Archives for 2012

Redeeming kingship, Christ the King (B) – 2012

November 25, 2012

2 Samuel 23:1-7 and Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19) (or Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

“What’s in a name?” the Bard asks. At first sight, the title Christ the King seems to us moderns a bit antique. After all, we have just elected a president. We even elect our bishops and rectors. There is something else rather odd about the title given to Jesus in today’s feast. The word “christ” is the equivalent, at least to the ears of non-Jewish, first-century Christians, of “lord” or “emperor.” Neither of these titles seem enlightened or modern. How odd to have a Feast of “The King, the King”!

A good deal of our difficulty lies in the fact that we compartmentalize our lives into two separate realities, rather like the separation of church and state. There’s the world of daily practical living, of politics and jobs and school and work, of friends and relatives, of those to whom we relate and those with whom we have no contact or, even worse, look down on.

Then there is our religious life, which is about such things as doing good, spirituality, church, saying prayers and listening to this homily. Because this is true, we might understand a Feast of Christ the Religious Leader or Christ the Guru, but not Christ unto whom every knee shall bow.

The first Christian creed was expressed in a few words. It said: “Jesus is Lord.” There you have it: “Christ the King.” Confine Jesus to the role of a religious leader, someone who went around saying nice things and performing miracles, and he becomes just another good man, like many others. Elijah said good things, performed miracles and healed. Elijah isn’t king.

In the Old Testament we read that the people wanted a king. They were warned that a king would be partial, corrupt and a bad idea. They persisted and got Saul, who was partial and corrupt. David succeeded him, and despite his very modern notorious sin of adultery, became for the Jews of his time and thereafter the example of a good, wise and heroic king, anointed by God. It is no accident that Jesus was of the House of David.

In Jesus two things happen. Kingship is redeemed. Jesus is a perfect monarch. In him leadership is redeemed, made new, just as all humanity is redeemed and made new through Jesus. We are made new. However the word “we” doesn’t mean you as an individual caught up in some other-worldy spiritual reality, lived side by side with the reality of life. A restored humanity is part of a restored world. Christians are not a holy club devoted to changing society, feeding the hungry, attacking discrimination and injustice – although Christians do all those things, or should do. Christians exist to tell the world that it belongs to God, not to us, not to nation states, but really and truly to God. Christians exist to tell the world that it has an anointed Monarch, Jesus the Lord.

The early Christians were not persecuted because they believed that Jesus was their religious leader and in the light of his teaching they did good things. As long as you admitted that Caesar was Lord, the Romans were remarkably tolerant of religious diversity. What could not be tolerated was that simple claim: Jesus is Lord. That claim threatened Imperial and thus political authority. It said bluntly that as Jesus is Lord, because God reigns, everything not only has its origin in God, but is subject to God’s will.

Christians were not subversive because they refused to acknowledge legitimate political power. The church taught that Christians should respect the powers that be, obey the law and even pay taxes. They were subversive because they believed that legitimate power was passing, was relative, and ultimately judged by a higher power, the power of Jesus, that there are not two compartmentalized realities, worldly and spiritual, but one reality, the Kingdom of God, which, as Jesus says, is from above and is all in all.

In a vital sense, all we do in this place, on this day, is recognize that fact. We are drawn through worship, the act of showing God what God is worth, into the ultimate reality of God, as we bow the knee to Jesus and anticipate that moment to be, when we join with the hosts of heaven and the redeemed of a new earth in hailing the sovereignty of God. That is how Holy Scripture begins in Genesis and ends in the Book of the Revelation.

This seemingly impractical acknowledgement that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is” empowers and enables us to engage in the work of God in our communities, as God claims them, and restores them into God’s image. We then go on to engage in what our church terms “the Marks of Mission”: in telling about Jesus; in caring for people in their need; in fighting for justice; in announcing forgiveness and mercy, enabled and empowered to live as the church, as Christians. Because we know just who is boss, whose realm this bit of territory we call our parish is. Unless we get this right, Christianity and our church is merely a compartment of life, a club for do-gooders who enjoy a religious experience.

What seems something apart and impractical – taking bread and breaking it, taking a cup and blessing it, eating and drinking, hearing scripture – is merely religious self-indulgence unless its context is our representing all creation in acknowledging the Kingship of Jesus, in whose sacrifice on the cross and alienated world is restored to its author and creator, God.

We may sing merrily “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess him, King of Glory now,” but unless in this great hymn we became united in the love song that rings throughout the cosmos, and admit our utter dependence on God and his King Jesus, we merely enjoy membership of a holy club – perhaps enjoyable, even inspiring, but of no ultimate reality.

So today forget the utility of Christianity – what it is good at doing or not good at doing, its strengths and purpose, its failures and weakness – and concentrate on that which is ultimate. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee,” as we offer bread from the earth, wine from the vine and money from our wallets, is a cry of allegiance to God in Jesus, through whom all things were and are made, and to whom all creation ultimately returns.

Christ is THE King.

Thanks be to God.

 

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

Thanksgiving Day (B) – November 24, 2012

Gratitude is the secret

Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Worry may be the signature human condition, and its attendant anxiety the characteristic mark of our time. Current estimates reveal well over 12 percent of the American population suffer from some form of debilitating anxiety. Considering the current economic crisis, perhaps we might wonder why more don’t suffer from it.

After all, too many people – intelligent, skillful people – are out of work, money and viable options to care for themselves and their families. “Lack” is a dominant word in our culture and is cause for tremendous and justifiable worry. College, once an expectation, is becoming an impossible dream of America’s youth. But they can’t find jobs either. And then there is the despair that accompanies these concerns, which taxes the budget even more because it gives rise to medical problems – problems that increase anxiety exponentially due to the current state of our healthcare system.

In today’s gospel, Jesus admonishes us not to worry about our life. How does that help? Doesn’t reading these words heap guilt on we who are worried for worrying? Aren’t Jesus’ words the romantic musings of a young idealist, insensitive to the poor, the unemployed and especially to the worrywarts? At first glance, his advice does not seem very practical or doable.

Or does it?

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich characterized the most predominant modern anxiety as spiritual; that is, we suffer from emptiness or meaninglessness. If Tillich is the diagnostician, then perhaps the Jesuit theologian Anthony de Mello, following Jesus’ advice, offers the cure. De Mello said, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” In other words, instead of nursing our worries, change the focus. Look elsewhere, beyond self-absorption. Cultivate a grateful heart.

