Archives for August 2013

Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 19 (C)

September 15, 2013

Dorian Del Priore, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 ; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

God is absolutely frustrated. His people are not just simply foolish or prone to making mistakes. No, his people are skillfully evil. They have become corrupt to the point that it may be time to wipe the slate clean. God desires to bring a hot wind to scorch and judge. It is almost as if God is going to roll back all the good that he created. He obviously is not happy about the state of his relationship with his people. You know it is bad news when the mountains and hills are quaking and the birds take flight to get out of Dodge.

God’s judgment seems final. Everything is laid to ruin. What could be left? What grace can be found in this? So much for a loving God.

“Yet I will not make a full end” (v. 27).

I am reminded of the song, “Beautiful Things,” by the group Gungor, in which they sing, “You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust.”

Judgment is a declaration of opinion, but it is not condemnation or abandonment. God’s judgment here allows for engagement with his people, a shift in relationship in order to begin anew. God creates out of dust. God can make new things out of broken and ruined things, much like new growth that arises from the ashes of a forest fire. That new growth is hope birthed from the dirt of our brokenness before God.

How can we recognize when we become spiritually desolate, separated from God?

In what ways are we made into fertile soil by our brokenness?

Do you see hope in your brokenness? How so?

Psalm 14

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Psalm 14 captures this reality perfectly. When corruption and evil have permeated society, all are affected, even those who are innocent, and often times, especially those who are innocent. But ultimately, this psalm is a prayer that points beyond the immediate suffering and offers comfort and assurance. It reminds those who are subject to corruption, those who are oppressed, that they will find refuge in God. Hope is found in the promises of God’s care for his people.

What other passages offer you the assurance of God’s comfort and refuge?

How can you be a prophetic witness (much like prayer in action) of God’s refuge for those who are oppressed?

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Paul had a personal encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. When people encounter Jesus, their lives become changed. This is true of many in the gospel stories, from disciples to blind beggars, and whatever happened on that road to Damascus left Paul a changed man. It broke him. It broke him open.

Paul was skilled at evil, and he acknowledged that he was a man of violence. He had become a land of desolation, laid out in ruin. But it was from these ashes that Jesus began a new work. When Paul was broken open at his encounter with Jesus, he became fertile soil in which grace could work and love could grow.

What is most telling about this passage in First Timothy is the relationship between Paul and Timothy. Paul is the aged mentor bestowing blessings and grace to his protégé and friend. Paul is sharing his experience of the risen Christ in his own life with Timothy. Paul is breaking himself open to Timothy, sharing how God has been at work within himself. This is a gift of grace flooded with vulnerability. The power of story, personal and intimate story, is unparalleled: It changes lives. The story of God at work in us is the heartbeat of Jesus inviting us to share that story with others. Break open yourself and share the story of God at work in you.

What is your story of encountering the risen Jesus?

How is God at work in you?

Who can you share that story with? Who can you be a mentor to?

Who would you like to have as a mentor?

Whose story would you like to hear?

Luke 15:1-10

It’s easy to be a fan of mercy when we are on the receiving end, but mercy can also challenge us. Our culture and inner desires like to decide or have sway over who is worthy of mercy. We want control in those types of relational dynamics. This leads to cynicism and grumbling, usually characterized by witty, snarky comments. Unfortunately, the church, at times, can become kind of like a country club that checks people at the door with dress requirements and moral qualifications.

However, Jesus models a mercy and welcome that is abundant, flowing freely for all people: male, female, rich, poor, tattooed, seer-suckered and bow-tied, sick, healthy, dirty, rough, wrinkly, all colors, all walks of life. Everyone. But also, mercy, freely given, should be a cause for joy: like the father when he sees his prodigal younger son, throwing decorum to the wind and lavishing his son with mercy and love upon his return. There is joy in the finding and being found, of course, but the joy is rooted in being drawn together into the arc of the eternal life of God. Further, just as the characters in the parables invited their neighbors and friends to celebrate, we are invited by Jesus to celebrate radical, abundant mercy joyfully with him.

There is a Eucharistic sense here that we are invited to come together at the table to celebrate our common bond in the mercy of Jesus broken open for our redemption! Maybe abundant and radical mercy should be like a huge party with an angelic choir as the house band. I am reminded of the gusto and joy on Easter with which we proclaim, “Christ is Risen!”

