Archives for 2012

‘Us’ and ‘them’, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2013

January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today we pass out of the Christmas season, beyond the simplicity of Luke’s story of a humble birth with angels and shepherds, and beyond John’s exquisite message of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.

Today we begin the Epiphany season – shifting from rejoicing at God’s coming among us to reflecting on what it means – to us and to the life of the world.

Christmas is a traditional time for unity. Even during world wars, combatants often stopped fighting and sang to their enemies or even walked across the battle line to share gifts with them. Christmas ceasefires also became common during the Korean, Vietnamese and Gulf Wars. At the local level, rarely is conflict tolerated at Christmas, a time when everyone seems to be able to focus primarily on peace.

But Christmas has passed. And if we are honest, we understand that also any temporary spirit of peace has passed away. If we are honest, we will admit that no assessment of the current world and national culture is clearer than the realization that people everywhere seem willingly to tolerate a deep ideological divide. We live in a time when compromise is often seen as a negative – as a weakness. We live in a time of party and tribal purity, in which the classic “us”  verses “them” dominates.

“We” are the good people, the ones with the right way of thinking and acting. “They” are the bad people, the ones with a wrong way of thinking and acting. “They” constitute a threat and everything about “them” is suspect.

This is a time of asserting that every social ill is “their” failure. Emotionalism, blaming and scapegoating take precedence over reason and accepting responsibility. This is a time of believing that if you are not like us, you must be against us. If you do not agree with us, you must be wrong. Only “we” have the right answer or access to God.

This is a time when the list of “us” verses “them” seems almost endless: whites against people of color; pro-life advocates against pro-choice supporters; liberals against conservatives; Westerners against Middle Easterners; Muslims against Christians; rich against poor; male against female; native against foreign; whoever against someone else. “Us” against “them.”

The early biblical story is instructive in this regard. It presents an account of ancient Hebrew people developing a strong ethic of internal unity against all who were “other.” In part, this resulted from an understanding that God set them apart as an example to the nations. It also served as a form of self-defense, as they sought to acquire or protect land their considered God-given. And in part, it came from an attempt to maintain the purity of their faith; the intrusion of outsiders into their realm threatened the integrity of what they saw as God’s demand. Therefore, they divided the world into “us” and “them”  – the people of Israel on the one hand verses all others, whom they termed “gentiles.”

They felt forced into a distinction common among human beings and similar to the opening lines of “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Israel, out of a perceived necessity, drew a circle around itself, seeing its particular people as a race specially chosen by God. Gentiles, foreigners, were anathema.

Nevertheless, there were other faint voices in Israel’s literature that envisioned a more universal reality. That view finally found fulfillment in Christian expression. Today’s classic gospel story opens the door for a new understanding. Jesus, born in a small town in a totally Jewish environment, was visited by wise men from another world. These foreigners came into the midst of the chosen people and claimed it for their own. And in so doing, they claimed it for all people.

The story of wise men paying homage to the Christ child marks the beginning of the new understanding. It is the story of a God of all people, a God of unity, a God who moves his people beyond the trap of “us”  against “them.”  It is like the final two lines of Markham’s poem:

“But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Wise men, bringing gifts, highlight the fact that the ultimate gift is that God loves all people, in all times, in all places – a gift for every contentious “us”  against “them,” empowering movement toward a spirit of fundamental unity.

The Epiphany gospel story is a powerful symbol of something critically important in the development of our faith – in the understanding of who and what God is. The transition from “us”  versus “them”  to a clearer view of the unity of all people does not come easily, however. The early church struggled mightily to understand what God was doing in Christ. One of its earliest conflicts centered on whether Christians had to be Jews first, whether the new faith would be only a reformation of Judaism or a whole new and expanded one. Ultimately, the Spirit moved first-century followers of Christ to accept a broader understanding.

Today’s epistle reading provides an insightful view of this new reality. The writer of Ephesians, speaking in Paul’s name, clarifies the truth that beneficiaries of Christ include not only Jews who followed him, but also gentiles, like the wise men. He spoke of a mystery being revealed by which “the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The meaning of today’s readings reminds us of the challenge for all people to live in a spirit of unity. The Body of Christ is a unifying image that can draw us toward the challenge of eliminating the current divisiveness of our national and global environments. Clearly, this also applies even among Christians today, because an uncompromising spirit of “us”  against “them”  continues to divide and damage.

The three foreigners of today’s gospel remind us once more that our task is to embrace and teach the view that no one is so different that we dare treat them with less love or less respect than we would show those whom we know as brothers and sisters. The epistle reminds us that there is no gentile, no “other” who exists beyond the circle of God’s love. It reminds us that divisiveness like we experience so often is not consistent with the values of God.

Both lessons remind us of the Godly reality of the unity of all people – Jew and gentile, Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and red and brown, brave and cowardly, married and single, gay and straight, young and old – “us”  and “them.”

Through a unifying God, we are related to all people – not just related like the kinship of a common humanity, but related in a much more profound way – through the Christ honored by the wise men and acknowledged as Lord of both Jew and gentile.

