundane. Observe a little child who asks for the same story night after night – this is her ritual – or your own delight in keeping the Christmas rituals as you remember them from childhood. Look at the warm smiles on the faces of parishioners when a familiar old gospel song is chosen on a Sunday, even in some of our more staid Episcopal congregations. Remember the Thanksgiving dinners and the disappointment of family members if mother or grandmother veers away from the traditional turkey to beef roast. All of us have rituals that we remember and cherish. Some are simple habits; others are beloved and precious because they are tied to memories of love and affection from our earliest years; a few, like the Eucharist, are holy. Those that are mere habits may easily be forgotten or ignored, but those that are indeed enveloped in memories of love or sacredness are indispensable.

Our lessons today are centered around ritual, but with strings attached.

We are so used to hearing about God’s promises to ancient Israel – promises that are repeated these days even in the political arena without understanding and oftentimes with a meanness that ignores the suffering of other people. In Deuteronomy, as in the major prophets, the promises given by God, as reported in the Bible, always carry a condition and often a warning. Simply put it is this: I will give you the land, or a child, or a kingdom, if you are obedient to my commandments. As our reading today says, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe so that you may enter and occupy the land.” The promise is conditioned upon the action of obedience. Today’s lesson makes it clear: Pay attention to my teachings so that you may be given the land. And the opposite is true: If you don’t pay attention to my teachings, if you are not obedient, I will not give you the land. This last part is conveniently forgotten. God’s love is unconditional, but God’s promises are not.

As the years pass and the new church in the first century is learning the words and actions of Jesus, habits and rituals are being established. St. Paul introduces or interprets many of them. Later on, the church will make ritual so paramount that even salvation will be bought through supposed good words and indulgences while the poor people starve. The Protestant churches, attempting to correct this, focused on passages that glorify faith, or what came to be called justification by faith, and found ways to misinterpret Paul so that slavery was justified, the denigration of women and children into a lower status was perpetuated, and many wrongs and injustices toward the poor were ignored and, sadly, continue to this day.

Instead of religious rituals, rituals of injustice were established in the church and in the marketplace to the detriment of us all. And that lone voice of the epistle writer James was totally ignored: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” The word we translate as “doers” has depths in the Greek that remain untapped. The verb “to do” in this verse is the same as “to create”; and to take it a little further, it is the same word used in creating a poem, being a poet. So to do the word after hearing it has profound implications: the idea of being co-creators with God as we obey and then as we do the word.

Jesus, in this passage from Mark, puts ritual in its place. As he always did, he looked beyond the obvious, beyond the religious habit, to zero in on what lies in the heart. He quotes Isaiah to them. They really should know better. Isaiah has been with them for centuries.

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

On this occasion Jesus is asking the people to think of what is more important – the ritual of washing or the feeding of those who are hungry. Is compassion more important than ritual? What matters to us? The arguments we have among us as we interpret certain passages in scripture or the love that should undergird us as we discuss our differences? What matters to us in this crazy season of politics? The earning of votes or having integrity? What matters to us? Doing the will of the Father or holding on to traditions?

At the time of Jesus, the religious people were arguing about the cleanliness of their hands and of the food they bought in the marketplace and were criticizing the disciples for not doing the same. What they ate and when they ate it was of paramount importance to the religious people of the day. At a time when there were no chemical interventions, Jesus declares all food as clean and then tells them that what goes inside the mouth, inside the body from the outside is not what harms their souls. It is what emerges from the heart to find utterance in the mouth that truly harms them.

The world has changed drastically since then. But we have changed very little. The difference is that now we have too much to eat and worry about the pounds that are added instead of the unkindness that emerges from the mouth. In church, we too hide behind ritual and find it all too easy to ignore that which is difficult to obey. Our rituals in the Episcopal Church are so beautiful, so full of meaning. Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with exquisite prayers. And then we leave church and go back to our mundane lives. How can we become doers of the word as we hold on to the words we heard or uttered? Jesus surrounded himself with the poor and the disreputable perhaps because he saw in their hearts a true longing to love God and obey God’s commandments. He reserved his most acerbic comments for those who were respectable, who performed the religious rituals, but who had no compassion left in their hearts for everyone who was different from themselves. He said to them, in pain, “You abandoned the commandments of God to hold on to human traditions.”

Let this never be said of us.


— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Walking the Way of Sorrows” (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, N.C.

