Archives for February 2013

Love generously, give abundantly, 5 Lent (C) – 2013

March 17, 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

The United States Office of Government Ethics maintains pages and pages of rules related to gift-giving among federal employees. “An employee may never give a gift to the employee’s official superior,” is one such rule. On annual holidays and birthdays, however, an employee is allowed to give his or her superior a gift, so long as it does not have a cash market value of more than $10. Gifts received from outside the office are even more complicated, with anything valued at over $20 deemed unacceptable.

We can imagine that holidays in Executive Branch offices are a little hard to navigate, and probably not a whole lot of fun.

The reasoning behind these types of rules is good, of course. Expensive gifts to one’s boss could be seen as bribes, and the same goes for outside parties trying to influence the interests of government employees. It is an ethics issue, and an important one. But suspicion surrounding generous gifts does not begin and end in bureaucratic offices, and it’s not always for good cause. We seem to suffer from a common cultural wariness where extravagance is concerned. Whether we distrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel somehow at a loss by our own inability to reciprocate, lavishness and generosity can make us uncomfortable.

Today’s reading from John’s gospel tells a story of extravagant giving – giving that made Judas just as uncomfortable as it might make us. Jesus is in the town of Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem for the very last time. He stops to spend the evening with Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead not long before. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters and Jesus’ good friends, are there as well, making dinner, catching up and sharing in fellowship.

We don’t know a whole lot about the conversations that went on around Lazarus’ dinner table that night, but by the time that our story unfolds – the story of the uncomfortable, generous giving – it seems that almost everyone is on the same page. Almost everyone knows what is going to happen next for Jesus, and probably for Lazarus, too.

When Lazarus came back to life and tumbled from his tomb, the word about Jesus spread even farther than it already had. This was Jesus’ most incredible miracle yet – the defeat of death itself – and it caused many people to believe in him. As more began to believe, however, others began to fear. Before Lazarus could even change out of his burial clothes, the Pharisees had begun their plot to have Jesus killed, sure that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy everything that they held dear. The very act of giving life to Lazarus was the catalyst that led Jesus toward death.

Gathered around the dinner table, Lazarus’ family seems to know what is coming. They are about to lose their dear friend. They may even know that Lazarus’ new life is at stake. Having been raised from the dead, he is as much a risk to the status quo as the man who raised him. The time is short and the grief is plentiful as they break bread together in Bethany.

Scarcity and abundance are the twin themes of Lent. In this season we have walked through the wilderness, challenging our reliance on the comfortable and known, replacing old habits with new disciplines. We travel the road toward Jerusalem, week after week, ever mindful of the suffering we will find there. It is a slow, plodding course, and one that we know well. Soon we will stand at the foot of the cross and watch as our Lord breathes his last. Viewed from only one direction, this is a very dark season. And yet, we are always mindful of how the story ends. We walk through the shadow of the Lenten valley knowing that while Jesus’ time on earth is scarce, God’s grace is abundant. Even as we struggle in the wilderness, God is at work making rivers in the desert. Easter is just around every corner.

In today’s gospel, we are treated to two different ways of being in the world; two examples of how one might confront scarcity. This is an old book, but here we learn that people are people throughout time and in all places. The Pharisees – and eventually, the Roman authorities – feel their stronghold threatened, and in the face of loss they choose to tighten their grip. By plotting to kill Jesus, they hope to stop their sense of helplessness in its very tracks by asserting what control they can.

Mary, on the other hand, has a different approach. We don’t know exactly what she is feeling when she slips from the table and kneels at Jesus’ feet with a pound of expensive perfumed oil. However, her silence seems to say something on its own. In gratitude for her brother’s life, in grief for her friend’s life, in total fear for the future, words fail Mary. So, instead of speaking, she lavishes her Lord with an absurdly abundant gift: perfume that would cost as much as a year’s total wages. This is a profuse gesture – sensuous and rich and effusive. John tells us that the whole room filled with fragrance as Mary anointed Jesus. We can imagine the cringing gestures as some disciples – including Judas Iscariot – look away from this woman, lost for words, absorbed in her task, who uses her own hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. It is all just too much.

In this little story, we see that there are at least two ways of dealing with scarcity: we can seek to control what we can, or we can give all we’ve got.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the dinner at Bethany is when Judas finally speaks up. He thinks that Mary is being wasteful, that the money that she spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor. Thank God for John’s little parenthetical reference, where he lets us know that Judas was stealing from the common purse, otherwise we would find ourselves precariously close to nodding our heads in agreement. “Yeah,” we might think. “What a waste! What a silly thing to do! We can find a much more righteous way to use this kind of wealth.” It is not Judas’ criticism that makes this moment uncomfortable for us, but how easily we find ourselves agreeing with history’s greatest turncoat.