Today’s lessons help us paraphrase Markham’s poem into a useful watchword in a divisive environment:

They drew a circle that shut “us” out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love of God had the wit to win:
Christ drew a circle and took all in!

— 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.

An invitation to intimacy with God, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2013

January 1, 2013

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

When we think about January 1st, usually, what comes to mind isn’t the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – also know as the Feast of the Circumcision. Nonetheless, today was the Feast of the Holy Name long before it became New Year’s Day. In fact, January 1 has only been called “New Year’s Day” since 1752. Before then, for more than a thousand years, we observed March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the year.

At the same time, finding some significance in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name, and that names are pretty special things.

This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.

For example, one male priest described his family’s reaction when he was first ordained; his brothers and sisters had a ball talking about “my brother, the father,” or one sister who still sometimes calls him “Father brother.” Which is all good fun, but imagine what it would mean if he actually insisted that his brothers and sisters address him only as “father.” It would not only be weird, but also hurtful, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he’d be saying something harsh about his relationship to them, since the names we use acknowledge and express our relationships. And second, since his name is a sort of key to who he is, insisting on a title instead of a name would be a way of hiding the real him, his personal self, from his family.

The opposite thing is going on when some 16-year-old smart aleck working in a fast-food restaurant insists on calling customers by their first names. And we all know plenty of other examples of that sort of thing.

What’s happening in all of these cases is a sort of dishonesty. These are times when names – which do turn out to matter quite a bit – get used in ways that don’t properly acknowledge and express the relationships that in fact exist; and so, an important insight into who we are and what we are about is being misused – and something false is implied.

Now, with all of this in mind, we can look at another name, the name of God the Father. Remember, God the Father has a specific name – a name he revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Depending on what translation we’re using, both the reading from Numbers and the psalm make this point more or less clearly. Both readings include God’s name, Yahweh, which is sometimes translated as “THE LORD” in capital letters. Yahweh is probably the way that the proper name of God was pronounced when it was spoken in Hebrew, but there’s some debate about that.

About 600 years before Jesus was born, and well after today’s readings from Numbers and the psalm were written, the divine name, the name God gave Moses, was not spoken in Israel, so attempts to re-create how it sounded have led to a variety of conclusions.

The name of God was not spoken, in part to keep it from being profaned – you couldn’t take the name of God in vain if you didn’t say it – but on an even deeper level, not speaking God’s name says something very important about how Israel had come to understand God, and Israel’s relationship to God.

The name of God was not spoken – and at the same time Israel came more and more to understand God as distant, as apart from his people.

In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.

This is why the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas.

The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.

God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.

For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.

It’s not that in the name “Jesus” we have some kind of magic word, a sort of verbal talisman we can wave around and make things happen. That’s not it all. That’s superstitious magic. Instead, God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.

And with that comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love and the inherent connection to all of creation that are parts of who God is. Remember, the name of Jesus is the name of God the Son, and it is in the person, the whole person, of Jesus Christ that we see and know most clearly and most completely who God is, and what God is about as far as we are concerned.

So we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus for the same reason we celebrate Christmas: the promises to Mary and Joseph and Israel have been fulfilled, a virgin did conceive and bear a son, and his name most certainly means that God is with us. It is the name that is above every other name, and – in joy and thanksgiving – at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

The Word, the logos, the Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2012

December 30, 2012

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas story. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein, he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him.” That would be as in all things, everything and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often we do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons we might not want to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So we might not wish John had started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle, you tap into an ancient and nearly never-ending cycle of life-giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. As Roger Highfield, in his book “The Physics of Christmas,” explains,  when the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens’ season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that, too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in “The Lord of the Rings” is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone, none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have, and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Finding our way in the dark, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2012

Finding our way in the dark

December 25, 2012

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Have you ever stumbled in the dark? Better yet, have you ever had to do something without the benefit of adequate light? Not only is it difficult, we have a higher chance of messing up or injuring ourselves. (Remember the last time you stubbed your toe moving going to the bathroom or kitchen in the middle of the night?) Most often we feel comfortable enough making the attempt to move through the darkness in familiar surroundings, because we are accustomed to where things are and we feel safe while in our homes and offices.

Most of us aren’t so adventurous or courageous when we are in a place with which we are unfamiliar; yet doesn’t it seem that life is a lot like that? We are often asked to move into the inky darkness of life, in ways that are not so much different than our stumbling through our houses late at night. But even as we think about how difficult it is to navigate without adequate light, we are rarely, if ever, in complete darkness. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, even without our personal lights on, we are never in complete darkness. Even when we are far away from so-called civilization, away from man-made light, even without the moon, under a cloudy sky, there is still some ambient light that allows us to see something.

