Archives for July 2013

Beyond material worth, 12 Pentecost, Proper 14 (C) – 2013

August 11, 2013

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Christians have always believed in a God who is concerned with the natural world. We have prayed to God from the depths of coal mines to the heights of Everest and from outer space. We have blessed ships and planes in God’s name, built soaring cathedrals to the honor and glory of the Almighty, and even equated scientific achievements to God’s guidance and blessing. These are all material things, because we believe in a material God.

Today’s readings cause us to step back for a moment and consider God in another light, as one who is beyond the material. In the passage from Isaiah, God castigates the people of Sodom because they have allowed material things such as incense and sacrifices of animals to become more important than their relationship with God. God defines the relationship as being centered on justice and care for orphans, not expensive feasts and liturgies, as God commands the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

The quality here is not material, but a spirituality that deeply honors a God who cares passionately for the whole of creation and doesn’t need to be appeased with sacrifice when things are going badly. It’s not about God; it’s about us. And God expects us to address the things that are amiss, not fix them through incantations.

However, we continue to write a check for the hungry without learning why there is hunger in the world. We pass legislation that addresses immigration reform without wanting to know why people want so badly to come to America that they are willing to risk imprisonment and deportation to do it, leaving their families behind while they work to send money home. The truth of the causes for both of these issues has as much to do with our demands for cheap goods and food as anything else. We cannot appease God while we try to have everything we want.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus addresses this issue of how we are to live with God:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Recently a conversation took place in a coffee shop. A woman with a loud voice revealed how frustrated she had been because she couldn’t find a parking spot. She then related how she had loudly prayed, “OK, God, I give up. You find me a parking place or I’m going home.” As she drove around the block for the fourth time a place opened up right in front of the coffee shop. Her friend, a rather quiet woman, smiled and then shared how she had been praying for weeks for her friend who had received a bad prognosis for her recurring cancer. She had just spoken to her friend that morning and learned that the doctors were now confident she would recover. Both of these women were sincere, but the one who asked for healing for her friend knows what God’s power is for – it’s not for finding parking places!

We are not going to get very far with God as long as we understand the Kingdom as material rather than spiritual. We are not going to have much of a relationship with God when our weekends are spent spending the money we have earned on more material things. Sabbath is not shopping; it is rest. It is time set aside for us to enjoy quiet, rest and refreshment.

Sabbath is the rest that helps us to prepare for the return of the Son of Man, the final breaking in of the kingdom. We are given the commandment to observe the Sabbath for our better selves. We are given the space to rest, restore our spiritual lives, and avoid being completely swamped by the world’s material goods. Nothing that rusts or wears out will enter the kingdom of heaven. We need to be able to leave it all behind.

Outside of these readings but deeply inside their message, is the great voice of the Creator reminding us how much we are loved, not for what we have, but for who we are. We are treasures, servants who are blessed by the Holy One. Our economic standing, our homes and wealth are of no account to God. What matters is our lives. How we live, how we approach justice, care for the poor among us, and how we treat one another is the bottom line for judgment. Our success in worldly things will mean nothing.

Summer is a good time to take another look at all that we possess and inventory in our hearts and minds the spiritual treasures we have, the friends who love us without condition, the church that keeps us in communion with each other and God, the beauty of the material world that belongs to every human being. It is a good time to look up at the stars in awe, and remember that the God who made us also made them, but they are nothing compared with the treasure we have of being loved by that same God who asks us to show that love and care to every person we meet.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is part of a ministry team at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island. 

Those who give back, The Transfiguration (A.B,C) – 2013

August 6, 2013

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Immediately leading into this story of the Transfiguration is Peter’s confession, followed by Jesus telling the disciples he is going to Jerusalem where he will die, and an important teaching on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: Pick up your cross and follow me.

If we were watching a movie of Luke’s gospel, directed by Luke the evangelist himself, he might come up behind us, tap us on the shoulder and say, “Now pay attention to this next scene! This is the heart of the matter.”

Indeed, this episode on a mountaintop is at the very dividing line of Luke’s gospel. It is nearly dead center. Up until now there has been activity in and around Galilee. From here on, it is a march to the scaffold: the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

What we find on this mountaintop is a massive appeal to our corporate memory as a people of God. Moses went up to a mountaintop to receive direction and instructions from God and even to argue with God. When he would return to the people, his face would be shining brightly, so brightly he would have to veil it. Elijah hid in a crevice on a mountaintop, withstanding wind, fire and earthquake until he heard the “still, small voice” of God. Whereupon he immediately covered his face as he came out of the crevice to face the Lord, the God of Israel.