The ease of this cure is what makes it seem unrealistic. Do you remember the Old Testament story of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, found in Second Kings? He sought out the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy but when Elisha instructed Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times, Naaman became angry. The cure was too easy! When at last Naaman followed Elisha’s instructions, his flesh was restored to that of a young man.

Or take the example of Dennis, who was down on his luck. First, he was injured, and then he got sick and had to cancel a long-awaited trip. Feeling anxious over the poor state of his body compounded his illness and annoyed his family members. Dennis, consumed in his black cloud, almost canceled his weekly ministry at the local retirement home but instead he forced himself to go. He felt awful when he began reaching out to the first broken-down senior who approached him. And then, by the end of that first encounter, Dennis felt refreshed. Filled with gratitude, his symptoms vanished during his time of ministry.

Gratitude does not come easily, especially when we are caught in the grip of anxiety. Nor does gratitude come in a sudden conversion. It comes through a slow turning away from worry by intentionally stopping to find something, anything, for which to thank God. In the midst of worry, it can be a real stretch. Jesus understood this. Take something simple and common, Jesus says, for which to give thanks: a bird, a flower, a blade of grass. Anything will do: a breath of air, a dog’s loyalty, a glass of water. It is the small step of moving out of self to notice something or someone beyond the self that matters.

This small step leads to huge results. It leads to finally getting what Jesus is trying to tell us: everything is God’s, and God is eagerly waiting to give us more and more – if only we would allow it. Jesus wants us to notice what is in front of us, to believe that God is present and to be thankful. Change the subject, Jesus admonishes. There is a lot of stuff in life we are powerless to change, but changing the subject is always in our power.

Another way to think about this is to imagine two buckets. Bucket one contains those things over which we have control; the other, bucket two, contains things we cannot control. Now imagine yourself confronted with an intractable problem, some elements of which are in bucket one, some in bucket two. Where are you going to spend your time?

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the premise that alcoholics are powerless over alcohol – bucket two – but that there are steps that can be taken, such as making a personal inventory – bucket one. By changing the subject from the self lost in the big picture to the small picture just in front of, yet beyond the self, results happen.

Of course, the contents of the buckets are not static; things heretofore outside your control may move under your influence. Still, bucket one is the place to focus, and it is here efforts may bring results, alleviating worry. In addition, sheer activity in bucket one, regardless of results, is a great worry quencher, because you can’t worry when you’re busy. Depressed? Get off your duff and do something, the dictum goes. Jesus adds, notice what is in front of you.

Consider the story of David Scholer, the late New Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He suffered from asthma, diabetes, arthritis and was diagnosed with incurable colorectal cancer in 2002, which subsequently spread to both lungs. Yet in spite of all of this, he survived beyond the expectations of his doctors, maintained a global ministry through electronic and paper correspondence, and remained one of the most popular professors on campus.

Although Scholer’s body did not heal, nor did he expect it to, his illness taught him to be thankful for his family and friends, the people he met along the way, the energy to do the things he enjoyed, and most of all for being alive. Scholer knew his disease was bucket two. Gratitude for people and for being alive was bucket one. By focusing on bucket one, Scholer’s tears were transformed into “shouts of joy,” as we read in Psalm 126 today.

The Serenity Prayer, penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, sums up the bucket theory:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

By adopting gratitude, we can discover God’s abundance. It’s a funny thing, but gratitude takes math out of the equation. When gratitude replaces anxiety, even when we find we have less than we had during our worry days, gratitude reveals that we have far more than we need.

Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. Jesus wasn’t being idealistic; he was being practical. Medical science has shown that by not worrying, we can add to our life span. We don’t have to worry about our lives day to day – what we are going to eat or drink or wear? Nor do we have to worry about our children’s needs. All we have to do is say thank you, knowing that what needs to happen will, and the rest is not all that important. Gratitude is the secret.

 

— barbara baumgarten is a visual artist and author. David Catron is a linguist and writer. Currently, barbara and David are partners in mission with the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB).

Transcending all that is ‘thrown down’, 25 Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – Nov. 18, 2012

1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (or Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16); Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

On August 23, 2011, Louisa County, Virginia, was rocked by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. We expect such seismic activity along the Pacific coast but rarely think about it happening elsewhere. Earthquakes in Virginia are rare; however, due to the geological nature of the Eastern Seaboard, the quake’s shocks were felt as far away as Florida and Ontario, Canada. It was particularly sad, not just for Episcopalians, but for many Christians, to see the damage this quake did to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, better known as the National Cathedral. Who could have envisioned the pinnacles of the towers crashing into the pavement below or great towers completely twisted? The earthquake only lasted 10 to 15 seconds, but in that time a tremendous amount of damage was done. Who could have imagined it?

“Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Jesus was referring, of course, to the greatest building project of his day and time – Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. This massive renovation began around 20 BCE and expanded the temple mount complex far beyond what King Solomon had envisioned. While the temple itself was completed in less than two years, the outer structures and courtyards took about 80 years to complete – only to be utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. by Roman legions under the command of Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. It would have been hard, if not impossible, for the disciples to imagine the complete destruction of such a massive building – the most holy place of the Jewish faith.

We, too, can scarcely imagine a time when the important places and structures we know and love will be “thrown down;” however, we have witnessed a glimpse of such destruction in our own day with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11. Catastrophic destruction leads to collective trauma and lingering anxiety. But even if the structures are not literally “thrown down,” it is still difficult to ponder that even the place where we worship today will one day be in ruin. It is the folly of humanity to seek permanence in the things of this world, and yet it seems to be our nature. Perhaps it is our deep angst in knowing our own mortality that leads us to build structures of many kinds: buildings, ships, corporate businesses, political empires, families. God has placed a deep-seated need to create something that will transcend the finitude of our earthly lives.

Jesus’ teaching today reminds us of the impermanence of all the structures of this world: “All will be thrown down.” Jesus cuts straight to our desire for immortality with these disquieting words – words that echo the great prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. No doubt this raised the anxiety of the disciples who press him for answers of “when will this be?” They press him for signs of the end. In Jesus’ day, and even to this day, there are plenty of people who look for signs, as if knowing when the end will come will somehow change its coming. Our faith and science tell us there will be a time when all things will come to an end; does knowing exactly when it will happen really give us any mastery over it?

Jesus does not give specifics as to when the end will come, nor does he tell them exactly what will happen. He tells them there will be upheavals of many kinds, but he clearly says these are the beginnings of the birth pangs – not the signs of the end of all things. The things that Jesus describes – war and rumors of war, famine, earthquakes – were all occurring in his day and still occur today. We might wonder when the birth pangs will be done.