This passage also suggests, though, that abundant and freely given mercy changes lives. Repentance at its core is a change in direction or amendment of life, much like Paul turning away from his violent and evil life. Pursuing the other, the lost and desolate, with a grace and mercy that is abundant and free can change lives. This mercy cultivates hope and fertile soil in the hearts and souls of those with whom it is shared. And this is not a passive welcome; this is a welcome that pursues and loves deeply. And of course, this brings us back to joy. All of this is grounded in joy from the very mercy that we have received ourselves.

What does it feel like to give mercy freely?

What does it feel like to receive mercy freely?

What does it look like to welcome joyfully, passionately, freely, and abundantly?

What would that church look and feel like?

How have you experienced joy because of the work of God in your life?

Repeatedly lost, repeatedly found, 17 Pentecost, Proper 19 (C) – 2013

 September 15, 2013

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14 (Track 2: Exodus 32:7-14 and Psalm 51:1-11); 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jesus puts before his audience two stories of lost and found.

In each case, the one who loses goes to extraordinary efforts to find what is lost.

Having recovered it, the finder calls upon the surrounding community to join in rejoicing that the lost has been found.

Jesus applies both stories to what happens when even one sinner repents: There is abundant joy in heaven.

All well and good, we may say. There is reason to rejoice in such circumstances.

A shepherd leaves his big flock – in somebody else’s care, we hope – to search out a single sheep that is missing.

A woman turns the house upside down, sweeping in every dark corner to find a valuable coin that is part of her dowry.

There is abundant rejoicing when the lost sheep, the lost coin is found.

We want to believe in a God who searches for the lost and celebrates when the lost are found.

We want to believe that God feels it more deeply when people stray away than we feel it when our cell phone or car keys are nowhere to be found.

But there is another side to our reception of these stories: What happens next?

What happens once the sheep’s back with the flock, the silver coin is back with the others, when we have in hand once again our cell phone or our car keys? What happens after the sinner repents and does a 180-degree turn? Is there more to the story?

Jesus speaks of one sheep that strays and the 99 who do not. He also distinguishes between one person who repents and the “Ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

Maybe Jesus delivers that line with a slight smile on his lips. He may mean that those 99 simply believe they need no repentance, when, in fact, they need it as much as the one identified “sinner.” Their belief that they are righteous is mistaken.

If so, then the distinction is not between one sinner who repents and 99 other people who do not need to do so. The distinction is between those aware of their need for repentance and those unaware that they have this need.

Keeping all this in mind, therefore, we may reach the conclusion that the only options for any of us are two: We can be a single lost sheep; or we can belong to the flock who mistakenly account themselves righteous.

To say this only a little differently, we can be a single lost coin or we can be a coin that, along with others, rests self-satisfied in some secure place.

Indeed, these two options appear in the framework that surrounds the stories under consideration. The recognized sinners draw close to Jesus; these are people on the margins of society, condemned by the power structure, and condemned even by themselves. The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, keep their distance from Jesus and murmur against him. They enjoy positions of respect and, in general, hold themselves in high esteem.

Is there perhaps another alternative? What about those of us who are not blind to our failings, but whose sinfulness does not cause us to be exiled?

An alternative exists that is found close to the heart of the gospel. To recognize it, we must turn away from two misleading notions: The first is that repentance, conversion – call it what you will – is, at most, a once-in-a-lifetime event; the second is that a conventional lifestyle can replace radical obedience to God’s will.

This alternative to these two notions is that on a regular basis each of us turns out to be a lost sheep. Each of us is often enough the precious coin that disappears, the cell phone or the car keys that annoyingly cannot be found.

Yet God, like a shepherd with no common sense, leaves the rest of the flock and searches the immediate world in order to find us.

God, like a housewife gone crazy, tears the place apart, searches every dark corner in order to find us.

That happens in our respectable lives. Again. And again. And again. Grace is always fresh, new enough to startle us.

We can’t eliminate our need for this uproar to happen. All we can do is make repentance a regular practice.

We cannot cause the sun of God’s love to shine on us. All we can do is turn to the sunlight and be grateful.

