Archives for June 2013

Persecution or prosecution?

Moss' 'Myth of Persecution' re-evaluates the Early Church

“The Myth of Persecution.” Candida Moss. New York: Harper One, 2013. 320 pp.

“The Myth of Persecution.” Candida Moss. New York: Harper One, 2013.
320 pp.

Candida Moss advances a provocative interpretation of a pivotal epoch in Christian history through her erudite and accessible “The Myth of Persecution.” Moss adeptly and cogently asserts that the historicity of the antique legends of persecution and Christian martyrdom warrant re-examination.

While Moss does not deny that some Christians were tortured and put to death, the term “persecution” carries connotations that the historical record does not wholly support. This lucidity of this book is a service in itself, for it has much to say about the use and dangerous abuse of hagiography by Christians at large, not simply scholars and institutional leaders.

Above all, Moss’ analysis and reflections should serve to inject a needed dose of wisdom and sobriety into those Christian voices who catapult themselves in the bombastic skirmishes of the contemporary American culture wars, but her conclusions may face a mixed reception.

Moss, educated at Yale and Oxford, and a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the university of Notre Dame, has published several notable works, including a number of books and articles on the subject of Christian martyrdom. The timing of “The Myth of Persecution” is auspicious, especially as a number of Christian leaders, official and self-appointed, are finding it au courant to use the rhetoric of persecution to demonize their critics and ideological opponents. Such rhetoric relies on the historicity of the ancient martyrology corpus, as well as the soundness and prudence of appeals to that oeuvre. Moss brings both issues into question.

Legends of martyrdom, as we know, predated Christianity. We find them, for example, in the books of Daniel and Maccabees as well as Plato’s account of the death of Socrates. Among the aims of her book, Moss seeks to demonstrate that later Christian martyrdom accounts were “adapted, borrowed, and even directly copied from these other traditions.” But borrowing is not where the problems end.

The Christian narrative has long held and aggressively taught that those first in the faith faced systematic persecution; that this new religion growing up around a person known as Jesus the Christ provoked acts of terror, torture and murder, all based upon Romans’ irrational hatred and fear. Moss notes, however, that there is a distinct difference between persecution and prosecution: “A persecutor targets representatives of a specific group for underserved punishment merely because of their participation in that group. An individual is prosecuted because that person has broken a law.” Such a distinction is prescient, and, Moss argues, has been misunderstood or ignored by generations of Christians.

While it is true that some Christians were tortured and killed in the early centuries of the Common Era, the assertion that these acts were the result of a widespread, state-sponsored persecution is, arguably, unfounded. In fact, Moss demonstrates that those Christians who were put to death were seen by their executioners as political subversives who were a danger to the stability and continued existence of Rome. For example, refusing to take part in the imperial cult of sacrifice was a crime. Although the law requiring such sacrifice might appear unjust and a violation of conscience to the modern mind, because Christians were put to death under this law does not mean that they were victims of persecution.

Moss also argues against the classical presentation of early Christian martyrs as “a blend of humility, courage, determination, love, and selflessness” whose actions “are motivated by goodness and love.” This, she asserts, is an overly simplistic picture. In reality, significant chapters of the martyrdom mythos are characterized by vengeful theologies of justice, as well as exalted promises of rewards in heaven. Moss underscores Tertullian, a third-century writer from North Africa, as an example. She notes that Tertullian wrote of looking forward to the day when:

“I see those governors, persecutors of the Lord’s name, melting in the flames more savage than those with which they insolently raged against Christians! … I believe that [these spectacles] are more pleasing than the circus or both of the enclosures, or than any racetrack” (p. 206).

Apparently, the teaching of Matthew 5:44 has been a longstanding challenge that the church has had a difficult time taking seriously.

Finally, in the penultimate chapter, entitled “The Invention of the Persecuted Church,” Moss makes an example of Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop who authored the deeply significant book “Church History.” Writing during a period of peace for Christians, Eusebius bends the Christian narrative to arc toward a story of persecution. It was ironic, Moss notes, that with peace, Christian rhetoric grew more polemical and polarizing, not less. But Eusebius, she argues, had his purpose – those doing the persecuting were the heretics and schismatics, whereas the persecuted were the holy, the orthodox, the faithful. And of course, it is helpful if a holy and orthodox martyr made some statements in the moments before death that support one’s particular theological position. Apparently, appeals to emotion and authority were arguments used as often in the early church as they are presently.

Moss’ conclusions about the manufacture and embellishment of much of the Christian martyr legends are perhaps not terribly earthshattering. But Moss does make a significant contribution through her observations about the legacy of martyrdom in the modern milieu. When modern-day Christians, especially Americans, portray themselves as persecuted, they tread into dangerous territory. By labeling your political or ideological opponent a “persecutor,” dialogue, compromise or any hint of reasonable discourse is circumscribed. Who would try to collaborate or even talk with a party who is irrational, fueled by hatred and in a league with Satan? As Moss notes:

“No longer are reasoned argument, good judgment, or logic able to win the day, because failing to convince others of one’s opinions would be a better sign that one’s opinions were correct. Framed by the myth that we are persecuted, dialogue is not only impossible, it is undesirable. We revel in the outrage and scandal that our words and opinions elicit. We don’t want to be understood by our opponents. We will fan the flames of hatred and bask in the knowledge that we are right and their criticism proves it” (p. 255).

In the end, Candida Moss has invited Christians to re-evaluate and re-contextualize a part of our legacy – persecution and martyrdom – which is based more on polemic and exaggeration than historical fact. More importantly, she calls us to jettison an infantile way of voicing concerns and positions in the public square. The rhetoric of persecution and polemic is as poisonous as it is melodramatic.