Certainly, as Mark wrote this gospel in the shadow of the temple’s destruction and amidst severe persecution of the Christian community, this disquieting apocalyptic narrative seems to fit the unrest of his time; but what about us, living in the relative comfort of the United States in the 21st century? While we have relative comfort compared to Mark’s community, we do live in a highly anxious society where the messages we hear all around us center on being afraid: Be afraid of terrorism; be afraid of the economy collapsing; be afraid of losing our jobs; be afraid of losing our health; be afraid of losing our economic security; be afraid for our children’s future; be afraid of rejection. The list is endless. We are afraid that our neatly constructed lives will “all be thrown down” so we live in captivity to that fear, and when we live in captivity to fear, we never really live!

In the larger context of Mark’s gospel, these words from Jesus come just before he enters Jerusalem to be crucified. These words about the destruction of the temple and upheavals to come are a prefiguring of his own death – the very destruction of his own body. “All will be thrown down” is a promise that all things of this world will fall apart, disintegrate and die. However, within the broader context of this chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that our job isn’t to know exactly what will happen, how it will happen, or when it will happen; rather our job is to be faithful, patient and keep awake, because God is working out the plan of salvation and has not abandoned us. It will be all right because God is in charge.

This isn’t to say things will be easy and that hardships and suffering won’t befall us. It isn’t an empty optimism promising things will get better for our lives; they may or may not. It is a promise that God is in charge regardless.

Christ promises us that things will be all right because God has the last word. When death on the cross appeared to be the end, God had the last word at an empty tomb. Throughout our lives, we will experience death and resurrection many times over as the neatly arranged structures of our lives are thrown down. These apocalyptic words of Jesus remind us to hang on and to place our trust in something more than ourselves, our possessions, our relationships, our health, our capacities or our intellect. It is to place our ultimate trust in the One from whom all of these things come. It is to accept our finitude and mortality in a radical trust of God’s unchangeable grace and goodness so that we might be freed from the captivity of anxious fear and finally live fully and freely as God’s beloved children.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

Do you see what I see?, 24 Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – November 11, 2012

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (or 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146); Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

In two weeks, on the day after Thanksgiving, department stores and radio stations throughout our nation will begin their round-the-clock auditory avalanche of Christmas carols. You may find the constant repetition of “Silent Night” a soothing reminder of “the reason for the season”; or it may annoy you to the point of giving you a headache. But whichever position you take, if you are Anglican, you know that the appropriate liturgical time to begin caroling is during the Christmas season, not Advent. You know that during Advent, we sing hymns about our longing for the birth of the Savior and our faithful vigil as we wait for God’s light to shine in the darkness.

For Anglicans, the “official” singing of carols begins on Christmas Eve. On that holy night, we will gather in parishes across the globe, acknowledge the end of Advent – the end of the long wait – and give voice to the lovely songs we know by heart. We will sing “Away in a Manger,” “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Joy to the World” among others.

There is another Christmas carol that, though it’s known by the title, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” begins with the question:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite …
Do you see what I see?

In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we find Jesus taking a break from hours of engagement and debate with an array of people who sought to trap him in his own words. But he brilliantly escaped the traps and turned the questions back on the questioners. He dazzled the crowds and his own disciples with his wit and truth-telling. He called out those who were complicit in a corrupt political and religious system. He gave kudos to a scribe who demonstrated wisdom. He taught the crowds and then, after all that hubbub, “he sat down opposite the treasury and watched.”

But Jesus didn’t people-watch merely to entertain himself after putting in a long day at the temple. He focused his attention on those who were putting money into the temple treasury.

When he turned his gaze to that place, who did he see?

He saw a woman who was apparently invisible to everyone else around her. A woman who was invisible to the wealthy folks tossing their spare change into the tall jars that held the offerings; invisible to the crowds who had just listened to and delighted in Jesus’ teachings; invisible to his own disciples who had wandered off, who Jesus had to call over and say, “Look! Look there. Do you see what I see?”

It’s no accident that Jesus saw the widow and made her visible to those who were ignoring her. Sprinkled throughout the Bible there are scores of references to widows. In many of those verses, we find God either commanding God’s people to care for widows or castigating them for failure to enact justice and compassion on the behalf of widows.

Women who had lost their husbands held a special place in God’s kingdom because, though becoming a widow did not automatically mean a woman would become impoverished, the absence of a husband made her immeasurably more vulnerable to that fate. When Jesus, only a few verses before he sat down to watch the action at the treasury, warned the crowds against rapacious scribes who devour widows’ houses, he was describing a reality of his day and time. A woman without a male protector could be forced into debt more easily by the legal and economic system.

Understanding a little about the poor widow’s social context gives us a different entry point into this story. Typically, Christians are taught that she is an outstanding model of sacrificial giving. But here’s a funny thing: Jesus doesn’t praise her or her offering. He doesn’t claim that we should all follow her example of giving. He doesn’t use her offering to deliver a sermon on the virtues of tithing and stewardship. He doesn’t deliver a lecture on the importance of supporting church operating budgets. Rather, Jesus notices her and comments on her participation in a society that had turned its eyes away from her plight.

It’s instructive to bear in mind that God keeps a watchful eye not only on widows. In most of the verses about how we are to treat them, two other categories of people are usually mentioned: orphans and strangers or aliens.

Exodus 23:9 – “You shall not oppress a resident alien.”

Leviticus 19:34 – “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the house of Egypt.

Exodus 22:22 – “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”

Deuteronomy 24:21 – “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

Do you see what I see? There is a special place in God’s line of sight for people whose economic and political power is slim to none.

It is not always easy or comfortable to see who God sees. For when we open our eyes to the suffering of others, we also come face-to-face with our own complicity in systems that maintain our comfort while keeping “widows, orphans and strangers” in their place, out of sight and out of mind.

We don’t want to see the non-unionized immigrants who work in America’s fields and slaughter houses. We don’t want to see homeless people on city sidewalks as we make our way to the football game or the theater. We don’t want to see the children who in live in group homes around the country because they’ve been removed from violent families and are considered unadoptable.

But however difficult it is, we cannot ignore Jesus when he calls us over to sit with him for a moment and watch. Watch who participates in the life of our churches, our communities, our schools, our politics and our economies. Look into the dark corners of the world for the people who are in need of food, clothing, shelter, decent wages, a helping hand, an advocate, a friend. See the people who stand on street corners and speak only through messages written on cardboard signs.