Practicing repentance may sound burdensome. It may seem a practice oriented to the past, preoccupied with regret. Actually, we come to see repentance as the exact opposite of a preoccupation with regret. Metanoia, the New Testament term for repentance, means, literally, a change of mind, a shift out of the past that prepares us for a better future.

Our metanoia can be, needs to be, a matter of habit. We have practices to help us with this.

One of them is the regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with its request: Forgive us our sins, forgive us our trespasses. That’s metanoia, our request that we not be stuck in our sins, not be stuck in our mistaken sense of righteousness.

Another helpful practice is an expansion of this one, namely the Confession of Sin, which appears so often in liturgies of the Episcopal Church. We engage time and again in this communal exercise where we see ourselves and one another not as the 99 who supposedly need no repentance, but in every case as the one sheep that has strayed and needs to be brought back. This holds true of both the worst reprobate and the most splendid saint. We all need to repent. This prayer helps us to do so.

Furthermore, some find it helpful to confess their particular sins to God in the presence of a priest, whether at a time of crisis or as a regular practice. The Book of Common Prayer makes provision for this form of reconciliation, even as it also recognizes that “the care each Christian has for others” is a way we are restored to peace with our neighbor and with God.

Christianity is loaded with paradoxes. Here’s another one: Each of us is a sheep lost and found. A valuable coin lost and found. Car keys lost and found. A cell phone lost and found.

Later in this service, as we pray together the Confession of Sin, recall that what you are doing then as one person causes abundant joy in heaven.

Through continuing openness to the grace of God, our hearts are kept from being swamped by sin or hardened by self-righteousness.

Through continuing openness to grace, we declare allegiance to the One who never stops looking for us.

Time and again we decide not to trust in our own devices, but in the future God intends for us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Bulletin Insert: 16 Pentecost (C)

Holy Cross Day

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Photo via Wikimedia

Photo via Wikimedia

On September 14, the church celebrates Holy Cross Day in honor of Christ’s self-offering on the cross for our salvation. This feast day is also known in some churches as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. It was one of the 12 great feasts in the Byzantine liturgy and remains a major feast day for the Episcopal Church.

The celebration of the Holy Cross occurs on September 14 to commemorate the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on that day in 335 by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, is said to have discovered the True Cross during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of her discovery. A portion of the Cross is said to have been placed inside the church.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (photo by Victor Grigas)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (photo by Victor Grigas)

The legend also tells of Persians carrying away that portion of the cross in 614 and that it remained missing until 628, when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recaptured it and returned it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

As “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church” (Church Publishing, 2000) points out, “Although the authenticity of alleged relics of the cross may be questionable, Holy Cross Day provides an opportunity for a joyous celebration of Christ’s redeeming death on a cross.”

Collect for Holy Cross Day    

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 244).

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 9/8/13
half page, double-sided 9/8/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 9/8/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 9/8/13

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

Freeing our usefulness, 16 Pentecost, Proper 18 (C) – 2013

September 8, 2013

Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1); Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Imagine coming to church some Sunday morning and reading an entire book of the Bible. In fact, you just did.

Well, almost. To be exact, you just read, or heard read to you, an entire book of the Bible – minus four verses. So, for the sake of completion, here are the missing verses from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, from which our second reading today is taken.

“One thing more,” writes Paul in concluding his letter, “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

And that is it.

With barely 335 words in the original Greek, the Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest – and some might say most fascinating – books in all Scripture. It could almost be an ancient text or email message. But in spite of its brevity, it is a useful and instructive work for us today.

Let’s take a look.

To begin with, scholars are universally of the opinion that this is one of the genuine Letters of Paul – not just a letter attributed to him. And it is the only one of his epistles that is addressed, not to an entire church or Christian community, but to an individual.

We do not know with certainty all the details behind the letter – who all the characters mentioned were, where the letter was written, or exactly when – but it is clearly an appeal on Paul’s part for one of his companions named Onesimus, a run-away slave who has embraced the Christian faith and found his way to Paul’s inner circle. Interestingly, his master or owner, a fellow named Philemon, is also a Christian – presumably a wealthy merchant of Colossae, and likewise a friend or follower of Paul.