So as Jesus heads up a mountain to pray, we are already remembering what goes on up in these regions closer to the heavens, what some refer to as “the thin places”: places where people encounter the Holy and listen to God. And just in case our corporate memory is failing us, Luke paints the picture more precisely by putting Moses and Elijah there with Jesus, all three dazzling in glory, dazzling white, shining like the sun.

If you were Peter, James or John, I suspect at the very least there would be an audible gasp. If up to this point there has been any question at all about who this fellow Jesus is, imagine what is going through their minds now! It is like a return to the 40 years in the wilderness, the defining period of what it means to be a people of God – days of wandering; living in tents; living on manna, bread that is given daily.

It is like a return to the age of prophets such as Elijah who regularly challenged the domestic and foreign policies of the politicians and religious authorities. Elijah, who lived in the wilderness, at the margins of society, who mingled with foreigners and resident aliens, living in tents, booths, accepting the hospitality of total strangers, living on bread that is given daily.

Once a year, every year, for the eight-day Feast of the Tabernacles, Peter and his people would build booths and sleep in them for eight nights to remember the years of tenting on the land. To remember the days of Moses and Elijah. No wonder he wants to build some booths. No wonder he feels the need to do something to celebrate their corporate memory among such revered guests.

Quickly, however, the one in charge of the narrative speaks from off stage to remind one and all that this is not a story about Peter, James and John, and it is not about us or our experiences of the Holy. “This is My Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

It is about the Son. The Chosen. And about listening: listening to God’s Son.

It is worth pondering that when the one in charge of the story speaks and names the dazzling one, we do not hear the words, “Jesus,” “Christ,” “messiah,” “rabbi,” “master” or even “lord.” The primary name given to the dazzling one is “Son.” More specifically, “My Son.”

We are told to listen to “My Son.” My Son says, “Bear your cross and follow me.” And as we follow him down into the valley, what do we find? Another man’s son. The father is bereft. The son is possessed. The son convulses and foams at the mouth. The disciples have been of no use at all.

My Son says, “Bring your son here.” The demon makes one last attempt to conquer the boy, throwing him down on the ground. My Son puts an end to the demon. The boy is restored to his father. The text says that My Son “gave him back to his father.” The demon had taken the boy. Then My Son gave him back. Demons take. My Son gives back.

The crowd is astounded. All were astounded;  there was not one person who was not astounded “at the greatness of God.” Do we allow ourselves to be astounded? Astonished? Amazed?

Note how subtly My Son becomes God. One could almost miss it altogether for sake of being so astounded and all. It would take several hundred years for the church to wrestle with this insight.

We cannot even begin to know who Jesus is if we separate these stories out. What happens on the mountaintop is important, and does have meaning. But that meaning is inextricably bound to both the question Jesus puts to the disciples before going up the mountain, “Who do you say that I am?”  and to what happens down in the valley.

Jesus will not be known any other way. Not through any clever novelization or cinematic inventiveness. Not through reading and discussing books about him. Not through watching movies and debating the merits of the movies about him. He will be known in our listening to him and following him. And in the breaking of bread that is given.

That’s why we are here. To listen to him, to follow him, and to eat our daily bread, so we might complete his work in the valley of this world. To be those people who do not take, but those who give back. How often do we take the time to be still, be silent, and listen to him?

Perhaps this is what Transfiguration means: listening to him and following him so that we may be transfigured, so that those around us may be transfigured, so that the whole world might one day be transfigured just like God’s Son.

We do this by becoming those people who do not take. We are to become those who give – those who give back.

 

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

Relationships are the true treasure, 11 Pentecost, Proper 13 (C) – 2013

August 4, 2013

Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

What thoughts does this quote from today’s gospel reading bring up for you? Did you think, “Awesome! We need to talk more about greed”? Or was it more like, “Oh, no. Here it comes: stewardship season and another Sermon on the Amount”?

The topic of money tends to make many Episcopalians cringe. Perhaps this is partly due to our “denominational DNA” with its reputation of being the “wealthy, established church.” In truth, talking about money makes us uncomfortable in the larger context of our society as well. It’s one of those things you learn from an early age not to bring up in polite company. Just watch when small children ask adults how much money they make or how much their cars cost, and see how quickly parents swoop in to shush the child and follow this with the admonition, “It’s not polite to ask those kinds of questions.” From a very early age, we learn that there are some topics, like sex and money, that are taboo.

If you were raised this way, hang on! Today we’re going to break taboo. But fear not. After all, Jesus himself did so. He talked more about money and possessions, and our relationships with them, than any other topic. Now, if our Lord can talk about money, so can we; and today’s readings give us the perfect opportunity to do so.