 

(Brian B. Pinter is the director of campus ministry and a teacher of theology at Regis High School in New York City.)

Bulletin Insert: 8 Pentecost (C)

United Thank Offering awards $1.5 million for ministry

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With the help of a UTO grant, the Brigit’s Bounty Giving Garden in the Diocese of Colorado provides fresh vegetables to those in need. (Photo courtesy of UTO)

With the help of a UTO grant, the Brigit’s Bounty Giving Garden in the Diocese of Colorado provides fresh vegetables to those in need. (Photo courtesy of UTO)

The United Thank Offering (UTO) of the Episcopal Church has awarded 48 grants for a total of $1,517,280.91 for the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. The 2013 grants were awarded to projects in 38 Episcopal dioceses, six international provinces, and mission offices of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

The United Thank Offering grants are awarded for projects that address human needs and help alleviate poverty, both domestically and internationally.

A total of 86 grant applications were received for 2013, and  the awards ranged from $2,000 to the Diocese of Mississippi to $162,817 to the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.

The awarding of the 2013 grants focused on two of the Five Marks of Mission: to respond to human need by loving service; and to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

Barbi Tinder, United Thank Offering board president, commented that this year’s grants “represented many needs in our world.” Tindler explained, “The top 15 rated grants addressed the teaching of gardening and creative food preparation; providing for continuing clean water; providing wood for warmth during cold months; providing for many forms of special needs for children; and creating buildings that built community.”

The United Thank Offering award funds are derived from the ingatherings, funds and contributions received from the well-known and easily recognizable UTO Blue Boxes.

A UTO grant allows the Brigit’s Bounty Giving Garden program to connect with the town’s water supply to provide fresh produce for those in need in the Carbon Valley of Colorado.  (Photo courtesy of UTO)

A UTO grant allows the Brigit’s Bounty Giving Garden program to connect with the town’s water supply to provide fresh produce for those in need in the Carbon Valley of Colorado. (Photo courtesy of UTO)

This year the UTO Grants Committee went green, conducting all its work electronically. “As a result of the Grants Committee’s initial effort in creating the new granting process, and the participation of the entire Board in implementing the needed steps, the United Thank Offering board can now state that the footprint of the board in terms of environmental impact has been dramatically reduced,” Tinder stated. “Last year the board estimated approximately 10,000 sheets of paper were used in the granting process; this year the only paper to be used will be 86 official letters to grant applicants with 86 envelopes, and 48 printed award certificates to be presented to grant recipients whose applications were funded!  A total of 134 pieces of paper and 86 envelopes! An enormous reduction of use of trees!”

A complete list of grant recipients for 2013 is available at  http://www.utochange.org/page5/page22/index.html.

For additional information, contact Heather Melton, United Thank Offering coordinator: hmelton@episcpoalchurch.org.

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
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Bible Study: 8 Pentecost, Proper 10 (C)

July 14, 2013

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

Which of these three [priest, Levite and Samaritan], do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:36-37)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Amos 7:7-17

At the time of the prophet Amos, the people of Israel were in a time of peace and prosperity. However, prosperity had led them to forget their covenant with God. God had delivered them from bondage in Israel, and in return, they were to show their faithfulness to God by living lives of compassion and righteous and sincere worship. Instead, their religious observance had become an empty form, and social justice had fallen by the wayside. The wealthy few neglected to share the fruits of prosperity with the poor.

The passage opens with the vision of the plumb line. God declares that he will no longer overlook the behavior of Israel. Because of their injustice and religious arrogance, King Jeroboam’s house will be punished by military disaster and sent into exile. When Jeroboam’s priest, Amaziah, confronts Amos and commands him to return to his home in Judah and prophesy there, Amos separates himself from the guild of professional prophets and affirms that his calling comes directly from God. Because Amaziah has opposed the word of God, Amos announces judgment on Amaziah’s family and on the house of Israel.

Amaziah attempts to silence Amos by sending him away. But the truth of the injustice Amos denounces cannot be denied. Can you think of any instances in our times when a self-interested power has tried to silence a modern-day prophet who calls for social justice?

God calls Amos away from his work as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees to remind his hearers of God’s presence in their lives. Is there a time when you have been called or reminded to examine how your life must reflect justice and compassion?

Psalm 82

Psalm 82 is an interesting text, from the same pre-Babylonian exile time as the text from Amos. In this psalm we see God sitting in judgment, not of the people of Israel, but of the other gods of ancient myth. The Israelites of this time worshipped one god, whom they acknowledged as the most powerful one true God and their deliverer, but acknowledged the existence of other gods of other ancient Near Eastern peoples. The psalmist depicts God chastising the other gods for allowing injustice to thrive among the peoples of the earth. Further, God says that if they don’t behave justly as gods should, they will die like mortals, thus forfeiting their god-like status. Injustice is not worthy of the word of God.

Contrast the gods of Psalm 82 – those who might die like mortals – with Christ, the One who has not died like other mortal human beings. What might be the causes for the death of these gods of early myth? How is Christ different from the gods of Psalm 82?

With your Bible Study or youth group, try writing some intercessory prayers based on the theme of justice found in Psalm 82. Perhaps some verses of the psalm might act as a refrain or an introduction to some intercessions that are related to current events or people in your community.