Paul is here sending Onesimus back to Philemon along with this “cover letter,” asking that Onesimus be treated well upon his return and not be punished for his escape or for any damage he may have caused during his servitude. Paul pays tribute to Philemon with kind words of praise – what Martin Luther calls holy flattery – likely in the hope that, as many scholars have surmised, Philemon should allow Onesimus to return and continue his work and ministry with Paul.

Over all, the letter offers intriguing insight into the life of the early church – the implicit acceptance of slavery, for instance, and the fact that rich and poor alike make up the body of the church.

Curious, as well, is the name of Onesimus, the slave, which essentially means “useful” or “profitable” in the original Greek. It pretty much tells us how slave owners viewed their “property” in those days.

Paul, in fact, engages in word play with the name Onesimus or “Useful,” subtly but forcefully suggesting that Onesimus will be more useful or helpful now, continuing to spread the Good News of the gospel as his companion than as – one assumes – a common laborer or servant of Philemon.

There is also implicit irony in the fact that Paul, the self-described “prisoner of Christ Jesus,” is appealing for freedom and leniency on behalf of Onesimus, the escaped slave.

What to make of it all?

Though Paul appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” there is little evidence that humankind has ever learned this simple lesson of human dignity and respect. While we might like to think that slavery today is a thing of the past, tragically it is still with us some 20 centuries after Paul wrote his appeal to Philemon; though we in the West are often blind to its existence and insulated from its devastating consequences. Meanwhile, few modern-day exploited workers have an Apostle like Paul to intervene on their behalf.

There is, by the way, no record of what actually happened as a result of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Was Onesimus freed to continue his work with Paul? We simply do not know. We can only hope that Philemon was swayed by the Apostle’s words and granted Onesimus his freedom. Some ancient commentators even suggest that Onesimus went on to become one of the early bishops of the church. So, perhaps in some spiritual or deeper sense he became “useful” after all in ways previously unimaginable.

Whether we are rich or poor – entrepreneur, salaried or hourly employee, or unemployed – we, too, must become useful. By God’s grace, each of us has the freedom to use our talents and gifts in the service of others in need. “Useful,” then, is for us Christians no longer a pejorative term as it probably was at one time for Onesimus. For us, being useful means living the gospel. It makes us one in Christ and binds us each to the other. Yet it also makes us free – as paradoxically free as was Paul the “prisoner” and Onesimus the slave.

“Prepare a guest room for me,” writes Paul – ever the optimist – near the end of this brief letter from captivity, “for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Needless to say, we will never know if Paul got to use that guest room or not. Perhaps Philemon left the porch light on for him – just in case. But it is tempting to envision Paul, the former prisoner, sitting at table together with Philemon, the former slave-owner, and Onesimus, his former slave, gathered under one roof and sharing Christian fellowship and community – possibly even Eucharist – equals at last in the sight of the Lord.

Scholars sometimes wonder how on earth such a short and private correspondence as Paul’s Letter to Philemon could have survived the centuries and made it into the canon of Scripture. If nothing else, it is surely there to teach us once again the infinite value and worth of each individual person – no matter that person’s background, color, sex, age, language, dress, or social and economic status.

Any slave or “prisoner of Christ Jesus” could tell us as much.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

Bulletin Insert: 15 Pentecost (C)

Labor Day Weekend 2013

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Episcopal workers help construct a house for Jubilee Ministries.

Episcopal workers help construct a house for Jubilee Ministries.

September 2 is Labor Day, a federal holiday in the United States to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers. Labor Day has been observed on the first Monday in September since President Grover Cleveland declared it a national holiday in 1894.

In accordance with the Fourth Mark of the Five Marks of Mission – “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation” – the Episcopal Church has long been active in passing legislation to protect the rights of workers. The following are among the most recent related resolutions passed by General Conventions of the Episcopal Church. All resolutions can be read in detail by searching the Episcopal Church’s digital archives.

Commit to Non-Discrimination in Lay Employment (Resolution 2009-D032)

Request Dioceses to Support Justice for Day Laborers (Resolution 2009-C083)

Support Worker Unions and a Living Wage (Resolution 2006-D047)

Employment Policies and Practices  (Resolution 2006-A125)

Reform Labor Laws to Protect Collective Bargaining Rights (Resolution 2009-D039)

Reaffirm the Right of Workers to Organize and Form Unions  (Resolution 2006-C008)

Support the Principle of Affirmative Action (Resolution 1979-D083)

Request a Study of the Theology of Work (Resolution 1997-C004)

Urge Churchwide Promotion of the Living Wage (Resolution 1997-D082)

Adopt Workplace Principles for People With HIV/AIDS (Resolution 1991-A007)

 

Collect for Commerce and Industry

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 259).

