Archives for June 2013

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.

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.

Nativity of John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2013

Determining the significance of a prophet

June 24, 2013

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

People old enough to have been adults during the turbulent ’60s will remember how controversial Martin Luther King, Jr., was at the time. It was said that he and his people had no right to stir things up with all his confrontational tactics. In the South they said he didn’t understand the negro’s place, nor the way Southern society had to be structured. But in 1966 – toward the end of his career – when he led a March in Cicero, just outside of Chicago, he ran into a maelstrom of white hatred every bit as angry and violent, and he got just about nowhere. Even clergy in Northern churches were very hesitant to speak favorably of King. His “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” were meant to win them over.

In those days it would have brought on laughter and derision among most Americans to be told that King would become the greatest Christian prophet of 20th century America, and that a national holiday would be declared in his name.

Obviously, we’ve gone through a national period of reflection and re-evaluation; many minds have been changed as well as the social structure and culture of this county because of Martin Luther King.

This change of heart and culture toward King is a useful example regarding the man whose birth we observe today: John the Baptist, someone who appeared strangely out of the wilderness wearing something woven out of camel’s hair, living on a diet mostly of bugs and wild honey.

And John the Baptist must have had a big voice and a powerful message about the Kingdom, because we are told that Jerusalem and all Judea emptied out and came to hear him: large crowds getting themselves baptized with a baptism of repentance. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out, calling soldiers and tax collectors not to abuse their offices, calling the more pious people – scribes and Pharisees – a “brood of vipers,” for a false religiosity, and noisily embarrassing King Herod for marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of Herod’s half brother. John the Baptist was put in prison for that, and Herodias saw to it that John lost his head.

Jesus’ public ministry doesn’t really begin until after John’s martyrdom. And when the crowds begin to follow Jesus for his teaching and healing powers, before long Herod gets wind of it, and feels thunderstruck that maybe this guy is John brought back from the dead, a prophet that not even the king can suppress.

Reading between the lines, one can form the strong suspicion that what we have in John the Baptist is a very powerful and commanding figure, one who – like Martin Luther King – requires some time and reflection to sort out his true significance.

Indeed, he may have seemed – for a time – a rival to Jesus’ own ministry. John had followers who persisted with his ministry. We are told in the Book of Acts that Paul ran into a group of people out on a mission in Asia Minor who had been baptized into repentance, but had no knowledge of baptism by the Holy Spirit. Among them was a figure of considerable esteem who knew the Bible and could speak very persuasively of his faith. Once baptized in the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, he was a powerful advocate and apostle for Christ.

Thus we see a kind of merging or reeling in of what might have become a different offshoot of Judaism, a religion founded on John the Baptist. This reeling in occurs, for example, when some disciples of John, loosely wondering after John’s martyrdom, come up to Jesus and ask, “Are you the One, or should be wait for another?”

But before seeing how Jesus answers this point-blank question “Are you the one?” suppose we pause and reflect on the example of how it was that we managed eventually to appreciate the full stature and significance of Martin Luther King. It took some time, some reflection on his speeches, his writings, his nonviolent strategies, the real changes that came cascading forth in our society, and the hope for things yet to come, because of him.

Yes, Jesus was baptized by John, and John witnessed to Jesus’ stature as not being worthy even to tie Jesus’ shoes. But it appears that John’s magnetic force was so powerful his followers couldn’t see beyond him to his real significance.

Jesus answers the question “Are you the one?” in an operational way:

“Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.”

He then goes on to speak of that rough-hewn man in the wilderness they all went out to see: a prophet and more than a prophet, a forerunner. And Jesus quotes from Malachi using the very last sentence of our Old Testament: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.”

It is the prophetic expectation of Elijah come back to prepare the way for the Messiah.

But the final appreciation for the significance of John the Baptist comes from the portrait given us by the Gospel of Luke. Here we find John comes from a priestly family. The angel Gabriel appears to the father, Zechariah, saying that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, though advanced beyond child-bearing years, will have a son whose destiny is to play the role of the forerunner Elijah. Zechariah, being doubtful about this, is struck speechless until the child is circumcised. Then he speaks the words of the hymn we know as the Benedictus Dominus Deus, very likely a hymn of the primitive church to express their veneration of John. The hymn closely follows the Magnificat of Mary, expressing the promise that the covenant of God with his people is carried forward by John with the promise of salvation of the lowly and protection from enemies, offering forgiveness of sins, light from darkness and the guidance of holiness of righteousness.

Furthermore, we are told in Luke that Mary and Elizabeth were kinswomen, related, and rejoiced in companionship over their pregnancies.

In this way, by couching it in his birth, the gospel of Luke brings to full fruition the stature and significance of John the Baptist.

 

— The Rev. Armand Larive is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane and the author of “After Sunday: A Theology of Work” (Bloomsburt Academic, 2004).