Colossians 1:1-14

The letter to the Colossians is concerned with a conflict among a congregation that had been founded by Epaphras. The dispute is between the position of Paul and Epaphras, that the believers in Christ have received through their baptism a new, full life in Christ and admission to the knowledge of the mystery of God. Their opponents, whom Paul scorns, urge special actions and observances to achieve access to God. The letter begins with a typical Pauline letter opening followed by a thanksgiving for the faithful believers who have evidenced the faith, love and hope that they have received from the gospel. The writer prays that the believers will be filled with wisdom and lead lives of steadfastness, patience, endurance and thanksgiving – lives worthy of Christ.

Paul emphasizes that wisdom and knowledge of God’s grace is attained only through what the believers have received by baptism in Christ. There is no other means to sharing in the inheritance of resurrection with Christ, and enthronement with God and Christ. Imagery of light and darkness is used in addition to wisdom language. A life worthy of Christ’s love is the only and sufficient way out of darkness and into redemption.

Paul commends the Colossians for the qualities of true spirituality that they have shown. What are these qualities? What concrete evidence reveals these qualities in a church community? Can you point to evidence of spiritual qualities in your community or another community?

Paul writes that leading a life worthy of the Lord will bear fruit. Think about the aspects of a worthy life and the fruit that will be borne. Are the attributes of the worthy life that Paul describes what you expected them to be? What are the fruits of a worthy life, according to Paul?

Luke 10:25-37

It’s a rare person who doesn’t know the parable of the Good Samaritan. Unlike some of the parables, the message seems quite clear: Love your neighbor. Anyone in need is your neighbor. It is understood that the Samaritan is an outsider. It is the outsider who shows compassion to the half-dead man by the roadside after the priest and the Levite, members of the community, have crossed to the other side. In the parable, it is the outsider who is the true neighbor because he shows mercy.

It is moral and Godly to show mercy and compassion to anyone in need, whether that person is one of your community or an outsider. In our lives, we probably know this. While the parable is about doing what is right – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Go and do likewise” – there is more to the story than righteous behavior.

In the passage immediately preceding the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” He is talking about faith. The priest and the Levite are in a hurry, on their way to work in the temple. They don’t really see the injured man except as an obstacle in their path. The Samaritan sees and is moved with pity. He sees in a different way, with blessed eyes, with the eyes of faith. Perhaps when Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise,” he means see with the eyes of faith.

Take a look at the various characters in the parable, particularly the lawyer, the priest, the Levite and the innkeeper. Think about their lives and their reaction to the events of the story. Put yourself in each character’s place. In what ways are you like each character? How does each one feel and react to the injured man? Would you react the same way?

Think of this parable as a story of ministry and healing. What does ministry mean? How does the Samaritan minister to the injured man? How does he help to heal him? What are the implications of this kind of healing ministry in our daily lives?

This one thing, 9 Pentecost, Proper 11 (C) – 2013

July 21, 2013

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Just when we think we have the formula all worked out, the path to success all laid out, the one easy answer for earning us an A-plus for discipleship, Jesus goes and throws a wrench into the works. Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, where the point was: Go and do. Love is shown in verbs. Remember? The Samaritan sees, goes, bandages, lifts, takes, gives, pays, promises.

This week we meet a woman who is doing and doing and doing – and all to exercise the virtue of showing hospitality. But this time, doing doesn’t seem to be the key. “Stop and listen” seems to be the right answer. What happened?

Jesus, and perhaps some of his disciples with him, have come to visit Martha and Mary. Martha rolls up her sleeves and goes to work preparing the dinner. She’s gone to the market, purchased fruits and vegetables, and had a nice lamb butchered. She’s cleaned the house, shaken out the rugs, chopped the vegetables, set the bread out to rise, made the salad, and changed her mind three times about which dishes to use. One set is too formal, but the everyday plates seem too plain. She’s put the soup on the fire, but isn’t sure the seasoning is quite right. She’s called Mary in to give it a taste, but so far Mary shows little interest in helping. She knows the lamb could get tough if she puts it in the oven too soon, and she doesn’t want to over-bake the bread. Perhaps it was a mistake to try a new recipe on such an important guest, but since Mary wouldn’t help her decide on the menu, she decided to try it and hope for the best. Should she have gone to the trouble of making seating assignments? Maybe the place cards are a little much, but she wants it to be perfect. Maybe she should switch Mary’s place to farther down the table, since it seems she’s already spending so much time with Jesus.

Martha pokes her head into the living room, hoping to get Mary’s attention, but Mary’s still just sitting and listening to Jesus. Martha goes back to stir the soup, which has started to simmer. So has Martha.

This story can really irk us. And it seems so natural for the story to turn into an exercise in choosing between the two sisters. Whom do we choose, Mary or Martha? Which of the sisters are we most like? Who is more important? More faithful? More valuable? It is so tempting to launch into an enthusiastic defense of Martha, especially with all those Marthas in the pews. Where would we be as the church without the Marthas, those who act and give and plan and budget and do and shop and cook and make bag lunches and organize and sort and throw rummage sales and scrape the wax off of brass candlesticks and wash acolyte robes and make sure there is enough wine in the altar-guild sacristy and unjam the copier and set up the coffee and cut the coffeecake and make the name tags and stuff the folders? All so that the rest of us can be like Mary and listen at the feet of Jesus, and when the workshop or worship is over, we can go enjoy a nutritious meal that, in case we haven’t noticed, someone else has prepared. Our common life in the church is dependent on the activity of many.

Martha wants help. Is that so wrong? “Lord,” she asks, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

We might wish that Jesus had said, “You are absolutely right, Martha. Let’s just all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes. Let’s visit while we put the plates away. Many hands make light work!”