‘American Bible’ presents core national texts

Prothero's collection illuminates the American experience

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. Stephen Prothero. New York: HarperOne. 544 pp.

There’s nothing new about books that gather together the historical speeches, documents, stories, songs and literature that help illuminate the American experience. Dozens of collections of this sort go back almost to the American Revolution. None of them, however, has quite the style or pretension of “The American Bible” by Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University. Prothero has assembled what he believes are the “core texts” to which Americans have returned over the generations as they have argued over the meaning and identity of these United States, and which constitute what he calls “a de facto canon of American public life.” The fact that Americans have made these texts sacred doesn’t mean that they agree on their meaning. On the contrary, Prothero selected precisely those works that have generated the most controversy, the words that citizens have “cited and recited in their ongoing debate over the meanings and ends of America.”

Prothero has arranged these key texts into sections patterned after books of the Old and New Testaments. The Declaration of Independence, for example, falls into the “Genesis” section as a foundational influence on American culture, along with Noah Webster’s “Blue-Back Speller” and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” The Constitution comes under the heading of “Law,” while “Chronicles” excerpts novels including “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech are gathered under “Prophets.” “Gospels” includes the good news of liberalism and conservatism in the form of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address and Ronald Reagan’s 1964 televised speech “A Time for Choosing.”

Each selection is accompanied by an expository essay by Prothero, offering context and explanation, along with numerous brief commentaries arguing over the meaning of the texts. Some of the commentators are anonymous or little known, but often the comments evoke an ongoing national dialogue and transmission of influence, whereby Abraham Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration is quoted by Martin Luther King, who in turn is invoked by Reagan.

Prothero succeeds brilliantly in restoring meaning to these texts and stimulating interest in them. People who might roll their eyes with boredom at yet another compilation of historic documents are likely to be entranced by the commentaries – often heated, hyperbolic and profane in the manner of much American argument – which in turn draws the readers back to the original documents to see what the excitement is all about.

Reading through these sections is like eating potato chips, easy to begin but difficult to stop until the end is reached. Prothero does a great service by not only compiling the key documents but also showing why they have mattered and still do matter.

Nonetheless, there are all kinds of objections to be lodged against Prothero’s biblical conception as well as his individual selections. The Judeo-Christian Bible obviously has been the subject of much and varied interpretation, but it purports to be the authoritative and indeed incontrovertible Word of the Lord. Few of the texts that Prothero assembles can make similar claims to secular American authority, aside perhaps from the Constitution. As Prothero acknowledges, his book bears a closer resemblance to the Talmud, with its competing rabbinic commentaries on the Old Testament and Jewish civil and canonical law.

Prothero’s criteria for including his selections are a bit mysterious, and he could be clearer about whether he’s trying to assemble the canon that has defined America throughout its history or simply reporting on those parts of it that reflect Americans’ present-day concerns. Noah Webster’s speller did indeed teach generations of Americans to speak and read, which would seem to merit its inclusion, although few Americans still learn from it. But Prothero doesn’t include many other sources through which Americans comprehended themselves in times past, and does include sources that would have held limited interest for past generations of Americans. Figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth had passed into obscurity until the 1960s and ’70s, when they were rediscovered by civil rights and feminist activists. The present incomprehension of the bygone “free silver” controversy presumably explains the absence of William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech, which still stands as one of the great moments of American political oratory. But Prothero’s collection contains almost nothing about immigration, a topic of burning debate now as a century ago, and surely the meaning of America is in some way caught up in the Statue of Liberty as well as in Emma Lazarus’ words at its base.

Critics could also argue with Prothero over the absence of Alexis de Tocqueville, still unchallenged as America’s most acute foreign observer, and the films that may have done as much as the printed word to give modern Americans a sense of who we are. But Prothero would counter that it’s precisely the “practice of listening to and arguing about voices from our shared past” that defines Americans, and his book does much to keep that civil dialogue alive and relevant.


Geoffrey Kabaservice is a columnist for The New Republic and a visiting research fellow at the Roosevelt House institute of public policy at Hunter College, New York City. His most recent book is Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Robinson’s new book timely, powerful

'God Believes in Love' gets to heart of debate on same-sex unions

God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Gene Robinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 208 pp.