Many of us have probably been here before. We have found ourselves uncomfortable in the face of generosity, and criticized it in order to limit its power. We’ve also probably stood alongside Mary. We have allowed ourselves to give to our heart’s content – to lavish our love on someone or something else – only to have our motive mocked or suspiciously picked apart. When this happens once, we rarely want to risk it happening again.

Sometimes our culture – and perhaps our human nature – pressures us to only take measured risks, and of course, in many ways this is wise. But our God is not a God of cost-benefit analyses. No, our God calls us to love without counting the cost. It would be a brave new Lenten discipline to engage the final days of this season as Mary would: to love generously, just because; to meet our impulse to give abundantly, just as our God gives, and embrace it. Knowing what we know about how the story ends and about how God will make rivers in the desert, wouldn’t we rather stand with Mary in the perfumed room than with the Pharisees in their powerful chambers?

 

— The Rev. Elizabeth Easton is the associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Omaha, Neb. A native of Washington State, she graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2009.

The altar is our banquet table, 4 Lent (C) – 2013

March 10, 2013

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

One year at the start of Lent, a sweet-natured seminarian with a wickedly funny approach to theology decided to give up his vegetarianism for the duration.

Part of his motivation was his absurd sense of humor and his great gift to be able to laugh at himself. But he also wanted to tweak his fellow seminarians about this whole Lenten discipline thing. During Lent, we always give up something we think is somehow bad for us anyway – alcohol, chocolate, dessert in general.

Food and drink ranks high on the Lenten give-up list.

It was a real struggle for this seminarian to, as he put it, become a carnivore again. Changing his diet that drastically, even for 40 days, made him newly aware of what he was eating, and made him consider why.

He knew that food matters and so do we. We know this as human beings and as spiritual beings. We must eat to live and we must kill to eat, even if we’re vegetarian. Those simple facts make eating a mysterious act of commitment to ourselves, to the world and to each other. We’re communing with the world.

We know how important food is to relationships. The bond of friendship is never truly cemented until we eat together. When someone dies, or is sick, one of our first instincts is to make some food and take it to the family. It’s as if, unconsciously, in the midst of illness and death, we acknowledge that we are still alive.

Think of all the times when it seemed your world was falling apart and you could barely find a reason to get up in the morning. A friend came by with a casserole and said: “You really need to eat something.” Translation: “You really need to go on living despite this loss that makes living seem impossible.”

As a people who gather around this table every week, we understand the symbolic power of sharing a meal together. Many of us who did not grow up Episcopalian joke that we came into this denomination because Episcopalians really know how to eat, and perhaps they’re not talking just about the coffee hour and the spaghetti supper.

In this morning’s readings, we hear of a people who celebrate their passing over into a new land and a family that celebrates the return of one of their members. They all celebrate with food.

The Israelites no longer need manna now that they’ve crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land where food is abundant.

The Prodigal Son arrives home destitute and hungry, and his father celebrates by serving everyone the sweet meat of the fatted calf.

Yet, these images are not all so sweet. Frankly, the first one might leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

The Israelites celebrate the end of their wilderness years with a feast. Granted, it’s only parched grain, but it must have seemed nice to not to have to worry if the manna would in fact show up every morning and the quail every night.

What about the Canaanites, though, whose crops the Israelites take for their celebration? The Israelites are invaders camped outside of Jericho. Soon they will lay waste to the Canaanite city, in the name of their God. They will kill every human being except Rahab and her friends who spy for them. They will kill every animal. They will drag off all the gold, silver, iron and bronze, declare that it all belongs to their God and deposit it in their treasury.

This story is part of our heritage as Christians. Yet, what if those are the not Canaanites, but instead are Oglala Sioux or Cherokee?

The story from Joshua might sound different if we recall what the people who came to this Promised Land did to the American Indians. There has been much thievery and death committed in the name of God and of religion.

At the very least, the implications of this story might make us wonder during this time of self-examination called Lent. They might make us wonder about of our own sense of entitlement. Do I expect that I will get certain things because of who I am, what I do for a living or what God I call my own?

There may be the same sense of entitlement lurking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Not all of the experts agree about whether the son really had a conversion experience out there with the pigs, or felt at least a little bit of regret and thus turned toward home. Some say the boy sounds a bit calculating:

“Let’s see, I am starving, but my father’s hired hands have more than enough bread. I am slopping these unclean pigs, which, as a good Jewish boy, I would never own, much less eat. No one will feed me.

“I know – I’ll go home to my father and say whatever I have to, to get him to take me back. Then I can at least have the bread he’s giving to the hired hands. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Is he the least bit worried about his reception? After all, he’d declared his father dead so that he could have his inheritance early. Did he think he was entitled to even more from his father?

No matter the son’s motivation, there was his father ready to feast in joy and to feed him. No strings attached. No gotcha. No asking, “Now, have you learned your lesson?” We could call it unfair, as did the older brother. Or we could call it forgiveness and unconditional love, as did the father.