But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” She is described in the translation in the New Revised Standard Version as “distracted by her many tasks.” More literally, it would be “she is with much serving”; even more literally, much “deaconing.” Jesus says, “You are worried and distracted about many things. There is need of only one thing.”

We know. We understand. Martha is not just busy. She is not just multitasking. She is not just overbooked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. She is distracted with much serving. Distracted. Distracted by too much. There is need of only one thing. But some days it is so hard to remember what that one thing is.

What if the point of the story is not to further divide Martha from Mary and Mary from Martha, not to pit the sisters against each other, not to choose either of them, but to choose Jesus? What if this is not a story about choosing between Bible study and outreach ministries, between making time for nightly devotional study and hands-on service to others? What if it’s not a story asking us to choose between being Mary and being Martha, but of keeping our focus on Jesus, choosing Jesus, choosing just one thing he’s asking of us, or offering to us, just now?

But what is the one thing?

Just before he visits Mary and Martha, in the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the lawyer who wants to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law?”

In Luke’s gospel it’s the lawyer, not Jesus as in Matthew and Mark, who gives this summary of the law, this all-encompassing picture of whom and how to love. The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”

And Jesus says to him, A-plus. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” “Do this,” Jesus says, as if it’s a simple thing – a whole slew of words that mean all encompassing devotion and commitment – all boiled down to one little word: “this.”

But Jesus himself seems to play fast and loose with the math when he answers the question in Matthew, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” “This one,” says Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What’s the one thing? This – and this.

Do this one thing: loving the Lord your God completely, and your neighbor as yourself. The story of the Good Samaritan shows how one loves one’s neighbor with actions of compassion and mercy, going and doing. Then Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha and we see Mary loving God without distraction, without worry, resting and listening. Do this one thing: choose Jesus, through compassionate action, through single-hearted, focused listening. In this one thing – going and doing and stopping and listening – you will choose Jesus, and love your neighbor as yourself.

But wait, we say. That’s more than one! How will I know which one really? How will I know when it’s time to do and when to sit? When to listen and when to act? When will I meet Jesus in serving the wounded stranger and when in quiet contemplation and prayer?

Do this and you will live. Jesus doesn’t spell it all out, doesn’t give us all the details. But listen one more time to how he helps Martha, or tries to.

Community is important in this story. In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha does the right thing. She invites Jesus into her home. But she doesn’t spend time with Jesus, or with Mary. And at least within the narrative arc of the story as we have it, rather than speak with Mary directly and ask Mary directly for help, Martha does what we are all warned against for the well-being of community. She triangulates. “Jesus, make Mary help me.” It’s a divisive move.

In asking Martha to choose the one needful thing, Jesus invites Martha back into community. He does not command. He does not shame. He invites. He gives a choice. Come into the living room, he says. I want to be with you. Will you choose me? In choosing me, you will also gain back your sister. In choosing me, you may see your way clear to loving yourself, as well as your neighbor.

In her frantic rush, in her distraction by much serving, Martha is showing neither love to Jesus nor love to herself.

Put down the lamb shank, Martha, and come join us by the fire. There is nothing you need to do to earn God’s love, or impress God, or prove anything to God. Nothing. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any less or any more than God already does. Jesus looks upon you with compassion. What if you see yourself through the same compassionate eyes? What if you gaze on yourself with the same love Jesus has for you?

Do this, and you will live.

 

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

Paying the price of mercy, 8 Pentecost, Proper 10 (C) – 2013

July 14, 2013

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

There once was a run-down coffee shop in a neighborhood that was known for being dangerous. One day, an Episcopal priest came in to get some coffee on his way to somewhere else. He sat down to wait, busying himself with the paper, not paying attention to a man in the opposite corner who was clearly the worse for wear and crying silently. Just as the priest’s order was ready, in walked the church warden. The two shared a lively greeting and conversation as they waited for the warden’s coffee, with no acknowledgement of the man in the corner who had put his head down in his arms and was heaving with sobs. In fact, as they were leaving, they commented to one another, “What is with that guy?” just as the next customer was coming up to the door.

The customer was a young woman with short, spiky hair dyed in a rainbow of colors, heavy black make-up on her eyes and lips, wearing all black, with piercings in her eyebrow, lip, and several in her ears. The priest and the warden gave her a wide berth and both thought to themselves, “What’s with kids these days?” as they left the parking lot to get to their next destination.

The young woman came in and immediately noticed the man sobbing in the corner. She was moved with compassion. He didn’t look good – he had a black eye and what seemed like blood matted in his hair, and he was of a different race. There was no one else around. The barista was doing something in the back and the priest and the warden had departed. She sat down across from the man and stated the obvious, “It looks like you’re having a hard time,” and added, “May I buy you a cup of coffee?”

The man looked up with bloodshot eyes and saw a face looking at him with caring and concern, nothing else. She was the only person that had spoken to him in all the time he had been there that morning. She got some paper towels from the bathroom and a cup of water from the barista, as well as the man’s coffee, and cleaned off his wound while he drank and told her his story. The young woman realized quickly that he had been mugged and proceeded to help him contact the police, as well as buy him a gift certificate for the coffee shop so he could order whatever he wanted for the next couple of meals. She gave him some bus tokens that she had so that he could get to his job so he wouldn’t get fired, and called him at his work later to make sure that he was on the mend.

The man wanted to pay her back, but she refused and wouldn’t let him know where to find her. The young woman told him that she was a neighbor and that’s what neighbors do. He told her that he had never seen her in his neighborhood and thought that her understanding of being a neighbor was broader than his. She laughed good-naturedly and told him he was right, wished him well, and hung up the phone. The man sat back with amazement.