The nature of miracles, 5 Pentecost, Proper 7 (C) – 2013

June 23, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and Psalm 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

If Elijah and Jezebel were after me, I’d run, too! Elijah was so afraid, he wished he might just die, but God had other plans for him as God often does for us. This is a wonderful story from today’s reading from First Kings about one of the great prophets who is so human in his fears, yet a model for us of what we can accomplish if we listen to the voice of God.

First Kings tells the story of how God’s people have turned their back on the Lord. How sad – they are missing out on the amazing gift of knowing God’s love. For even in their sin, God desires their repentance and return.

But they are noisy people. Previously in First Kings, we’ve already seen the prophets of Baal dancing and shouting and slashing themselves with their knives in their frenzy to call their impotent gods down on their sacrifice. Elijah showed them a different God – a God who can do miraculous things, but who also can listen to the small voice of his creature.

Isn’t it unfortunate that Jezebel, who could have repented and turned to this all-merciful God, instead felt her authority so threatened that she put out a death warrant for Elijah?

Now in his hiding place, Elijah hears God’s voice and answers honestly. “I’m afraid – I can do no more.”

In today’s language, God says, “Hang on, I’m coming. Here’s where you’ll find me.”

Elijah experiences winds that tear rocks loose from mountains and an earthquake – the mighty force of nature’s power – but he finds God, finally, in the gentle breeze, in silence. In a similar text from Isaiah, God even calls out to the people, “Here I am, here I am!” They do not hear the pleading voice. And yet, God does not destroy them all. Yes, there will be punishment, but there will also be redemption and much more to show the limitless abundance of God’s mercy.

So often we experience a sense of desperate need in our hearts, but we forget where we can turn. There is a beautifully plaintive song sung by the character Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado.” She has been jilted by the man she loves, and sings: “Oh, living I!
Come, tell me why,
when hope is gone,
dost thou stay on?
Why linger here, where all is drear?”

It’s one of the most beautiful songs written by Gilbert and Sullivan – both text and melody tear at the listener’s heart. We might imagine God’s heart being as torn by the frenzied noise and deliberate ignorance of God’s own people who choose evil over love, today as well as several centuries ago. If God were human, God just might have said, “Why do I stay here where all is drear and when hope is gone?”

Thankfully though, even as we try to put God in our small boxes, God is eternal and beyond our sad manipulations. Instead, God continues to call, “Here I am, here I am!”

When will we answer?

In our gospel reading, Jesus might have been feeling that same emotion when he healed a sick man and yet the people begged him to leave them alone. In his book “Miracles,” C. S. Lewis writes: “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.”

“Oh, really?” the Gerasenes in today’s gospel reading would probably ask. “How about the one where Jesus sends the demons into our flock of pigs and they run off the cliff to drown in the sea?”

It sounds like the start of a lame joke, but it was no joke to the swineherds who made their livelihood from the pigs. So, what do we do about this? What was Jesus thinking when he gave the demons what they wanted?

St. Augustine, on the other hand has said, “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

Well, that’s a little better. Maybe we don’t know everything about pigs after all. Maybe the thought of living with something evil inside was too much for the pigs, who, after all, are very sensitive animals. But that, too, flies in the face of our perception of Jesus as caring about all people, gentile swineherds included.

So, which is right? Do we try to figure out why Jesus sent Legion into a herd of pigs? Do we just rejoice that a man, and a gentile at that, was healed? Do we castigate the Geresenes for sort of being like the false prophets in First Kings, who said, in effect, “Get out of here, you’re more trouble than you’re worth!”

One way to look at it is to realize that the pigs are not the point. Jesus’ authority over demons is the point. Jesus caring about people with terrible difficulties is the point. And probably Jesus extending his ministry to gentiles is a point. The pigs – maybe it wasn’t like that at all. We truly just don’t know.

What was Luke’s focus at this point in his gospel? What did he want to get across about Jesus to his own hearers? That’s something we have to struggle with when we read the gospels. They were all written for another century’s hearers, and we have to consider that when we read them now. We need to look for the underlying message and not worry about whether Jesus sent something calling itself Legion into a herd of pigs. It may not have happened exactly like that.

Jesus truly cared for the poor and hurt of the world. Jesus was showing that God’s love included outsiders, like the gentiles. Jesus showed that God’s power was mightier than the power of evil – just like Elijah had done many centuries before. C. S. Lewis reminds us that we can’t understand everything about miracles.

There are some things we have to give over to faith and the presence of mystery in our human lives, and that’s OK. We should allow awe and wonder to fill our souls and direct our gaze toward the Almighty, who thankfully, loves us with an unconquerable love.

So, what do we do?

Maybe we should look for a place that is our sacred place, a place where we can listen for God’s voice in the silence and in the gentle breeze. The voice will be there. We can imitate Jesus and open our eyes and hearts to the needs of those who are right there beside us – those we don’t see even as we step around them. And we can pray that we will live out the pronouncement of Paul: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

All of us are one!

 

— 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.