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 9/1/13
half page, double-sided 9/1/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 9/1/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 9/1/13

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

Kate Balmforth

Kate Balmforth is a graduate student at Boston College pursuing a Master’s Degree in Religious Education. She is passionate about providing holistic learning opportunities for children, youth and families for the Episcopal Church and the wider community.

Read Kate’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Proper 18 (C).

Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 18 (C)

September 8, 2013

Kate Balmforth, Boston College

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 18:1-11Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17Philemon 1-21Luke 14:25-33

Jeremiah 18:1-11

In this passage, Jeremiah intimates the Creation story in Genesis that tells of God forming humanity from clay. However, instead of being molded lovingly from clay in the Garden of Eden, the people of Israel are in the hands of an angry interventionist God.

This latter image of God might be the more difficult for our generation to relate to. However, I find two very positive features within Jeremiah’s vision.

First, I enjoy humanity’s freedom moving toward partnership with God. This is not the same level of partnership that we come to understand through the gospels of Jesus. Still, humanity as the clay on the potter’s wheel is asked to cooperate with the intentions of God the potter, suggesting that God expects a greater level of human participation in divine creation than God did when Adam was placed in the Garden.

Second, I appreciate the challenge to human complacency. Jeremiah’s message is for a people who have taken their relationship with God for granted. This challenge is ever relevant today.

How are we being called to participate in God’s creation?

In what ways have we begun to take our relationship with God for granted?

Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17

In this beautiful psalm, written as a plea for protection in war, we read of God’s omniscience and creative power. Everything the psalmist is, was and will be is already known to the Lord, and for this reason the psalmist offers gratitude and praise to the Lord.

For passages like this one, I find it can be very transformative to attempt to internalize the words of praise through the art of Lectio Divina. Hold the psalm in your hands while sitting in a comfortable position. Take a moment to calm your mind then begin to read the passage aloud. Reread the psalm two or three times. Between each reading, take a moment to reflect on the words that feel most significant to you. When you have finished the exercise, you may want to offer your own prayers to Lord.

Philemon 1-21

This letter to Philemon is one of the shortest of Paul’s letters. It was written during one of Paul’s imprisonments in the mid 50s. The letter was sent to a convert named Philemon, living in the Asia Minor. A slave named Onesimus had apparently escaped from Philemon to join Paul. Paul is writing to encourage Philemon to accept Onesimus back into Philemon’s household without punishment. The challenge to modern readership is the acceptance of the practice of slavery. The reality of slavery, then and now, is a horrific social problem that we must own, not just as Christians, but as human beings. This letter does provide us with a fine example of early church diplomacy and tact.

Luke 14:25-33

For many, including myself, the standards for Christian discipleship outlined in this passage seem harsh and unattainable. Indeed, the message meant to be conveyed is that Christian discipleship is not easy.

This message is for those of us who sometimes lack follow-through, for the visionaries who sometimes forget to attend to detail, or for the warm hearted who might need to reach for greater inward fortitude.

Christ calls us all to service and wants to know that we are prepared for the difficult work ahead. While the request to hate our parents may be prophetic hyperbole intended to emphasize the need for loyalty, it is clear that we must be willing to make sacrifices. The passage is packed with references to previous lessons from the Gospel of Luke, including the call to give up our possessions (Luke 12:33, 18:22), carry the cross (Luke 9:23-27), break family ties and give up our former sense of identity.

Are you prepared for the work ahead?

What challenges are preventing you from fully living into your call to discipleship?

Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C)

September 1, 2013

Chelsea Page-Collonge, Episcopal Divinity School

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (Luke 14:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jeremiah 2:4-13

This oracle of the prophet Jeremiah, popularized during the Babylonian exile, is situated about 40 years before the king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and sent the prominent citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah was portrayed as supporting religious reforms initiated by the holy Judean king Josiah against idolatry. The Hebrew Scriptures frequently conceptualize idolatry as the precursor and reason for political misfortune and suffering; thus Jeremiah is pessimistic about the future of his people in this passage (“I accuse your children’s children,” v. 9). He portrays their transgressions (v. 8) as worse than those of other nations, because nations with false gods at least stay faithful to those gods (v. 10-11), and because those nations have never known a true God.