The distressed man was amazed and rightfully so.

As we hear this modern re-telling of the Good Samaritan story, it can cut us to the quick. Sure, it’s full of stereotypes, but there is a grain of truth to each caricature, and we have all been in each character’s shoes in one way or another. We have all been asked by God through circumstance to expand our vision of what it means to be neighborly. Like the people who would have heard today’s gospel story in Luke’s community, we have boundaries and rules that we live by. In the Jewish culture of that time, there were rules about how men should treat women, parents should treat children, Jews should treat foreigners, Jews should treat gentiles and Samaritans, and so forth. These systems set up a social order where certain positions of power and privilege were well maintained. Their society was not so different than ours is now over 2,000 years later. We have those systems in place, and they are difficult to escape or transcend.

Yet, this is precisely what Jesus was calling the people of his time to do, and it translates to ours.

Inheritance meant tangible goods back then – land, wealth, herds. It was the promised reward to Abraham and his descendants who belonged to God’s covenant. The Israelites were a covenanted people, and over time, the message of inheritance also included a future age to come.

But Jesus has a different message. Eternal life was congruent to living a life in God’s kingdom, with its boundaries and not societal ones. Jesus turns the lawyer’s challenge around to show that God’s sovereignty is over one’s whole life. Reading and knowing the law is not enough. Loving God, your neighbor and yourself characterizes someone who is already living life in the kingdom. The promise of inheritance is now attached to a demand: “Go and do likewise.”

The lawyer told Jesus that the one who showed mercy was the injured man’s neighbor. How do we go about showing that kind of mercy in our own lives? The kind of mercy that does not expect any kind of reward or perk. The kind of mercy that has no boundaries, as Jesus so cleverly identifies in his parable. The kind of mercy that often has a steep price: being beaten for defending a defenseless person; losing money to help someone else get back on their feet; losing a job because you stood up for a colleague who was being treated unfairly; being the victim of vandalism after standing up to neighborhood bullies on behalf of an elderly neighbor.  The list can go on.

We all know these types of stories and must ask ourselves if we are willing to pay the price of mercy or just walk on by.

Being a true neighbor means that we are living actively and not passively in the kingdom of God.

In today’s epistle reading, Paul tells the Colossians that he and Timothy are praying for them so that they “may lead lives worthy of the Lord … as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” Our faith journeys take a lifetime.

We are asked in our Baptismal Covenant, “Will you proclaim by word and example the good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The answer is always, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot do this alone, and it is clear our work is never done. We continue to ask Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus continues to answer with results that should not surprise us, knowing how Jesus works, but they always do: the marginalized one, the different-colored one, the one with a different culture, the old one, the young one, the one missing all her teeth, the one with the flashy car, the one who is us.

What is surprising is how difficult it is to show mercy to those who do not fit in our boundaries, despite what we know Jesus is asking of us.

Living a merciful life is not defined as helping someone once. Instead, it is a life in which a person’s character is formed by the basic premise that they love God, love their neighbor, and love themselves. To put it another way, Mahatma Gandhi was once quoted as saying:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

The call to go and do likewise is challenging and transforming. Living out mercy changes us as a people. May we be blessed with God’s own mercy and grace as we strive to walk worthy of God’s calling in our own lives and communities.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the rector of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn.

Bulletin Insert: 7 Pentecost (C)

Summer camps for children of the incarcerated

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Swimming is a favorite activity at Camp Amazing Grace in the Diocese of Maryland.

Swimming is a favorite activity at Camp Amazing Grace
in the Diocese of Maryland.

“In this country, there are an estimated 1.7 million children with parents in prison,” said Val Hymes, coordinator for the Diocese of Maryland’s Prison Ministry Task Force and editor of the Prison Ministry Network News website (http://www.prisminnet.org). She pointed out that most urban churches probably have some of these children living in their neighborhoods.

“Does your diocese have a camp for children of prisoners?” Hymes asked. “If not, how can we help make that happen? It’s a ministry that changes lives – ours and the smallest victims of crime.”

The Episcopal Church opened Grace Camp in 1994 in the Diocese of Rio Grande, beginning the effort to show those children unconditional love and a glimpse of a different life. Since then, 27 dioceses have explored this ministry or opened summer camps for children with parents in prison.

The Rev. Stephen R. Caldwell, who founded Grace Camp, has written, in collaboration with the Rev. Jackie Means, a practical guide for starting a prison ministry camp. Means, now retired, was the Episcopal Church’s director of Prison Ministries and is responsible for inspiring many of the camps. “Grace Guide to Camping Ministry” can be downloaded from the Prison Ministry Network News website.

“Campers are surprised to discover that our love for them is unconditional,” said Caldwell. “To our utter amazement, attitudes and behavior do get altered in that brief time.”

“We hope to break the cycle of incarceration tearing apart families with a week of healing and emotional support,” said the Rev. Eddie Blue, director of Maryland’s first camp.

For more information, contact Alexander D. Baumgarten, director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations: abaumgarten@episcopalchurch.org.

Campers learn teamwork and trust on the climbing wall at Camp Amazing Grace in the Diocese of Maryland.

Campers learn teamwork and trust on the climbing wall at Camp Amazing Grace in the Diocese of Maryland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 7/7/13
half page, double-sided 7/7/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 7/7/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 7/7/13

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Bulletin Insert: 6 Pentecost (C)

Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace conference

[Scroll down or click here for ready-to-print PDFs.]