In many ways, that is what the Nativity of Christ is all about – finding our way in the twilight to that place where and that time when God’s glory breaks forth and floods our lives, and the world. God’s light, shining through the infant ruler, Jesus, is the light that, even in its brilliance, helps us to see more clearly. The shepherds, Mary and Joseph and maybe even the angels, did not know what to expect. The shepherds were treated to a heavenly concert that they hadn’t even bought tickets for. Mary and Joseph just wanted to do their civic duty – be counted and pay their taxes – and to have their child born safely and healthy. The angels were bringing the message that they were given, but no one really knew what was going to happen or even what the outcome would be. They were all stumbling through the dark, trying their best to do what they needed to do, but with just enough light, just enough information to give them some measure of courage to continue to move forward.

They all continued with the hope that the end of this leg of their journey would make a difference. They trusted that, even without all of the details, they were going to experience something wonderful.

Friends, we have seen the savior in many ways and through many people. Some have even heard the angel’s message and their song:

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

We know the end of the story, we know the baby, where he was born and what he was born to do. We don’t have to fear the times when we have to stumble through the darkness – Christ’s light is so bright that even when we are traveling through deep valleys and languishing in the darkness of a closed building or room, if we can get continue to move toward a place where we can get out and look forward, we will see the light increasing and our way brighter and more sure.

Remember, on this day and throughout the days of this Christmas and Epiphany season, that we need not stumble for long in the darkness, because the Light has come.

Remember the words of Hymn 91:

“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning. Ye shepherds shrink not with afright, but heed the angels warning. This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be. The power of Satan, breaking. Our peace eternal, making.”

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

God comes to us in our gritty reality, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2012

December 24, 2012

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Christmas Eve: Is there a more magical time? In the larger culture, this is often one of the few times when family and home regularly take precedence over other concerns. People light fires in their fireplaces, fill their households with candlelight and the smell of cinnamon; families eat special meals together with the glow of memory surrounding them.

There’s some irony to the coziness of Christmas Eve in our culture, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. It’s hard to imagine Mary feeling completely at ease in these circumstances, much less glowing with that supernatural light that appears on Christmas cards. The first Christmas Eve was a struggle for Mary and Joseph; they had been traveling  – and we’re not talking planes, trains or automobiles; Mary was doubtless in pain; Joseph had to be worried and frustrated that there was no place for them to be secure.

The shepherds, who have graced their share of beatific Christmas cards themselves, did not bring tiny white lambs to the crèche. Shepherds were pretty far down the ladder in status and economic standing. They were almost certainly dirty, and perhaps staved off the cold with something to drink.

Our lovely Christmas-card illusions of the first Christmas Eve detract us for the gritty reality of the story, where the extraordinary nature of this story actually lies.

God came to us in Jesus. God came among us, not in the first-century equivalent of a Lear jet or a black limousine, but to a humble couple of travelers far from home and family. Jesus’ first attendants were from the edges of polite society, not from the center. This appears to be a clear signal from the writer of the Gospel of Luke that God’s story in the life of Jesus is going to unfold in unexpected ways, far from the trappings of royalty, distant from the centers of religious authority, among the poorest and the least. And that is by God’s choice.

What are we to understand about God through this story?

The writer of the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell the story of Jesus’ life with a particular emphasis that’s consistent with this birth story; Jesus continues to deal kindly with people on the margins, and tell stories with unexpected heroes, such as the Good Samaritan. The God we see through the portrayal of Jesus in Luke is a God who reaches past the boundaries of race, class, gender and religion to touch people who are on the outside, and it starts with the story of this night.

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. This observance came later, when Christians began to talk about Jesus as more than a prophet; they began to see him as divine, and therefore to think about his whole life as a message to humankind from God. They began to talk about a concept called “the Incarnation,” by which they meant that God entered human history in a human life. This made the birth of Jesus a signal event in history, an event that changed the world forever.

In Luke’s account, the conception and birth of Jesus follow the pattern of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God is always acting in unexpected ways to make relationship with God’s people. Just as Sarah conceived when she was old; just as Hannah conceived when she had been barren; just as Moses was called to lead, though he felt inadequate to the task – so Mary, another person who was nobody special, became the mother of Jesus. The place and time were not ideal: they were far from home and Mary went into labor. The historical timing was difficult, too; Mary and Joseph were of the Twelve Tribes, but they lived in an occupied nation and had to answer the call of the Roman governor to be counted.

In the midst of ordinary human history, with one more oppressor occupying one more province; in the midst of ordinary human experience – a pregnant woman and her betrothed, traveling uncomfortably and surprised by a birth far from home – God’s presence is known. God comes to us in the everyday; God is not excluded from a hard day at the office, a challenging commute, a hospital room, a government office. The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when the house is clean and the children are asleep. Those who visit him in Luke’s account suggest further that this good news is for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.

One of the names for Jesus in scripture is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This familiar story of a man, a woman, a baby and the unlikely companionship of angels and shepherds, claims for all time that God is indeed with us, wherever we find ourselves, however difficult the path may be. As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that he is born “unto us,” not merely born. Ultimately, we are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.

Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives, if we let it. We always have the option of merely visiting this story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying the sweet story without really entering its power. But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.

God intends for love to grow us, change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us. This story takes its true power, not from birth, but from resurrection, the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of darkness and death that are seen most visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, and its sweetness can sustain us through the coming year.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector 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. 

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.