Luke tells us of Jesus being in a crowd of people, teaching. A man approaches Jesus and asks him to arbitrate a dispute he is having with his brother about an inheritance. This man’s request may seem a bit odd at first glance. Why would Jesus be asked a legal question? Jesus was a respected Pharisaic preacher and teacher. Forget what the word “Pharisee” may conjure up in your mind. The Pharisees were the respected religious teachers and interpreters of the law who believed in the resurrection of the righteous. In that regard, Jesus’ preaching falls within the Pharisaic tradition, and as there was really no distinction between religious and state affairs in first century Palestine, Pharisees were often asked to act as judges over these types of legal disputes.

Jesus, however, opts out of getting involved in the familial squabble over property. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to talk about money – and more importantly, a right relationship with money.

Jesus tells a parable that is often called the Parable of the Rich Fool. Let’s begin with some clarity about the main character in this parable: He isn’t portrayed as particularly wicked. He is not described as one whose wealth was ill-gotten. He hasn’t cheated anyone, he’s not one of the tax collectors – who were the shake-down artists of Jesus’ day – and he hasn’t stolen anything. From the information we’re given, he became wealthy by the sweat of his brow, by honest means. He was a farmer and his land had produced prodigiously. And at first glance, his decision to save for the future by building bigger barns doesn’t sound too unreasonable either; after all, he does need space for his abundant harvest, right? What’s wrong with saving for a rainy day?

The truth is there’s nothing wrong with saving for a rainy day. The foolishness of this man isn’t in his plan to build bigger barns. His spiritual illness isn’t inherently about his wealth or even his ambition – it’s in how he relates to it.

Notice the inner dialog this man has with himself:

“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

Notice the emphasis on “me.” In this short internal dialog, consisting of approximately 60 words, the man uses 11 references to himself with the personal pronouns “I” and “my.” If we add the references to “soul” and “you” as part of that inner dialog about himself, then we have 22 percent of the words in this short passage talking about, well, “me.”

Here is part of this man’s spiritual illness: He is all about the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. There are no references at all to others– not to family or friends, and certainly no references to God. He is under the mistaken belief that all this wealth is his: his possession, his to control, and that he alone produced this wealth.

The other delusion that distorts this man’s relationship with his wealth is uncovered when God addresses him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

In the face of the stark reality of death, the truth is revealed: No amount of wealth or possessions can save you from your own finitude. You will die, and nothing on this earth can prevent death. Your possessions are temporal and are not of ultimate worth. They will not save you.

On one level, we all know our wealth won’t save us. We tend to know this in our heads, but often our hearts don’t believe it. We are anxious about money – anxious about our jobs, putting the kids through college, the market fluctuations of our 401(k)s, making the mortgage payments, fearful that our cars will die on us, worried our refrigerators will give out – all of which make us nervous about money. But notice all these anxieties are focused on the self, and this myopic, internal focus becomes the basis of the fear in our hearts.

As Christians, we are called to shift our focus away from the small, egocentric self and outward into a radical trust in God.

When our focus moves outward in this way, we begin to view our wealth very differently. First, we realize that it isn’t our wealth at all – it all belongs to God. Not only has our wealth come from God, even our own talents by which we are able to obtain our wealth are gifts from God. None of it belongs to us – it’s all on loan.

The Rich Fool hasn’t figured out that the wealth he claims isn’t really his, he only has temporary custody of it. To put it into today’s context, we might ponder exactly how much Bill Gates or Warren Buffett will be worth when they die. The answer is: the same as you and me.

Death is the great equalizer, and when we die, our net worth in dollars is zero.

The second thing we realize is predicated on the first: If all comes from God, then we have an obligation to God to use this wealth in right ways.

This realization moves us from being consumers of resources to stewards of God’s good gifts. We begin to ask different questions about the use of wealth: “Do I really need this? Or is it a want I can live without?” “Where can I best use this money for everyone’s benefit?” “How can my wealth be a blessing?”

It doesn’t mean that our personal needs will be left out of the equation, but it does mean that we will balance personal needs with the needs of others and the environment, promoting healthy and holy relationships to bring glory to God.

So Jesus’ teaching is not a condemnation of wealth or ambition; rather it is an invitation to view our material possessions differently.

Can our wealth and possessions help us live a relatively comfortable life? Of course they can.

Can they make us confident that we are worthy of God’s love and guarantee us right relationships with God and each other? Absolutely not!

Christ invites us into a life greater than our anxious fears over things that have no ultimate worth. He invites us into deeper relationship with God and with others – a treasure far greater and more enduring.