One of the Gates of Time at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, 2008  (photo via Wikimedia). The inscription reads:  “We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”

One of the Gates of Time at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, 2008
(photo via Wikimedia). The inscription reads:
“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”

Please save the date: On April 9-11, 2014, all bishops, clergy and laity in the Episcopal Church are invited to attend Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace: An Episcopal Gathering to Challenge the Epidemic of Violence.

This conference, which will explore violence in all its forms in today’s society, will be held at the Reed Center and Sheraton hotel in Oklahoma City, in the Diocese of Oklahoma.

Bishop Edward J. Konieczny of the Diocese of Oklahoma noted, “It is significant that Oklahoma City was selected, as it was the site of one of the most violent and devastating events in our history.”

The conference will include worship, plenary sessions, workshops and visits to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.

“With Our Lord’s gospel of peace as the basis of our work, the Episcopal Church will look closely at the violence that surrounds our lives today,” said Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland.

Participants in the planning of this event include representatives from the Dioceses of Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Louisiana, Los Angeles, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Southeast Florida, Washington, West Texas and Wyoming. Also assisting in the planning of this conference are the Episcopal Church’s offices of Federal Ministries, Communication and Government Relations.

Schedule details, speakers, workshop titles and registration information will be available in the fall of 2013.

For more information, contact Mary Getz (mgetz@episcopalchurch.org) in the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations.

Oklahoma City skyline, 2006 (photo by Daniel Mayer)

Oklahoma City skyline, 2006 (photo by Daniel Mayer)

 

 

 

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 6/30/13
half page, double-sided 6/30/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 6/30/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 6/30/13

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Those called and sent are the baptized, not just the ordained, 7 Pentecost, Proper 9 (C) – 2013

 

July 7, 2013

2 Kings 5:1-14 and Psalm 30 (or Isaiah 66:10-14 and Psalm 66:1-8); Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

We are good at placing burdens on our clergy. One of the most severe is to expect them to be the chief, perhaps the only agents of parish growth. We await a new rector, ready to give a list of lapsed people, former parishioners who have strayed, or perhaps even the names of people we might think would fit in with the rest of us. Then we sit back and expect the new priest, who knows no one, has never lived here before, to get on with it. That’s what we pay the priest to do.

Consciously or not, our expectations transform our ideal of priests. We envision them as well-polished sales clerks, adapt at getting customers to buy. For our part, we make sure that the building looks spick-and-span, the sign welcoming, the doors open and the grass cut. It is so difficult to avoid imposing on our faith that which we have become used to in our secular lives. Few things impact us more than marketing. We are consumers all, bombarded with objects on offer at a price, most of which we neither need nor really desire. It’s important that we don’t start to think of our priest as the object designed to provide what we believe to be our “spiritual” needs.

Lessons like the one from the gospel today tend to reinforce all this. St. Luke tells of Jesus sending out over 70 disciples into the surrounding villages. They are to travel light, but are armed with special powers. When they return, it seems they had great success. So, we reason, as the disciples, or some of them, became Apostles, and as we think of apostles as clergy, who created bishops and through them priests and deacons, obviously this story is meant to inspire the clergy to do a better job for us.

People who write scholarly books about St. Luke’s gospel note that Luke alone mentions this story. Some think the number 70 refers to the non-Jewish nations, the “gentiles” evangelized by Peter and Paul and company. We read about their missionary endeavors in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s second volume of his history of Jesus and the first Christians. Others note that Moses called 70 people to assist him in his task of shepherding Israel as it moved through the desert. Perhaps both are true. Jesus sends his followers into “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the furthest parts of the earth.” Jesus created a team to assist him and sent them into the world. But was that team made up of clergy alone?

We continue to insist that these people were the first clergy. In this we are both right and wrong. We are right that among those called and sent were those who would be pastors, preachers, celebrants of the sacraments, those who led emerging Christian communities. We are wrong if we think that all those called and sent filled that description, or were rather like our full-time, paid, professional clergy.

Those called and sent today, as then, are not merely the ordained, but rather they are the baptized. Yes, this gospel is about you.

The gospel tells two things about every baptized Christian here today. The first is that the task of telling the Good News to others is given to us all. We may achieve that task in many different ways, quietly or spectacularly, verbally or by our loving care for others, but the task of showing Jesus to others is one of the chief reasons why we exist. That is not an exaggeration. We have to grasp the idea that each of us has been created, was born, for a purpose, and that purpose is in the mind of God and is more important than any other purpose we may take on.

The second truth the gospel tells us is that we have been “empowered” so to do. That’s an assurance and a challenge. We tend to absolve our passivity by muttering things like, “I’m an introvert,” “It’s not in my nature,” “I get embarrassed.”

The Gospel assures us  – and Luke later stresses this at the beginning of Acts – that we are all empowered to witness in the world and that empowerment is not the same as natural talent.

Imagine that you find yourself by a sick bed. Everything in you tells you to cut and run. You are extremely uncomfortable, don’t know what to say, feeling inadequate and close to panic. Yet you stay, maybe holding a hand and just sitting there. That action comforts and cheers the sick person. You have used not your talent, but the power given to you in baptism and reinforced every time you receive Holy Communion.

Perhaps you are in line at the store; an irate customer is yelling at the sales assistant. It’s not her fault. She is close to tears. When you get to her, your notice her name, speak it to her, smile and offer her silent comfort. In so doing you use the grace given to you in baptism.

You see, our second problem, apart from consigning the task of witnessing to the clergy, is that we don’t recognize spiritual gifts because we think they must be spectacular. Yes, the 70 were given the power to cast out evil, but to do so may merely be the offering of goodness and kindness, objective love.