What is “shocking” and “appalling” (v. 12) is the exchange of a truly good heritage (v. 7) and glory (v. 11) for things that are worthless (v. 5) and do not profit (v. 8, 11). Jeremiah hints that this happens when times are hard and the people blame God (“What wrong did your ancestors find in me?” v. 5), and when God does not seem present and the people neglect to look hard for God’s presence (“Where is the Lord?” v. 6, 8).

When people lose trust in the wild, fluid, ephemeral, living water (v. 13) that is the fountain of God’s presence, they are tempted to reject what is received, transitory and undomesticated in favor of something they can create and control “for themselves” (v. 13). Yet what they build and pursue “far from God” (v. 5) also proves transitory and, furthermore, ineffectual and empty, like a “cracked cistern” (v. 13).

What blessings of God have you and your community rejected, and why?

What have you sought to replace those blessings with, and how well is that working?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

The psalmist presents a divine being who longs, sighs and exclaims with passionate desire for relationship with God’s people. This relationship is characterized by hearing, listening and walking together (v. 11, 13). God is also represented as one who longs to feed, nurture and nourish (v. 10, 16); God’s people have only to “open their mouths wide” (v. 10) and receive in order to be satisfied (v. 16).

In a situation of oppression, to “nurture” God’s oppressed people also requires rescuing and defending the vulnerable from those who oppress them (v. 14). Yet we have to wonder if the divine being is really so eager to punish and intimidate God’s people’s enemies, as if the enemies of God’s people are actually the enemies of God (v. 15). If God rescues a people who are disobedient and stubborn (v. 11-12), God is likely to forgive those who oppress and rescue them from their oppressive ways. To “open wide” is to trust, and rather than cringing in fear and being resigned to eternal punishment (v. 15), we would do better to emulate God’s example of passionate longing for restored relationship, by singing with joy and raising a loud shout (v. 1) as the psalmist urges.

When has the stubbornness of your heart led you away from God’s ways? When has the stubbornness of your heart melted and restored you to relationship with God?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Hebrews, not actually a letter by St. Paul, but more likely an early Christian sermon, is an extended theological reflection on the nature of Christ, which ends with some exhortations for Christian living.

As Christ is conceptualized to be a holy priest and a holy sacrifice, pleasing to God, Christians are called to a holy “way of life” (v. 7) that is the outcome of faith (“confession” v. 15) and that, in turn, creates certain outcomes (v. 7) or fruits (v. 15).

These fruits of mutual love (v. 13), doing good and sharing (v. 16) are named as “sacrifices” that are pleasing to God (v. 16). Addressed to a Hebrew audience, the message of this sermon is in line with the Hebrew Scriptures, which emphasize right relationship alongside right worship.

While the theology of Christ being a sacrifice on the cross has been problematic, the cross can be understood as a priestly symbol that connects the vertical (divine-human) dimension of relationship with the horizontal (human-human) dimension of relationship.

As followers of Christ, we are all called to stand in this priestly function, directing our witness, praise and way of life toward the belief that what we do in love for our fellow prisoners, leaders, victims, partners and strangers, is of central importance to God. With God and each other, we can be “content with what we have” (v. 5) and confident in our belonging to the holy, needing neither political nor economic power to be secure.

How is the love of God reflected in your actions toward others? If someone looked at your life and not your words, could they see what you truly love and value?

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Why were the people watching Jesus so closely? Were they looking to see if he would break a rule relating to Sabbath observance? (In the section of this story that is omitted, Jesus does indeed heal a person during this Sabbath dinner party.)

Were they looking to see what place at the table he would claim for himself? Would the place he chose be the highest place, consistent with his grand claims of being blasphemously close to God, or the lowest place, consistent with his disturbing message of an upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first? Either way, people were ready to be provoked.

Jesus redirects this occasion of someone else’s esteemed social event toward his own purposes, using it as a living metaphor to challenge his fellow guests to take a different attitude toward social status. He also hints that the true host and judge is God, who is coming (v. 10).  Jesus’ host at this dinner party is described as a leader, a person of prominence. How do you think he felt when his celebrity guest, Jesus, took the role of host to himself and began managing and judging the other guests? Do you think he regretted inviting Jesus?