And then don’t simply observe. Help those who we see.

Call over other people and ask them to open their eyes too. Go and talk with those who are hidden in plain view. Ask them about their lives. Ask them how we might partner with them to create hope and new life wherever there is misery and death. Demonstrate that God’s way is not the way of oppression, but the way of justice. Show them that God is love.

Two days before he was arrested and crucified, at a time when he could have been drawing his attention inward to ponder his own fate, Jesus sat in the temple and watched. He invited those he loved to watch with him, to acknowledge one woman who was otherwise lost in the crowd.

Do you see what I see? God became manifest in Jesus not only to offer us the beautiful gift of eternal life; God became manifest in Jesus to bring to our attention those who are invisible. God walked among us to help us direct our gazes toward those who may not have a great deal to celebrate this season. And God not only placed a star in the sky to light the way to the manger, God placed a light in our hearts and minds that we might learn to see through the eyes of Christ.

 

— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem, where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Daring to ask questions, 23 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – 2012

November 4, 2012

Ruth 1:1-18 and Psalm 146 (or Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Psalm 119:1-8); Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Isn’t it interesting? In our gospel reading today we learn that “after that, no one dared to ask him any question.” What an opportunity they wasted!

Several times throughout the gospels we hear that people didn’t want to ask any more questions. Sometimes it was the Pharisees, those few who wanted to trip Jesus up, who backed away out of intimidation perhaps, or anger at being caught out themselves. Other times it seems that ordinary people decided not to ask any more questions. Were they confused and content not to push the issue? Were they afraid? And if so, why?

The discussion in today’s passage was not a scary one. Jesus was not talking about angels separating wheat and chaff, the chaff to be burned. He wasn’t allowing an evil spirit to go into a herd of pigs that then raced off the bluff to be drowned – nothing like that. Today Jesus is talking about love, and the greatest love of all, the love between God and God’s people – the love of neighbor for neighbor. What could be more comforting than learning about how we should live in love? They should have been full of questions. They should have been asking for examples of how we could love our neighbor more and how we could love God more. But they didn’t. Isn’t that sad?

At the beginning of this passage, we hear that Sadducees were disputing with one another and evidently they were asking Jesus questions. This was a very normal way that religious leaders of that culture learned and taught. A group of rabbis would sit together discussing and debating about various points in scripture and law. They would pose many questions to each other – think back on the time when Mary and Joseph found the young Jesus in the Temple. He was sitting in on just such a discussion and he was being praised for his learning. We see here that a scribe was listening to Jesus’ answers and realized that Jesus answered the questions posed to him very well. So the scribe had a perfect right to ask his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

We all know Jesus’ answer by heart. “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I wonder if Jesus smiled to himself when the scribe told him that he was right and then referred back perhaps to Amos or Hosea by saying that these two commandments were more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices. The scribe didn’t realize he was complimenting God! What did he think when Jesus told him he wasn’t far from the kingdom of God? It was after that short discussion that no one dared ask any more questions.

Perhaps the scribes were put off by the mention of the kingdom of God. Perhaps it made them think of their own preference for being an important part of the temple worship, the sacrifices, the collection of money. Perhaps they weren’t as interested in loving one’s neighbor as themselves. We don’t know if that’s the case, because we aren’t told; but something made them back away from a conversation about love.

What we also need to remember is that the word love in this context is not the kind of love we too often think about today. Loving with the whole heart isn’t the emotional, huggy-kissy kind of love we find on greeting cards or in advertisements. Loving with the heart in that day first of all meant being loyal. So Jesus was talking about being loyal to God – to God’s laws – to the promises of the covenant the people made with God. Included with being loyal to God was being loyal to your neighbor. Because they knew their scriptures, the Jews knew that being loyal to their neighbor meant that they would care for their neighbor, fight oppression, feed the hungry, make provision for the poor, the widow and the orphan. No one would have a surplus where others were going hungry. Maybe the Sadducees were afraid that if they asked any more questions, Jesus would point out to them that they were not doing too good a job as religious leaders in showing others how to care for those in need.

Remember, though, we don’t know why they didn’t ask any more questions. What we might need to consider in this passage is whether we might have asked any more questions. This is one of those passages that most of us could recite by heart. I’m certain we’d all like to think of ourselves as the scribe – asking Jesus a thoughtful question and being praised for our own interpretation of his answer. And yes, of course, there are those days when we do understand and work toward being even more loving – loyal – in our relationship with God and with others in our lives. But we must also be honest in considering when we aren’t. In today’s culture, we don’t like to talk about sin, our own personal sin or the sin we see in the world. We may not think about this “loving my neighbor as myself” thing when we don’t particularly like that neighbor or we are against a particular issue or we don’t want “that kind of person” coming to our church or moving into our neighborhood. The poor are no longer in far-away countries, they are – sadly, too often – us. A recent survey tells us that one in five Americans live in poverty, and even worse, one in four children live in poverty.

Maybe, just maybe, the Sadducees didn’t want to ask any more questions because they were afraid of being overwhelmed with Jesus’ answer about what they, as religious leaders, must do to show their loyalty to God and neighbor. Maybe we’re overwhelmed with all the needs in today’s world – needs of our own for our own families. There is really too much to care about. It would be an impossible burden for one person, but for all of us together, there is a chance. We need not to be afraid to ask any more questions. We need to ask more. We need to ask more people to work together with us. We might need to be willing to ask for help for ourselves. If we truly believe the two great commandments are important in our lives, then we should be like the folks in today’s passage. Be like the Sadducees – talk to others about what the scriptures mean to you. Question and think about what God is calling us to do about the kingdom of heaven that is here already if we just live into it. Dare to ask God questions and then listen for the answer. Dare to ask each other questions about how we can live out these two great commandments. We can dare to do this because we’re not alone. God has promised to be with us. There is no reason to fear.

 

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

Lazarus, come out!, All Saints’ Day (B) – November 1, 2012

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

“Lazarus, come out!”

You can hear the sternness of Christ’s voice as he commands his servant with a loud voice, powerful enough to bridge the gap between life and death. Lazarus was not just some person living in the area whom Jesus had never met. Jesus knew Lazarus personally, and he loved him deeply. Lazarus was a close personal friend of Christ’s. When Lazarus fell ill, his sisters, Martha and Mary, immediately sent a messenger to Jesus to inform him of the impending death with the expectation that Jesus would save their family from this pain immediately. After all, this is the same Jesus who has healed complete strangers from every multitude of pain, deformity, and disease. Surely he would move quickly to save somebody that he actually knows and loves. But Jesus does not react in the manner in which anybody close to him would expect. Instead of dropping everything and making haste to get to his friend’s side, Jesus continues what he was doing and waits. Both Mary and Martha believed that Lazarus was on his deathbed, and Jesus knew that Lazarus was dying, but he waited.