At the most recent General Convention, the Episcopal Church made a landmark decision toward acceptance of the LGBT community, voting both to bless same-sex unions and to support transgender persons in ordination and lay leadership in the church. In the next three years the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music will study how the blessing of lifelong, committed same-sex relationships relates to Christian theology and scripture.

The central question of the relationship of Christian theology, scripture and practice to committed same-sex partnership and marriage is at the heart of the discussion in Gene Robinson’s most recent book, “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage.” Written on the eve of his retirement, this book finds him once again reviewing the familiar themes he has been called (and forced) to argue over and over throughout his tenure as Bishop of New Hampshire. Renown as the first openly gay person elected to the episcopate, he has served both as prophet and poster child for the debate on sexuality that has rocked the Episcopal Church.

Robinson defines a prophet as one who risks his life to tell the truth to the powers that be. This book finds him once again setting out his truth, each chapter reflecting one of the 10 questions he has clearly been asked over and over about gay marriage, framed in a desire for the respect and social recognition that society offers those formally joined by marriage in committed relationship. The challenge of those conversations, the animosity, rejection and death threats to which he has been subjected during his tenure as bishop, is reflected in the shape of some of these questions and the presentation of his narrative.

This is a very personal issue of equal rights, respect and acceptance – the essence of social justice. His argument in favor of same-sex marriage is grounded in hermeneutics, history, sociology, theology and personal history. The questions include “Why gay marriage now?”, “Why should you care about gay marriage if you’re straight?”, “Doesn’t gay marriage undermine marriage?”, “Is this about civil rights or getting approval for questionable behavior?”, “Doesn’t the Bible condemn homosexuality?”, Doesn’t gay marriage change the definition  of marriage that has been in place for thousands of years?”, and “Don’t children need a mother and a father?”

In thinking about same-sex unions, individuals and the church can benefit from reviewing ground that Robinson and other proponents of same-sex marriage have covered before. Marriage has undergone many changes from ancient biblical times. Jesus never spoke against same-sex relationship and was drawn to support those rejected by the dominant culture of the day. The Bible passages most often cited against homosexuality are better understood through the lens of modern biblical scholarship, and do not necessarily tell us homosexuality is sin. It could be argued that Robinson goes too far, however, in arguing that gay marriage is deeper marriage and that gay parents raise more stable children.

What is most powerful are the strands of Robinson’s own very personal story woven throughout his response to the standard questions. He writes, “Vulnerability and self-disclosure are at the heart of what we understand about the nature of God. When someone shares with you who they really, really are, it is a special offering. To do so when it risks rejection is a profound, holy gift” (111). Robinson’s pain is a profound, holy gift that has the greatest potential to invite a change in the worldview of non-traditional sexuality that has dominated our church and our culture. From early childhood, Robinson has been a person of great faith, committed to a “Christ-centered life.” He suffered deeply as he realized he was “different in a bad way; an abomination to God.” He prayed for God to change him, as “hardly a minute went by that I did not loathe myself.”

“What does it do to a child to learn at a quite early age to filter absolutely everything I say – in the split second before I say it – to rid it of every indication of what is really going on with me?” (39). This unedited shift in grammar is telling – read compassionately, we are invited into the inner life of pain and rejection that is the day to day reality of those of non-traditional sexuality, the pain of being separate, not equal; tolerated, not accepted; feeling somehow wrong before God.

Robinson writes of marriage as “the crucible in which we come to know most deeply about love.” He writes of his journey from therapy to be “cured” so he could be “normal,” marry a woman, and have a “perfect family” to the acknowledgement he and his wife both made that he was living a life out of integrity with himself, his wife and God. He writes soulfully of falling in love with Mark, his partner of the past 20 years, now his husband of four years: “for the first time in my life, my heart and body felt in harmony. For the first time, I was able to express my love for someone through my body. In a way I had never before experienced, I understood what the prayer book means when it describes marriage as a union between body and spirit I had only dreamed about. No wonder people like – and hallow – this!” (13).

This book is aptly titled. That God believes in love needs to be the foundation of any conversation about relationship, gay or straight. Robinson uses the modern lens of intersectionality, the relationship of the myriad interconnections across society, to speak to the “enshrinement of prejudice against gay people and our relationships into the laws and practices of our governmental and societal institutions.” The opportunity to love one person and to have that love sanctioned and supported by the culture in which we live is a right denied gay and lesbian people for countless centuries. The problem is secular, social and political – and this books asks the church to embrace the opportunity to do what it has the potential to do best – to follow Jesus and embrace those on the margins, bringing them to the center, loving them as God loves each of us.