Jesus reacts to this tension by challenging his host to reevaluate the criteria he has used to invite people to his dinner parties. The story suggests he has invited only people of social status, the kind of people who feel confident enough to seek the places of honor, and celebrities like Jesus, who might be able to repay him in fame and fortune, or at least being a part of the action.

What would happen if the host gave up all social calculations and became the kind of host that God is, a host who seeks out the humble and the last? Jesus indicates that this kind of host will be an invited and welcome guest in the wedding banquet of heaven, the kingdom of God.

How do calculations of social status impact your participation in the kingdom of God?

Awaken the servant within, 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C) – 2013

September 1, 2013

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

There is an old story that goes like this: There was a university professor who went searching for the meaning of life. After several years and many miles, he came to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invited his visitor into his humble dwelling and began to serve him tea. He filled the pilgrim’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring so that the tea was soon dripping onto the floor. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!” he said. “It is full. No more will go in.” The holy hermit replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”

It’s a wonderful story about humility, about the recognition of the limits of our own talents, abilities and authority. It seems like many of our religious traditions hold the virtue of humility in highest esteem. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the virtue of humility is considered the most important of the seven capital virtues. Humility holds the most important place because it is the opposite of what Dante considers the worst of the seven deadly sins, the sin of pride. Dante defined pride as the “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for neighbor.” For Dante, pride, indeed, goeth before the fall. Humility, on the other hand, is radical dependence on God, total trust in God and surrender to His will.

And yet, even though humility is highly esteemed in our religious traditions, it doesn’t seem to be one of our favorite virtues today. In fact, humility seems downright humiliating. Who wants to eat “humble pie,” after all? Don’t we think of pride as a virtue rather than humility?

Aren’t we all rather more interested in buying a book about the “Seven Secrets of Highly Successful People” than a book about the “Seven Secrets of Lowly, Humble People”?

Don’t we love to hold up those big foam fingers and signs proclaiming that our team is No. 1? I’ve never seen a foam finger or a sign proclaiming that our team displays the virtues of temperance, honesty and humility.

Isn’t “American Idol” about the thousands of people who desire fame, if only for 15 minutes? Can we even imagine a program about people who seek to cultivate the classical virtues of justice, temperance and fortitude? It would seem an absurdity to have a televised competition rewarding someone for displaying the greatest humility, but I suppose I wouldn’t put it past some television network to come up with a new reality program entitled “Dancing With the Hermits” or “Who Wants to Be a Franciscan?” or “The Last Monastic Standing” or some such nonsense.

Well, no, probably not.

To quote a pop song from a few years back, “We all want to be big stars.” And it’s not all about becoming rich and famous. Browse the self-help aisle at your local bookstore, and you will see books entitled “Awaken the Giant Within” by Anthony Robbins, “The Hero Within” by Carol Pearson, and “Achieve Anything in Just One Year” by Jason Harvey. For 20 or 30 bucks you can buy one of these books, and apparently be on the road to awakening either your inner giant or your inner hero and achieving anything. I wonder what Dante would think! More importantly, I wonder what Jesus would think.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus tells one of his most famous stories, a story about pride and humility. Apparently, Jesus was invited to share the Sabbath meal at the house of a leading Pharisee, who would have been something of a big muckety-muck in religious circles.

It’s hard to understand why these upright religious folks keep inviting Jesus to dinner parties, because he always causes a ruckus. At a dinner party at another Pharisee’s house, a disheveled and disreputable woman crashes the party, throws herself at Jesus feet, and begins weeping. The host of the part gets very upset, but Jesus apparently thinks she has done a beautiful thing.

So, in today’s story, when we hear Jesus was invited into the home of a Pharisee for a meal, you know there is going to be trouble. Jesus arrives, maybe he makes a little small talk, and then he watches how the guests jockey with each other for the places of honor. You know that delicate dance where you try to get the good seats next to the really important people.