He gets “forgiveness with music and dancing,” as one preacher puts it. Forgiveness can seem so somber and fraught with seriousness, perhaps because of the circumstances that created the need for forgiveness.

Forgiving does not come easily to most of us. We have to learn about it. Often, we feel like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Yet, when we are the ones who need to be forgiven, we can think of all sorts of reasons why this is precisely the ultimate fair thing to do.

Perhaps forgiveness, whether given or received, is not about fairness. Perhaps it is about love, and perhaps it is a gift of generosity purchased with the knowledge that each one of us is a mixture of good and evil, capable of great love and great mistakes.

Forgiveness is a gift that we give and receive because of God’s promise of unconditional love – the love that welcomes us back home each time we have wandered away.

Jesus lived this promise. He opened his table to everyone. The Pharisees and scribes sneered about how Jesus welcomed sinners and dined with outcasts. And now, Jesus has become for us the bread of life, as the collect for today says.

The altar is our banquet table. It’s where God welcomes us home no matter how many times we have squandered the inheritance that Jesus left us – the inheritance of equality, unconditional love and forgiveness.

Welcome home!

Let’s eat!

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

Crooked little heart, 3 Lent (C) – 2013

March 3, 2013

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

In the movie “The American President,” Annette Bening plays Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Her job is to convince the White House to advocate for higher automobile emission standards.

During her first trip to the White House, she meets with A.J. MacInerney, the President’s Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen. During their meeting, Sydney Ellen Wade becomes frustrated, turns to a colleague, and tells the colleague plainly, “The White House won’t let us leave until AJ delivers the bad news.”

Her colleague is aghast at her brashness, but AJ answers, “I’m afraid she’s right,” whereupon he tells them that the President won’t support the high emission standards they want. And worse, that the President expects them to support his position.

The bad news. The uncomfortable truth. Most of us don’t like bad news or uncomfortable truth. It makes us, well, uncomfortable.

Rather, most of us want to hear what we want to hear. What some people call “words that tickle the ears.”

Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out or believe only opinions and reports that confirm what we already believe to be true, not words that challenge us. We like people to agree with us.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor wanted everyone to tell him how stylish and exquisite his new clothes were. But he was naked! Nobody would tell him the uncomfortable truth, except for one little girl. “He’s not wearing any clothes!” She exclaimed.

This is Lent, the Christian season of Uncomfortable Truth, and your nakedness is being discussed openly.

Even discussing why bad things happen to good people – such as towers falling and killing innocents – Jesus oh-so-uncomfortably tells us, “Repent, or you will likewise perish.” Not the ever-popular “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

“Repent!” Jesus tells us. “You have sinned. You have done things you shouldn’t have, and you have failed to act when you should have.” Jesus spoke raw, uncomfortable truths. Our problem is that Jesus still speaks the Uncomfortable Truth, only we can’t hear him.

One reason we can’t hear Jesus is this: the word “sin” has lost its edge, its meaning. It carries too much religious baggage. For some, the word “sin” conjures up images of Catholic confessionals in which teenagers are forced to admit precisely how bad they are. For others, the word conjures up evangelical images of God angrily hoisting helpless people as marshmallows over open flames. Because of its baggage, the word has lost its razor-sharp ability to challenge us.

Sin.

Did you hear the story of the little girl in the confessional? She confessed to the Catholic priest, “Father, I have sinned. I cannot stop looking at myself every time I pass the mirror, and I keep telling myself how beautiful I am.” To which the priest replied, “My dear, I have good news; yours is not a sin; it’s only a mistake.”

To reconstruct the term “sin,” consider its existence in two forms: as big S and little s.

Big-S “Sin” is the state of the world. The fact that the world cannot, despite the best and heroic efforts of so many people – from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., to you in this room – cannot seem to right itself. The world is shrouded in darkness. War continues. Brutal killing continues. Abuse and manipulation continue. Hunger and homelessness continue. Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea.

Little-s “sin” represents the actions, the things you, as an individual, do and the things you fail to do. Like cheating on your spouse or on your taxes. Kicking your dog or lying to your friend.

Most of us don’t like to admit the sin in our lives – big-S or little-s – so we try to hide. Adam and Eve certainly denied their sinful plight, metaphorically, which is what it means when the story says they hid their nakedness with fig leaves. We try to hide the shame of our own nakedness.

One way we hide the shame is by changing the language, using softer words. Which is a variation on confirmation bias, if you think about it. “I tried my best,” we might say. Or “On balance, I’ve lived a good life.” Or “I’m a pretty decent person.”

Euphemisms are inadequate fig leaves; you can’t hide nakedness from God any more than Hans Christian Andersen’s king could hide his nakedness from the people.