That may sound trite. Practicing consistent, objective love, particularly toward people we hardly know, or are not like us, or are people that repel us by their actions is no trite or easy thing. It’s much easier to lump them in a convenient group, label them, espouse an all-embracing cause and keep one’s distance.

Jesus, present among us this morning, continues to call us, send us, and empower us. We all have a vocation to ministry. Perhaps this coming week, in our quiet times, when we have the opportunity to reflect, or even to pray, it might be good to consider what task, seemingly beyond of strength or talents, our comfort zone, God wants us to take on and embrace, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, who has lived within us, often unrecognized, since the day we were adopted by God in Baptism.

 

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

Interdependence Day, Independence Day – 2013

July 4, 2013

Deuteronomy 10:17-21Psalm 145; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

“Independent.” It’s a word with almost universally positive connotations. People fill up their resumes describing how this or that experience made them more independent. As our children grow up and take on more challenges by themselves, we articulate their growing independence as evidence of maturity. Academics and intellectuals cherish the thought that they are “independent thinkers.”

And in the context of geo-politics, almost no other word carries the aura of statehood, sovereignty and completeness more than the word “independent.” It is the holy grail of would-be nations, a way to say that one has finally arrived.

July 4th is, of course, imbued with that special aura more than any other national commemoration – even to the point of sanctity. There are many good reasons why this should be so. Humans are hardwired to be in community and to have shared bonds of identity and rituals that reinforce that identity. The commemorations we have as the United States of America throughout the year can help to make us a cohesive community, give us a shared sense of pride and purpose, and help us to strive onward toward common goals and aspirations.

However, observing anything religiously without asking ourselves on a regular basis why we’re doing it is certain to lead to all sorts of problems. Just take a look at any conversation that Jesus had with the Scribes and the Pharisees, and the message that those encounters have for us in the church today. They ought to give us a sober reality check.

So it is with Independence Day. We’ll find it a more meaningful and authentic day of commemoration if and when we take the time to unpack it first.

Independence Day, as we know, marks the point at which the United States was able to break free of the orbit and authority of England. We only need to look to Jesus to know what good authority looks like – he tells his disciples that true leaders are servants. If leaders are not prepared to submit to their own authority and to experience the daily life of the community, as a part of it, then something has gone very wrong.

The American Revolution was a result, at least in part, of the almost total chasm between the – in every sense of the word – distant rulers and their subjects. The Founding Fathers strove to ensure that this chasm was closed and that it would be more difficult to open in the future. Naturally, their work was imperfect, but it is right that Independence Day should mark those noble sentiments. That the communities already living here when the settlers arrived were mostly not afforded the benefits of those sentiments is, of course, at best an irony and at worst a national disgrace.

In the epistle reading appointed for today, Paul writing to the Hebrews, we have to be careful not to read too much into it. It does not legitimize belief that any of us – individuals or communities – have a God-given right to a particular piece of acreage on this planet. God has given this whole world into our care and we are all citizens of it, under his gentle and loving rule. We are not owners, but custodians. When God led Abraham to the Promised Land, he did so on the understanding that custody of a place involved certain obligations.

Our first reading, from Deuteronomy, makes God’s law clear for those who would set up a nation: Welcome the stranger with love, feed and clothe them and act with justice to the weakest and most marginalized in that community, expressed in that reading as “widows and orphans.”

One of the most overlooked – but most important – parts of grammar is the preposition. What preposition should we insert before the word “independence”? We would probably say that we’re celebrating independence “from.” But what if we saw it instead in terms of independence “to”? Freedom is never just “freedom from,” it’s also “freedom to.”

The Founding Fathers didn’t just want to be free from foreign rule, they also aspired to create a new way of being in community. They wanted to build somewhere that was more equitable and safeguarded against anyone getting too much power and influence. Our celebrations of Independence Day need to include sober reflection on how we have compromised those ideals.

One of the biggest questions we need to ask ourselves on this national day is, What does the word “independent” really mean? Strip away from it all the positive connotations we looked at earlier, and what are we left with? That we don’t want to be dependent on anyone or anything. Suddenly the word loses much of its shine. If we close our doors to the stranger, then it’s a short step to closing our hearts and our minds to them, too.

Jesus warns us of that kind of living in today’s gospel reading. “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” he says. It also suggests that a culture of individualism and self-reliance can, when left unchecked, turn into a mistrust of others. Being dependent on others is not always sign of weakness or of compromise; it can be a sign of strength. It is the ultimate sign that we trust another person, and it recognizes that we are, in fact, the Body of Christ, where we need everyone, with their gifts and specialisms – and idiosyncrasies – in order to be complete.

So, on this Independence Day, let’s also think of it as “Interdependence Day”; a day when we celebrate not only being free from unjust rule but also a day when we commit ourselves anew to extending liberty and justice to everyone who seeks it, without partiality.

 

— The Rev Nils Chittenden is missioner for Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina, and chaplain of the Episcopal Center at Duke University. After attending seminary at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1995. His ministry since then has been varied, encompassing cathedrals, campuses and community organizing as well as parishes. He moved to the U.S. in 2010. He and his wife have two cats and two beehives.

Getting past the distractions, 6 Pentecost, Proper 8 (C) – 2013

June 30, 2013

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Elijah and Elisha. What an epic story. It’s pure Hollywood! Mix together “Lord of the Rings,” Harry Potter and Indiana Jones, and this would give just some of the ingredients.

There are wicked kings and queens (they featured a couple of weeks ago), wild-bearded ascetic revolutionaries (that’s Elijah), wide-eyed acolyte disciples eager to drink from the deep well of the master’s wisdom (that’s Elisha), sacred, powerful garments (that’s Elijah cloak), incredible scenery (mountains, deserts, huge rushing rivers).