So Jesus watches this for a while, and then he launches into a story, which basically skewers the pretensions of all the guests. He says, “When you get invited to a banquet, don’t seat yourself in a place of honor, because someone more important than you may come along, and then you will be asked to give up your seat, and you will be disgraced in front of the whole party. Rather, take the lowest seat, so that when your host sees you sitting in the cheap seats, he will say, ‘Friend move up higher,’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all the guests.”

And then Jesus utters the great saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Before Jesus leaves the party, he tells his host, “The next time you throw a party, don’t invite your rich friends and neighbors, so that they might return the favor some day and invite you to one of their nice parties. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they can’t repay you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Robert Coles tells a story about his first encounter with Dorothy Day, who was living and working with the poor in the slums of New York City. Coles was in Harvard Medical School at the time, studying to be a psychiatrist, proud of his status, and also proud that he had volunteered to work with Dorothy Day in helping the poor. He arrived for his first meeting to discover Day sitting at a table, deep in conversation with a very disheveled street person. She didn’t notice Coles had come into the room until they had finished their conversation. Then she asked, “Do you want to speak to one of us?”

Robert Coles was astounded by Dorothy Day’s humility. She had identified so completely with a so-called “nobody” as to remove all distinction between them. Coles said it changed his life. He said he learned more in that moment than in his four years at Harvard.

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In this statement, we hear a great truth about humility. In emptying ourselves, we will find fulfillment. In humbling ourselves, we will be exalted. In a culture that prizes “the secrets of highly successful people” and urges us to “awaken our inner giant,” this sounds rather counterintuitive.

But is it true? Is Jesus right? Are Dante and Dorothy Day pointing us to the truth of Jesus’ statement?

We can submit this statement to the test of human experience. Can we walk through life on a perpetual high? Once we have found fulfillment, do we live from that place from then on? Or does the universe have a way of knocking us off our perches and emptying us out?

It seems more like the latter than the former. Even for those who have powerfully known and experienced the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, who have known in our hearts and minds the peace of God which passes understanding, they have also known the dark night of the soul and the fear and trembling of salvation.

Is this surprising? Disappointing? Should it be? After all, when Jesus called his disciples he didn’t promise them that they would be able to achieve anything in one year. Rather, he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

It seems that we are constantly moving back and forth between emptiness and fulfillment, between humility and exaltation, between death and resurrection. Life still knocks the wind out of us. The universe still reduces us to tears. Death and loss still bring us to our knees. But rather than try to awaken the giant or the hero within, we try to remember the truth and the promise that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Bulletin Insert: 14 Pentecost (C)

Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington

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

Civil rights and union leaders marching on Aug. 28, 1963, including Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph,Walter Reuther, and Sam Weinblatt. Photo courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration.

Civil rights and union leaders marching on Aug. 28, 1963, including Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph,Walter Reuther, and Sam Weinblatt. Photo courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration.

This Wednesday, August 28, marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when over 250,000 civil-rights advocates peacefully gathered in Washington, D.C.

On August 28, 1963, demonstrators marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, demanding the passage of meaningful civil-rights legislation, the elimination of racial segregation in public schools, protection for demonstrators against police brutality, a major public-works program to provide jobs, the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring, a $2/hour minimum wage, and self-government for the District of Columbia, which had a black majority.

The event featured musical performances by Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Josh White, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Speeches were made by all of the Big Six civil-rights leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Jr., and James Farmer. (Farmer was imprisoned at the time, so his speech was read by Floyd McKissick.)

The most celebrated and widely remembered speech made that day was by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech remains one of the most famous in American history. King spoke of dreaming of an America where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and he ended the speech with these words:

“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”

March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration.

March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration.

On November 15, the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Mississippi will host a forum, Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America. Live-streamed from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, Miss., this 90-minute ecumenical conversation will begin  at 2 p.m. (EST).

Ray Suarez, well-known journalist and PBS commentator, will moderate, and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will give the keynote address. Two panel discussions will focus on the themes “Racism in America Today: Why Does It Persist?” and “Racism in America’s Future: Where Is There Hope for Change?”

On November 16, faith leaders and educators will gather to discuss and create curriculum and tools on the topics raised in Friday’s forum. Resources such as bibliography, on-demand video, materials for community and individual review, discussion questions, and lesson plans will be available. 

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 8/25/13
half page, double-sided 8/25/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 8/25/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 8/25/13

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