 

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

Praying as Jesus taught, 10 Pentecost, Proper 12 (C) – 2013

July 28, 2013

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

How many of you know the Lord’s Prayer?

By heart?

There is the traditional language and cadence that we use in the Episcopal Church, which is so very familiar: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

And there is the contemporary language: “Our Father in heaven, holy be your name.”

There is controversy over some fine points: Are we forgiven “sins” or “debts”?

And how does the prayer end? “Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil”?

Or “The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever”?

There are a number of versions of this prayer used by Protestants and Catholics in contemporary services and in more traditional worship. The important thing is that we pray.

But what are we praying? What are we praying for? And where did this prayer come from, what does it mean, how are we to use it?

It is clear that prayer is important to Jesus. We hear of him praying, we hear of him calling his followers to prayer, and we hear the lessons he offers about prayer.

In Luke’s gospel alone, Jesus is at prayer at his baptism; before choosing his 12 disciples; before the first prediction of his passion, at the Transfiguration. Prayer seems to be important to Jesus.

And prayer was clearly important to Luke – after all, he collected and presented several stories attributed to Jesus right here in a rather small section of his gospel.

Presumably, then, prayer will also be important to us.

Let’s take a closer look.

What we read today begins with “Jesus was praying.” And when he was finished, one of the disciples asked him to teach them to pray “as John had taught his disciples.”

We learn a couple of things in this.

One, that prayer is something one learns, something that can be taught. There goes the excuse of “But I don’t know how to pray!”

And we also learn that there are forms of prayer that teachers pass on. It was usual in Jesus’ time, and still is today, for teachers to instruct their disciples in how to pray and give them a formula.

This is essentially what the disciples were asking for. Rabbis, teachers, taught their students, their followers, their disciples, how to do things. In this case, it was John who had taught his disciples how to pray, and the disciples of Jesus asked for the same thing. They asked to be taught. So Jesus told them, “When you pray, say this.”

Here we get to a potential stumbling block in understanding what we traditionally call “The Lord’s Prayer.” It wasn’t his prayer, was it? It isn’t what he prayed. It was his response to a disciple’s request to be given a formula for praying, to be given some instruction, a method. How often have we introduced this prayer in worship, saying, “And now, as our savior taught us, we are bold to say”?

So, is it the Lord’s Prayer?

Well, yes. And no. He didn’t teach us his prayer, but a way to pray, and what to pray for. He gave it to his disciples as a way to formulate prayer.

There is another point about this prayer that is sometimes missed: This is a community prayer, not a private prayer. It is a prayer that first praises God, and then makes three petitions for the ones praying. The language of “us,” “we,” assumes that the community shares the longing for final coming of the kingdom.

This puts a bit of an eschatological thrust on the prayer. The people who formed the early church believed with all their hearts and hoped that Jesus was coming back to lift them out of oppression, any day. They expected that the kingdom would be established in their lifetime, and that they would live with God. Hence, the community prayed in the way that Jesus instructed them.

Another point: The “daily bread” piece in Luke more accurately reads “day by day give us,” or “continue giving us,” or “each day give us.” It seems that Luke wasn’t looking to a glorified bread in an eventual kingdom, but sustenance for the day, food for those who were encouraged to take up the cross daily, and who were expected to travel on missionary journeys with only what is needed for the day.

It is as much a request as it is a demand.

In Luke, the one praying asks for God’s forgiveness of sins – not debts – while promising to forgive others their debts. This may be a reflection of Luke’s concern that possessions not get in the way of community relationships. It may also be a reminder that God is the only one able to forgive sins, and that we are always in debt one to another.

Ultimately, the importance of the Lord’s Prayer is not only that Jesus gave it to his disciples, but that it was picked up by early Christian worshippers and incorporated into their understanding of how God shall be praised and what is right to ask for. And it is especially important that it has been handed down through generations to bind our community together.

How does Jesus teach his disciples to pray? Boldly. Courageously. Expectantly.

Praise God. Place your needs before God. This prayer begins in boldness. It is a prayer of great courage, both praising God and placing demands upon God’s goodness, God’s justice. It is the prayer of community.

We hear a lot these days about Jesus as “personal savior,” and it is common to hear the question “Have you been saved?”

But that would have been a foreign notion to the Jewish community, and out of character with Jesus’ teachings. It is all about community, not you and me individually.

Pray in boldness, my friends. Stand strong. Lift your head. Raise your voice. Never mistake that our God is a strong God, ready to hear us. And pray together, for the community. That is what Jesus taught.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell has been teaching religious studies at Park University, Parkville, Mo., for 13 years, following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.