(Catherine Amon is an Master’s of Divinity student at Berkley Divinity School at Yale. As a psychotherapist in practice in New York City and New Haven, Conn., and a spiritual retreat leader trained at Mercy Center in Madison, Conn., she is particularly interested in the integration of spirituality, psychotherapy and theological anthropology. She lives in Guilford, Conn., with her teenage son and English springer spaniel, where she is hoping to be accepted as a postulant in the Diocese of Connecticut.)

Bible Study: 13 Pentecost, Proper 16 (B) – Aug. 26, 2012

Discussion Leader: JK Melton, General Theological Seminary

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’” (John 6:60-62).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84 (or Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and Psalm 34:15-22); Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43

What a day it must have been to dedicate the Temple at Jerusalem. The dedication of the temple can stand in for many things and help us expand our imaginations: the dedication of our own churches, the dedication of our gifts, the dedication of our lives. Indeed, we need to dedicate ourselves daily to the work that God has given us to do. The pageantry of this event certainly helped to set the scene and reveal its importance. We must find ways to commit deeply to our own dedication to God, so that people may come to hear God’s great name because of the way we live our lives.

How can we more fully dedicate our lives to God, making an offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies? What do we need to do so that we may always deepen our commitment to God and grow into deeper dedication?

Psalm 84

The psalm clearly echoes the themes of the reading from the Hebrew Bible, and it is easy to imagine it has a hymn on that day. Can we live in God’s house? We cannot live in the Temple at Jerusalem – no one can. Likewise, we cannot dwell in our churches. This is probably a good thing for us and for the gospel. After all, all of creation is God’s house. As a result, we can live in God’s temple always and everywhere.

Do we live our lives like we live in God’s dwelling? How might our lives change if we remember that we do indeed live in God’s house?

Ephesians 6:10-20

The imagery of this passage is tricky. Most of us live far from military imagery, and even farther from military imagery of the Roman Empire. With youth groups, I have done an activity where we re-imagine this text using modern and personal metaphors. Cell phones, Facebook, cars, and any number of modern devices – even lucky shoes – have been suggested by these youth. How might you re-imagine this passage to convey Paul’s point?

This passage continues the themes that I have highlighted in the Kings reading and the psalm. We must put on the whole armor of God because our whole lives must be dedicated to God’s work. Christ never asks for a little bit. As a result, the closing thought of this passage is of vital importance. Paul’s prayer must become our own. We must pray to be alert and to persevere. We must also make a bold witness for the gospel. What would our lives look like if we lived into Paul’s prayer?

John 6:56-69

The disciples found this teaching difficult. I think we are a lot like them. Jesus is teaching us the words of spirit and life, but there are those among us who do not believe, and often Jesus’ teaching is just plain difficult. Truly, much ink has been spilled trying to figure out what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood! I’m not sure that it is helpful to become bogged down in those theological debates. Rather, what does it mean to nourish the spirit and live by it instead of the flesh?

Jesus asks the twelve if they wish to leave. Peter answers that there is nowhere to go; Jesus gives the word of eternal life. As we know, it is easy to turn to sources other than Jesus for sustenance. As Jesus says, those things – that is, the flesh – are useless. Are we sustaining ourselves in spirit? Are we taking Jesus’ words, the words of eternal life, and feasting on them?

The bread of life, 13 Pentecost, Proper 16 (B) – Aug. 26, 2012

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84 (or Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and Psalm 34:15-22); Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Is there anything quite as wonderful as the smell of freshly baked bread? The ingredients are so simple – yeast, flour, eggs, butter, water, salt – but the smell when it comes out of the oven is heavenly. And what could be better than eating fresh hot bread? Slice open a loaf that is still hot from the oven, spread on some real honest-to-goodness butter, try to let the butter melt for as long as you can resist, and then take a bite. Divine! Heavenly! Out of this world!

And yet it is so simple, so earthly, really, the extraordinary taste of fresh bread that provides the ordinary staple in the diet of so many people. Eating bread can be, at the same time, a profoundly earthly and profoundly heavenly experience. Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale in their book, “La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience,” see something of this paradox in the importance of bread for southern Italians, the folks that made up about ninety percent of the Italians who emigrated to America. They say, “For most southern Italians their sturdy bread was the mainstay. When cutting a new loaf, one would make the sign of the cross on its level side and kiss the knife before cutting into it. One would never set the bread on its rounded side: bread was respected. A good man was said to be as good as ‘a piece of bread.’”