Four days after Lazarus died, Jesus finally showed up in Bethany. You can only imagine the scene on that day. Martha and Mary are deep in their grief and they are sobbing at the loss of their beloved brother. When Jesus enters the house, one would expect that his reception was not a pleasant one. The sisters were upset, and they lashed out at Jesus by saying that if he had actually cared enough and come right away, then their loved one would still be here. They were angry; they were grieving; and they were distraught.

Instead of caving into their distressed words, Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb. Upon arriving, Jesus orders that the tomb be opened, and at this, he was rebuked by Martha. Lazarus had been dead for four days. Unlike today’s mortuary practices, there was no embalming of the body, nor was there any air conditioning in order to preserve the body for any length of time. In those days, when somebody died, they were placed within the tomb as soon as possible, and the door was sealed. The stench of the tomb after four days would have been too great. But Jesus again ordered the tomb opened, and the family finally obeyed him and had the stone rolled away. The stench that came out of the tomb was horrendous and did cause a number of people distress.

“Lazarus, come out!”

Ignoring the comments from the gathered people, the stench from the open tomb, and the sly comments, Jesus said a short prayer to our Father, and then commanded Lazarus with a loud voice; projecting not just his confidence in the miracle that was being performed, but with great authority. In just three words, Jesus was able to dispel the notions of death, proved the power of God, and exposed himself, yet again, as the only Son of God.

The scriptures do not tell us what Lazarus was doing during those four days, nor is there an interview with Lazarus to find out. Although it would satisfy our human curiosity to find out, the most important thing is that, even after death had overtaken him, Lazarus still obeyed God’s command. Jesus proved that he had authority both in this life, and in the next. That is an important thing for us today.

Martha and Mary were distraught over the death of their beloved, and yet they put their human feelings and emotions away and obeyed the commands of Christ. Lazarus, although he was dead, also obeyed the commands of Christ. What would happen in our lives if we put aside our human emotions and simply obeyed the commands of Christ?

Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus say to Peter “get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind on human things and not divine things.” Peter knew the prophecies of the Messiah, and had, what he felt, was a good understanding of what was going to happen when the Messiah arrived. When Jesus spoke of what He was going to face in Jerusalem, these facts did not mesh well with the human perceptions, and Peter immediately rebuked his Lord. Jesus knew God’s plan in full detail and he knew what had to happen in order to fulfill this plan.

And like Peter, Martha and Mary had their beliefs about the Son of God, and when Jesus did not respond in the way they expected, they too had fallen. You see, in Hebrew theology the fourth day of death was important. According to Hebrew beliefs of death, the spirit hovered near the body after someone died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit saw the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit would leave, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more. In fact, the priests of the temple in Jerusalem believed death in this world was the end. They did not believe in an afterlife at all. When Jesus finally had arrived, Martha and Mary believed that their brother was gone, never to return. But they also believed in Jesus enough to obey his commands.

And that is what separates the saints from the sinners. Today, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we are honoring all those who have come before, all those with us now, and all of those yet to come who have obeyed the commands of God at all costs. Today we are celebrating not only the canonically recognized saints, but also those who have not been canonically recognized. As Christians, we hold these saints in high regard, and we have named our churches in honor of their Godly work. For example, many of us can look to Saint Francis of Assisi as an example of how God’s love extends beyond human beings to all creatures of creation.

As humans, we oftentimes have neglected to realize the true humanness of these saints and instead revere them as living nothing but holy lives. The truth is these men and women were just as human as you and I. All of them were, are, will be ordinary people. They just had extraordinary lives – extraordinary lives because they set their minds on divine things and obeyed the command of God at every impasse.

We all believe in the resurrection of the body, and we all know that one day, like Lazarus, we too will hear Jesus commanding us to “come out.” Like the saints, we too can live an extraordinary life if we only obey every command that Christ gives us. When our worship ends today, if you listen intently enough, you may just be able to hear our Lord standing outside these doors calling each of us out into the world – out into His world – to spread his message, to fulfill God’s plan.

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

Throwing off the cloak, 22 Pentecost, Proper 25 (B) – Oct. 28, 2012

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 and Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22) (or Jeremiah 31:7-9 and Psalm 126); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

“Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we may imagine the cloak was given to Bartimaeus by his mother. Giving him the cloak was one thing she could do for her son, for whom she always felt a mix of grief and pity, a sense of guilt too that she had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, who was also, forever, indelibly, unfortunately blind.

She and Bartimaeus’s father, Timaeus, had rejoiced when her birth pangs began – exulted that they would soon meet this product of their love. They had decided that if this baby was a boy, they would name him after his father, so his name would mean “Son of Honor.” They couldn’t know the irony at the time.

When Bartimaeus was born, their rejoicing turned to mourning. Ten perfect tiny fingers, yes; ten perfect tiny toes. That his lungs were strong they knew when he wailed for the first time, taking in big gulps of air here in the world outside his mother’s womb.

But then, they noticed: his eyes covered with a white milky film that did not clear; not with the midwife’s compresses; not with the prayers of the elders; not with the breaking of his mother’s heart and his father’s tears. Their son was blind.

This Son of Honor would know the indignity of begging. In fact, on the street they didn’t even call him by name. He was known as “a blind beggar” or just “the blind man.” His lot in life, his lone contribution to society, was to be the recipient of others’ charity. His one purpose in the eyes of others was to be the vehicle by which others fulfilled their religious duty to give to those less fortunate than themselves. He would serve as a reminder for others of their own good circumstances. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he would hear people remark as they walked past him.

“Alms for the poor,” he would shout out to them. “Have mercy on me, poor blind Bartimaeus!”

His cloak was his most important possession. Made of wool, thick enough to warm him on cool mornings and in the evening after sundown, his cloak was his blanket, his covering, his one constant companion. He was such a familiar sight by the roadside on the way out of Jericho, wrapped in his cloak, it had become part of his uniform, his identity. When he could hear passersby coming, he would quickly unwind it from his shoulders and lay it out in front of him to catch the coins people dropped for him. After the crowd passed, he would push the cloak’s frayed corners together in order to gather up the coins that collected in its center. The cloak was dusty from using it like this, but Bartimaeus didn’t mind. The smell of the dust and wool brought comfort to him when he wrapped the cloak tightly around him again, a tangible reminder that someone had cared about him once, enough to give him this gift. He had had the cloak so long, he couldn’t really remember his life before it, couldn’t imagine his life without it.