And we have not even considered the special effects. And what special effects they are. George Lucas would be so proud. Whirlwinds, rivers magically parted, firestorms beyond our pyrotechnical dreams, deep, booming, cavernous, thunderous, deafening roars.  Sparks, spectacle, energy.

Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry – oh, wait – those aren’t from Elijah’s story, they’re from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

And what a letter it is! Here’s that list again: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.

Whatever those Galatians were up to, it certainly wasn’t stamp collecting. And what themes Paul raises: the dangers of replacing slavery of one kind with slavery of another – slavery to self-gratification and self-indulgence.

Let’s look at this in detail.

What a vivid description of Elijah: the whirlwinds, the fire. Rather like the disciples in that Samaritan village. They must have been thinking about Elijah as well. They ask Jesus if he wants them to summon down fire on the Samaritan village because the townsfolk didn’t receive him. What an extraordinary episode. What on earth were those disciples thinking, wishing a fiery immolation on that village?

“Foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead.”

“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

But weren’t we talking about the Galatians? We seem to have been distracted by Elijah, or was it the Samaritan village?

And that is precisely the point. There are so many wonderful, exciting, vibrant, insightful, diverting, important things that could be said about all of our readings today. We could so easily flutter from one to the other, alighting on some little vignette that takes our fancy, and then another. And what we’d end up with would be a glorious Technicolor mess.

In this day and age, distractions abound like mushrooms in a damp, dark basement. Far from avoiding them, we appear to seek them out. The term “multitasking” doesn’t seem to have negative connotations: In fact, we tend to view the ability to do more than one thing at a time as a virtue. Texting during a meeting? Sure, why not? Checking Facebook at a dinner party? Why, yes! Doesn’t everyone? It persuades the people around us that we have full, busy, important lives. Most probably we persuade ourselves, too. We flit from one shiny thing to another, wowed by things that are sleeker, faster, bigger, higher.

And that, also, is precisely the point. There are so many distractions, diversions. But each of these conspire to take our minds off the ball. Faced with a bewildering array of choices, we can easily become unfocused, lose our single-mindedness.

All of the characters that we meet in today’s readings – apart from Jesus – are distracted by something. The disciples of Jesus are distracted by their mistrust of the Samaritans. The people that Jesus and the disciples meet on the way are distracted by their material possessions, duties and social conventions. The Galatians are distracted by all manner of ephemeral, selfish gratifications or petty jealousies. Elisha is distracted by the thought that he might not inherit Elijah’s special powers.

Even Elijah had been distracted. Much earlier in his story, he had challenged the pagan prophets of Baal to a competition atop Mount Carmel to see which of their respective deities was the more powerful. In a story as equally full of impressive special effects as today’s, in which the pagan gods were crushed, the triumphant Elijah orders the massacre of all 450 of the prophets of Baal.

After all of this spilt blood, Elijah falls into a depression and hides in a cave. No doubt there were functional reasons for his dejection and his hiding, since there was probably a price on his head. But there was more to it than that.

“Enough, O Lord,” Elijah says. “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Remarkably, this is nothing less than Elijah’s conversion. He had set his God, Yahweh, in competition with the gods of Baal, but all Elijah had achieved by this was to put himself on the same level as the pagan prophets he’d claimed to despise. The contest on Mount Carmel had merely ended up being a show of strength between rival shamans. Elijah had spent his life seeking God in the earthquakes, the winds and the fire, but had eventually found him in the still, small voice.

In his book “Faith Beyond Resentment,” the Roman Catholic theologian James Alison calls Elijah’s dark night of the soul his “un-deceiving” – his realization that what set his God apart from all others was not that he was more muscular, and whose religion was “more efficacious,” but that he was, in fact, the very antithesis of all that.

Elijah’s conversion experience seems not to have filtered down to Jesus’ disciples. They – along with the rest of their contemporaries – seem to prefer Elijah in his noisy showman phase. When Jesus’ disciples suggest raining down fiery destruction on the Samaritan village, their understanding of God is just as off-target as Elijah’s had been. Time and again we are shown how the disciples just don’t seem to get it. We know that eventually they do, but it’s a long journey for them to reach the realization that God’s strength is in weakness, God’s rule is in servanthood, God’s power is in humility and God’s judgment is in forgiveness.

Before we congratulate ourselves on being smarter and more insightful than those first disciples, let’s just take a moment to consider if we ourselves – and the church in general – get it any more than they did.

In “Faith Beyond Resentment,” James Alison suggests that what Elijah’s conversion experience tells us is that our own religious identity might need turning upside-down, too. “Here we are,” he writes, “face to face with the collapse of the sacred, a real demolition of personal structures and ways of speaking about God. This collapse is the crucible in which theological development is wrought.”

More and more people are saying that the church is at a pivotal point in its life. Some even describe it as a collapse. Certainly it is a time of wholesale reassessment.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps, as Christian commentators like Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle suggest, it is that we are on the brink of a new Great Awakening. Perhaps it is where we will hear afresh the still, small voice of God, and what his voice is inviting us to do, and where we will understand much better how to break free of the slavery of distractions.

 

— The Rev Nils Chittenden is missioner for Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina, and chaplain of the Episcopal Center at Duke University. After attending seminary at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1995. His ministry since then has been varied, encompassing cathedrals, campuses and community organizing as well as parishes. He moved to the U.S. in 2010. He and his wife have two cats and two beehives.