God sends Jesus along, who in his very public words, slaps us rudely across the face with the stark reminder that we are naked. That we require forgiveness. Restoration.

Because sin is not what you think. Sin is not sin because of the action itself. Sin is sin because of the result. In his essay “What Is Sin?” from his book “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner writes:

“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left.”

You get that? Nothing is left because of the centrifugal force of sin. What he means is this: Envy is sin because it pushes others away; haughtiness is sin because it sets you apart from others.

Buechner points out that even religion itself – and for that matter, “unreligion” – becomes dark when it expands the gap between you and those who do not share your views. Lent isn’t about sin and repentance because God cares about the silly little things you do – your little-s sins.

Lent is about sin because God cares about you.

God cares about your isolation, cares about a world of increasing isolation. Redemption restores relationship.

Jesus immediately proclaimed Good News, because in restoration there is hope that you do not have to be alone.

Lent presents Uncomfortable Truth – but only if you are paying attention – so that you might become truly free on Easter. Repent, therefore, and receive the very Good News.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

Allowing the Lord to lead us through Lent, 2 Lent (C) – 2013

February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18Psalm 27Philippians 3:17-4:1Luke 13:31-35

We begin today with Abram at the earliest part of his journey with the Lord. Remember that Abram’s name is later changed by God to Abraham “the father of many nations.” Abram is to lead his people to a new land, but the journey is hard, even harsh. Abram knows he needs a male heir to continue his line, but he is distraught when the only heir apparent is the child of a slave.

Then one night the Lord takes him out to look at the stars – a sight too many of us never see due to light pollution. The Lord dispels everything in Abram’s doubts when the Lord tells him his descendants will be in number like the stars of heaven.

Next, Abram undergoes what seems to be some kind of vision or trance that is terrifying, in which the Lord, depicted as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passes between Abram and the sacrifices he has made. It all sounds primitive, evocative of something primal, strange and perplexing. It is a covenant assuring Abram the land he was promised would belong to him and his descendants.

It is hard for 21st century Christians to grasp the depth of this story. We cannot readily appreciate how land and descendants were primal forces that created identity in the ancient world. However, if you visit a farm or a ranch in rural America today, you can find vestiges of that primal concept. A rancher will defend her land as if it were part of her, because it is. The land shapes the people who live and work on it. Without it, their identity is compromised. The land itself defines their mission.

Farmers and ranchers today lament the fact that often their children don’t want to stay on the land, or are forced to leave it for economic reasons. The whole enterprise of farming and ranching is a family mission, and when there are no heirs who wish to continue, the mission seems lost. A rancher may grieve over this more than anyone.

So far we have looked at Abram’s encounter with the Lord from an agrarian point of view. The thing to remember is that land and heirs are the foundation for a mission, a journey that Abram and Sarah will take together. This mission ties directly with today’s gospel and Jesus’ mission that leads to the cross.

The season of Lent doesn’t mean much for us until we can view our mission as part of Christ’s mission, until we can see that our denial, fasting and prayer are ways to return to the journey that the Lord leads us on. How does that happen?

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a vision of what could be, working toward accomplishing it, often with a clear sense we were partners with God, only to have that “mission” taken away, radically changed or corrupted by others.

We are in good company. That is what happens to Jesus. His mission, his passion to heal, forgive and reconcile, ends up in betrayal and crucifixion. The very city, Jerusalem, that stands for God’s mercy and reconciliation ends up turning against him.

So if you are struggling with what the Lord seems to have promised you, if you feel your mission is declining toward failure, if your church seems to have lost members and energy, if your work seems to be undermined by opportunists and betrayers, you are not alone. Abram struggled with these same challenges, and so does Jesus.

An interim pastor found himself in the middle of a conflict between less-than-candid leaders, the diocese and his own hopes for turning the church around. For nine months he felt the sting of ridicule from every direction. Even the bishop suggested he might be in the wrong place. One night in his prayers he simply said to Jesus, “Show me where to go.” In his prayer he saw a vision of the cross, the plain wooden cross above the altar at the church he served.

He reports that vision changed everything. He stayed as interim, he rode out the conflict, and in the end those who were his enemies left and others came forward as honest leaders. The church began to grow both in numbers and giving.

Our Lenten journey is no journey if we don’t experience the cross, that symbol of what stands between the Lord and us. If we are unwilling to be challenged with change, or fearful that nothing can be different, then we will turn away from the journey Jesus leads us on to the cross. We will hide out in Lent. “I’m not making any changes this year.” “I’m going to lose weight by going to the gym.” And so on.

Instead, follow the path of Abram; ask Jesus what he wants you to do with this holy time. Watch for signs in your waking and sleeping. Each of us has our own journey, and it is one that will not only transform us but encourage others as well if we allow the Lord to lead, now, in this time and place where we are called by God.

— Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island, Ark.