And then, one day, everything changes. Bartimaeus sits, fingering the fraying threads of a hole forming in his cloak, his chin lifted, eyes open but unseeing, listening. A large crowd approaches. Such a crowd is nothing new on this busy road, and yet there is something different: an urgency, excitement. Bartimaeus strains to sift one voice from another, strains to hear what people are saying as they come closer. He hears voices mingled, the fragment of a story, a strain of a song. And then one word, a name: Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth. Bartimaeus has heard this name before. He has heard the man by this name has the power to heal, to make whole, to make dreams come true, to make Bartimaeus’ own dreams come true, his dream of freedom, a life free from begging, a life where he can live fully into his own name: Son of Honor. A life where he can lift his head high, square his shoulders, set his own course, go wherever he desires.

Bartimaeus cries out, his voice dry and raspy, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

“Be quiet, beggar!” a voice close to him snaps. “Quiet down.” Someone tosses him a coin. “Keep quiet.”

But Bartimaeus cries out again, his voice gaining strength, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then he hears it. A man’s voice, up ahead, saying, “Call him here.”

More voices close by, “Take heart, beggar. Get up. He is calling you.”

And Bartimaeus does the one thing he had never before imagined being able to do. He throws off his cloak.

He throws off his cloak.

In that moment, he is like the trapeze artist who trusts that the strong man whose arms are outstretched to catch him will do just that. He trusts that the air through which he sails suddenly untethered is not nothing. The air is the place where a new thing can begin. The air is the substance through which he travels to meet the man coming toward him, whose grasp is strong, whose timing is perfect, who knows Bartimaeus and what he needs, but will give Bartimaeus the honor of allowing him to name his own desire.

And so, standing cloakless – he feels almost naked to tell the truth, but like a new being, a newly birthed person – Bartimaeus stands before Jesus and says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Jesus replies, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Bartimaeus remembers the word spoken, like a distant dream. Jesus had said it: “Go.” Bartimaeus, you are free to go. Where you want. Go.

But Bartimaeus realizes that he does not wish to go. He wants to follow. To use his gifts, all of them, including his newly found sight, for something, not just for himself. He is freed to follow. And Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

Years later, when the disciples told the story of their friend Bartimaeus, they joked about their own blindness, their inability to see the significance of who Jesus was, even when he was standing right in front of them, plain as day. They laughed, because they had missed it so often, and this blind man, Bartimaeus, could see clearly who Jesus was without even laying eyes on him.

They told Bartimaeus’ story because Jesus left them with a challenge. Jesus would not always be with them physically, in plain view. They would not always be able to see him. But Jesus promised to be with them, to be known to them in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the Word, in friend and stranger. He told them to use the eyes of their hearts to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. He told them to use the eyes of their hearts, because there are many kinds of blindness.

There are many kinds of blindness, and we all bear a cloak of some kind. We all carry something with us or within us that we cling to, that is part of our identity, that brings us comfort, that it is hard to imagine our lives without.

In throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus embraces the new life he knew Jesus could give him. He knew that the security, comfort, usefulness of his cloak would be replaced by something much bigger, much better, more permanent. Bartimaeus never goes back to get his cloak. He never retreats to its familiarity. He just follows.

Jesus calls to us too: “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

God will not let us go, 21 Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – October 21, 2012

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

In the portion of Mark’s gospel that we heard today, James and John the Sons of Zebedee, who had given up the family fishing business to follow Jesus, come to him asking to be seated on his left and his right when he comes into his glory. It appears that James and John are simply making a power play. It seems like yet another story in which the disciples appear clueless, unable to comprehend the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has for a third time predicted his suffering and death, yet James and John are applying for leadership positions in the new regime. It certainly looks like blind ambition on their part.

However, as Charles Campbell, professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, points out, just a few verses before this story, Mark writes that the disciples were afraid. That sheds new light. What if James and John merely want a secure future? What if they just want some assurance, amidst Jesus’ predictions of suffering and death that everything will be all right? What if they are simply afraid?

We can identify with the disciples’ fear quite easily. We have made some frightening decisions as a nation for the sake of “security” in the last decade. Fear is a powerful emotion that can cause us to forget our compassion and ramp up our judgment. Fear can paralyze us into inaction, and tempt us to quit. As we sit here in a culture increasingly less interested in organized religion, it can be easy to fear for the future of our parish, our neighborhood and our town. Can we really blame James and John for wanting just a little assurance that things will work out?

Jesus’ response to them is that they will drink of the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism. This is to say that they will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with them. Jesus will be with them no matter what. There are some out there who believe that if you just follow the rules (whatever rules that particular person holds dear) you will never experience pain. That thinking is wrong, harmful and dangerous. Jesus was God’s own son and he wound up dying on a cross. Who are we to think that our fate will be better?

In our reading from Hebrews this morning we heard, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The writer of Hebrews is lifting Jesus up as an example for us to follow. We are to follow Christ into submission. Now, submission is not a popular word in our culture. We prefer phrases like, “No retreat, no surrender,” “Never back down,” “Stand on your own two feet” and “Pull yourself up.” Our understanding of toughness is not faith in God, not trusting in God’s presence or providence; rather it is of the quarterback who leads the fourth-quarter comeback with a broken nose, or the cowboy who fights despite being outnumbered, out-gunned and injured. We don’t like “loud cries and tears.” We like “Suck it up.”

But as Christians, as followers of the one who submitted not just to being human, but to the cross, we are called to enter into pain and suffering, grief and loss, to be present with each other just as God is present with us. To do that, to practice that ministry of presence both with our own pain and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, requires that we surrender our self-confidence, our self-reliance, our independence, and submit to confidence in God, reliance upon God and interdependence with each other.

In 1896, Judson W.V. DeVenter, wrote the lyrics of the classic hymn “I surrender all”:

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

DeVenter said that this hymn came about as he struggled to find his path, whether to serve his gifts for the arts or to become an evangelist. When he finally submitted not to his desires but to God’s will, he explained that a whole world opened to him. It is a mystery of the faith that to lose one’s life is to gain it.