Not “good as gold,” as we say in this country. But as good as bread!

We see something of this bread-like virtue in our word “companion,” which literally means someone with whom bread is shared: com, meaning “with,” and pani, meaning “bread.” A com-panion is someone with whom we break bread. And when we break bread with someone, we are in communion with them. Thomas Foster in his book, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” says this about breaking bread: “Here’s the thing to remember about communion of all kinds: in the real world, breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.” Foster continues, “We’re quite particular about those with whom we break bread. We may not, for instance, accept a dinner invitation from someone we don’t care for. The act of taking food into our bodies is so personal that we really only want to do it with people we’re very comfortable with. … Generally, eating with another is a way of saying, ‘I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together.’ And that is a form of communion.”

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus says he is the bread of heaven. He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

In this passage, Jesus contrasts his life-giving bread with the Old Testament story of manna in the wilderness. In that story, the Israelites had been freed from their bondage in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. But before they entered the Promised Land, they had to wander for many years in the desert. During this time they were sustained by God’s gift of manna, a flakey, bread-like substance that God provided for them daily. But as Jesus points out, while manna was food for the journey, it wasn’t the same thing as the bread of life, because even though they ate it, they died. What Jesus is saying is that through him, in him, God is providing a different type of food, for a different type of journey. In Christ, God is providing the bread of life. This is food for our journey out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. Jesus is food for our journey into the true promised land of eternal life with God.

It’s an extraordinary promise. Jesus is not only our companion on the way, the one with whom we break bread, but he is also the bread itself, the bread that came down from heaven to give us eternal life. No doubt Jesus is our companion. He is our brother, our teacher, our friend. But in our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is saying that he is all this and more. He is the one who has come to give us life and give it abundantly. In him was life and the life was the light of all people. He is the bread of life.

When we gather together for the Holy Eucharist, we catch a glimpse of the heavenly life that Jesus promises us. The Eucharist is that sacrament whereby we get a foretaste of that heavenly banquet when all things will be put to rights, when all hurts will be mended, when all tears will be wiped away, when all divisions will be repaired, when God will be all in all. This is why we call it Holy Communion. It is a holy union with God and with all of creation in relationship to God. And one of the things that distinguishes this breaking of bread from so many other meals is that everyone is welcome. The high and mighty and the lowly and humble; friends and enemies; relatives and strangers. All of God’s children are welcome at God’s table. All are companions, all are people we break bread with, because Christ himself is the bread that has been broken and the blood that has been poured out for the life and salvation of the whole world.

In one of our communion prayers we say, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” We share the bread of life so that we may be strengthened and renewed to go forth into the word with a message of life and love. In small and large ways, sharing in the bread of life, sharing in Christ’s love, transforms us and our world.

Stephanie Paulsell in her book, “Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice,” tells a story about the transformative power of Holy Communion. Diana Ventura was in seminary where she was learning to be an ordained minister. She was an exceptionally good student: smart, compassionate and funny. But before she began her year of supervised ministry in a parish setting, she became very anxious. Ventura had been born with cerebral palsy, which caused her to jerk a bit when she walked and to drag one leg, and she was terribly afraid that she would spill the cup on the floor or, even worse, on someone she was serving. But the time came for her to serve and she gave it a try and things went well. No spills. She made it through her duty. Then, Paulsell writes:

“One spring Sunday, Diana served again as cupbearer and walked from person to person kneeling at the rail at the front of her church, offering them a drink. ‘The blood of Christ,’ she said to each one, ‘the cup of salvation.’ And as she raised the cup to each person’s lips, taking the utmost care not to fall, she saw her own reflection in the shiny silver chalice. Over and over again, she saw the reflection of her body in the cup. This is my broken body, she thought, serving this church. This is my body teaching people what we do with brokenness in the church. Here in this cup is new life, and here is my body, expressing the truth of what this new life means!”

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. … This is the bread that came down from heaven … the one who eats this bread will live forever.” In the bread of life, our souls are blessed and nourished. In the bread of life, nothing is lost, not even our brokenness. In the bread of life, we are raised to eternal life. The bread of life is the bread from heaven.


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