This is a hard task. Submission is not popular. But it is in submission that Christ found his glory. Following the path of Christ will have both joy and pain, suffering and exaltation. Jesus, God’s own son, the one whom we came to know as God incarnate, God made flesh, died on a cross. God refused to be separated from humanity, separated from us. So God became one of us and lived among us and even suffered and died because of us. The testimony of the cross is that even in our darkest hour, even when it appears all hope is lost, even when we the fear threatens to cripple us, God is with us.

We should never limit God. Indeed, God is with us in our darkest hours in a multitude of ways. However, the one way we experience God among us the most is through the Body of Christ. That is the people gathered to worship God, to come to this table and receive the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ.

It is through us that God is with us. It is through us that God acts to hold us together. It is through us that God will not let us go. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God will not let us go. No matter what may come, we will be present for each other, we will be the body of Christ for each other. We will share the love of God each and every day just as we share it here in this house of worship. Come to the feast. Come to God’s table. Come to the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Receive the body and blood of the crucified God. Then go out into the world a fed and renewed people, emboldened and empowered to serve our Lord. Go out into the world as the Body of Christ to seek and serve all people in the name of Jesus. Go out into the world and heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort those who morn, free the captives, and let all the world know that the love of God cannot be defeated.

God will not let us go. Amen!

 

— Father Jason Emerson is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection and the director of Resurrection House in Omaha, Neb. He and his wife Jodie are the proud parents of 2-year-old, red-headed twins.

How wealthy was the Rich Young Ruler really?, 20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 14, 2012

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Today’s story of the Rich Young Ruler is one of the most familiar in the gospels. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it occurs in more than one gospel. In addition to Mark’s account, almost identical stories can be found in Matthew and Luke. It is familiarity with all three of these that causes us to call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Though he is rich, or at least identified as “having many possessions” in all three gospels, it is Matthew who tells us he is young and Luke who calls him a ruler. But no matter what we call him, the subject of the story is the same: wealth and its role, not just in the life of this man, but in our own.

Wealth bought privilege in the time of Christ, and it does today. In Jesus’ world, it could be seen as a reward for faithfully following God’s commands. Do you remember Job? When he lost his children, his flocks and herds, all that he had, his supposed friends, who came to commiserate with him, kept asking what sin he had committed to cause God to take away all these things. They assumed Job’s wealth, both familial and financial, were signs of God’s favor. Up to the point of the loss of this wealth, everyone had seen Job as a righteous man, one who had, therefore, received these signs of blessing. The loss of his wealth, therefore, must be outward and visible signs of the loss of that divine favor. As a rich man, he was one of God’s favorites. As one who had lost his wealth, Job had done something to offend God.

Now look again at our Rich Young Ruler. As a wealthy person who kept all the commandments, he must have enjoyed approval, privileges, the envy of his community and regard as one who did indeed enjoy God’s favor. We might expect that he was a favorite of the temple hierarchy, an honored guest among his friends, and probably seated at the head of the table instead of the foot. His wealth most likely placed him in the among the first of his community, most decidedly not the last.

To give away all his possessions was to risk losing all of this. His friends might look upon him as Job’s friends looked upon Job. What had he done that he must give everything away and atone by giving it all to the poor? Would selling all that he had include selling his home, not to mention all the possessions that furnished it? And how would he buy food? How would he live? Is it any wonder that he walks away in sorrow?

Our Rich Young Ruler is not the only one distressed. Imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples when Jesus tells them it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. It is a powerful metaphor. People have struggled with it for centuries. Since Medieval times, some have believed that “the eye of the needle” referred to a very short gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. The word used in the Greek text refers to an actual sewing needle. In any case, Jesus is talking about trying to push something much too large through an opening much too small. The only way to enter that small door is to get rid of all the excess.

Mansions, walk-in closets full of rarely or never-worn clothing, cabinets full of things that are seldom used but need to be dusted, all of the non-essentials that wealth tempts us to accumulate can become not signs of God’s blessings, but the barriers to a life-altering relationship with God.

Possessions are a primary temptation that comes with wealth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. “I want it. I have the money; I’ll buy it.” As prosperity grows, our decisions about using money move slowly from an emphasis on needs to wants. We have it not because we need it, but because we want it. Throughout his ministry it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus hopes our want will be to satisfy the needs of others. In the third parable in Matthew 25, the sorting parable, Jesus makes it clear that those who have been attentive to the needs of those around them, those who have offered food for the hungry, something to drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and those in prison, these are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. To care for these ones in need is to care for Jesus himself. Those who are not willing to use their own possessions to meet the needs of others can expect eternal fire.

Considering how harshly Jesus talks about the rich, it is reasonable to ask how Jesus feels about them. The young teenager was not alone when he asked the leader of the Bible study, “Does this mean that Jesus hates rich people?” Thankfully, Mark provides a clear answer when he tells us in verse 21, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then goes on to instruct the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come and follow him. Jesus’ reply is deeply rooted not in envy, distrust or any desire to put down one whose position of privilege came from worldly wealth. It comes from the kind of love that would yearn for this man to know his true worth without the possessions, the ways in which God’s love wants to provide for him in ways he can never provide for himself, to know the confidence that he is indeed one of God’s beloved and to live in that light.

As we watch the young man walk away, some recall the widow whom Jesus applauds when she, among all the people bringing substantial offerings, gives only two small coins. In Mark 12 we read: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Ironically, the widow has done what the Rich Young Ruler could not. Can it be that it is easier not to possess many things?

Consider this lesson on how to trap a monkey. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts.

“You can’t take it with you,” is a common bit of folk wisdom. It usually means that when we die, we have to leave all of our possessions behind, so we might as well enjoy them now. What Jesus seems to be saying to us is that not only can we not take possessions with us beyond the grave, but clinging to them, like the monkey to its nuts, holds us captive. There will be places we cannot go, experiences we cannot have, and insights that will never illuminate our lives if we let our possessions possess us.

This does not mean that prosperity should not be seen as coming from God. It can be seen – just as we see wisdom, talent, opportunity and a host of other things – as a gift from God. Too often, however, we fail to recognize that every Godly gift carries with it God’s hope for how it might be used. Joy for us is when we align our use of the gifts God gives with what we discern to be God’s hope. Our Rich Young Ruler is a monkey who cannot let go, free himself of the bottle, and enter into an earthly adventure that will carry him surely to the kingdom of heaven.

In reflection on today’s reading, three questions come to mind:

What are the gifts God has given us?

What is God’s hope for their use?

Are we able to let go of whatever it is that keeps us from following Jesus?

 

— The Rev. Terry Parsons served as the stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church from 1996 to 2008 and remained a churchwide resource for inquiries about stewardship, evangelism, marketing and congregational development. Most recently, she served as the rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bay City, Mich.

[NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: The Rev. Terry Parsons passed away on October 3, 2012 (obituary). She is remembered with great fondness and respect by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known her and worked with her over the years. It is with heartfelt gratitude for her knowledge and expertise in the field of Christian stewardship that we offer this final sermon by the Rev. Parsons.]

A run through the thorns, 19 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – October 7, 2012

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This morning, may we dare to run through the field of thorns and find the great treasure that awaits us there. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel passage catches our attention because it addresses marriage and divorce in a way that’s unavoidable. Many preachers would like to bypass this text on this day, preach on marriage only at weddings, and not have to talk about divorce at all.

And who can blame them? Preaching about divorce and marriage is like running through a field of thorns. Why? Because any contemporary congregation is likely to contain people who are married, people who are divorced, people who are divorced and remarried, people who may get divorced at some time in the future, people who have been treated shabbily by churches due to their marital difficulties, peoples whose lives and families and friends have been hurt by the pain of divorce. It’s everybody’s issue, indirectly or directly. Preaching about it looks like running through a field of thorns, and listening to a sermon on marriage and divorce can, no doubt, seem the same way: one misstep and we just add to the hurting.

But let us venture together carefully into the thorny field, in the hope that amid the briars we can find together what sermons are supposed to reveal: good news for a world that’s broken and in pain.

The discussion gets started because some of the Pharisees are out to get Jesus. They want to trap him in his words and so destroy his credibility. The issue they raise is a controversial one at that time: whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Authorities differ on this question. Some allow divorce only in instances of adultery. Others allow divorce for the slightest of reasons. But note how the issue is framed: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No consideration is given to the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. That is out of the question. Here men have all the power.

Jesus knows this question is not an honest inquiry. These Pharisees are not interested in his opinion, but in testing him, defeating him. He responds to the question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” In other words, How does the Law of Moses read, the law you hold in such high regard?

Jesus knows the answer, of course, and so does everyone within hearing distance. It’s what today is called a no-brainer. And so the Pharisees shoot back the correct reference: Moses allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.

The reference here is to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24. It’s arguable, to say the least, that Moses is giving permission to divorce. What he does instead is to recognize that divorce happens and to set forth norms regarding certain types of remarriage. Like the canon law of the Episcopal Church, Moses acknowledges that divorce happens here in this world outside the Garden of Eden.

The acknowledgment found in Deuteronomy is turned by these particular Pharisees into permission for divorce. But remember, here we are not talking about an egalitarian model of marriage and divorce, but a system where men have all the power, where the sexes are treated unequally, and where a divorced woman has very little hope for the future.

Rather than endeavor to trap Jesus in his words, these Pharisees could have sought to learn something from him. Rather than raise questions about divorce, they could ask advice about how to live faithfully and well within marriage. What an opportunity they miss!

These Pharisees get the reference right, but get the spirit wrong. And Jesus lays into them. “So you give that Deuteronomy passage as permission for divorce, with its demand that the paperwork be in order? Moses would never have written that except for divorce happening anyway, except for the hardness of the human heart in this world outside Eden!”

It is as though he thumps a finger against the sternum of each of those Pharisees and says: “Don’t you get it? You hearts are hard! If human hearts were not hard, then marriages would always work, and Moses wouldn’t have written about what happens when they don’t!”

Jesus addresses each one of us and says the same thing: “Don’t you get it? Your hearts are hard!”

But please note this, and note it well. He’s not just challenging the divorced among us. He’s challenging every last one of us, even if we have been married happily for six decades. The divorced are not to be regarded as some pariah class different from the rest of us. The problem of the hard heart is not limited to divorced people, but is common to us all. In some it becomes manifest in a marital break-up. In others it shows itself in a marriage that remains together but is lifeless. In still others, hardness of heart appears in a failure to forgive our friends, in a judgmental spirit toward our children or parents, or any of the other forms of sin in which we humans become trapped. The divorced are not worse and not better than the rest of us. We all find ourselves in the same place: outside the gates of Eden.

But then Jesus stops talking about hard hearts. Instead, he takes us by both hands and looks at us with an expression of compassion, hope and remembrance. He calls us back to a time before the invention of power games, whether the sexism of his own period or today’s equal-opportunity destructiveness, where either partner can damage the other. Jesus, looking at us with that expression of compassion, hope, and remembrance, calls us back to a time before time, back to when our home was the Garden, back to the intention of God at creation. God made them male and female. Delightfully different. Wonderfully equal. Intended to be one flesh. No hardness of heart. No games, no secrets, but naked and unashamed.

We read in Genesis that the woman was made from the man’s rib. It’s said in Jewish tradition that the reason for this peculiar procedure is that woman and man might be intimate and equal. Woman was not made from man’s head, so that she should be superior, nor from his feet, that she should be inferior, but rather from a bone near his center, near his heart, that the two might be equal and intimate.

Just as a husband and wife can draw strength from remembrance of their early days as a couple, so all of us can discover again the mystery of marriage by recalling God’s original intention: that man and woman both are made in the divine image and meant for one another in a relationship of equality and intimacy.

Yes, of course, there are some marriages that are dead from the start, and others that die along the way. There are people who simply marry the wrong partner, and spouses who have the right to escape what has become of marriage when their safety or sanity is threatened.

But in other cases, divorce happens because people see marriage like those opponents of Jesus did: as a power relationship, as a problem that divorce can solve, where an insane consumer culture leads people to treat as disposable not only houses and cars, but also spouses and families.

That’s not it! Marriage is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived. It is not a business deal subject to a cost-benefit analysis. It is a means by which wife and husband can participate in the kingdom of God – and do so in the comfort of their own home!

Some of the male contemporaries of Jesus saw their wives as merchandise, property. It is dubious progress that now both wife and husband can regard each other in that belittling way. Instead, each spouse is to be to the other joy and challenge, cross and crown.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse not so that you can experience mere consumer happiness like the owner of a new appliance designed with obsolescence in mind.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse so that together you can taste in your human way something of the joy of the marriage between God and creation, Christ and the church, the Lamb and his bride.

In our time we know too well that a broken marriage can seem like the road to hell. May we not forget that God’s abiding intention is quite the opposite: marriage is intended as a road to heaven; not a problem, but a holy mystery; not a mere happiness, but a divine joy.

In the name of the God who in the end calls all his children home to the wedding feast where by the Spirit’s power we will find ourselves united with Christ forever. Amen.

 

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