Archives for September 2013

Made whole by faith, 21 Pentecost, Proper 23 (C) – 2013

October 13, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-11 (or 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111); 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Throughout the chapters of the Gospel of Luke previous to today’s reading, the Evangelist again and again and again presents the Good News through telling stories. He illustrates a series of personal encounters between Jesus and others – sometimes with his followers, sometimes his opponents, sometimes strangers. There were crowds of the curious and hopeful and various individuals – a tax collector, a centurion, a grieving mother, a sinful woman, a man inflicted with demons. As Luke relates these stories, he shows Jesus responding with love and grace and using the occasions to teach the values of God, while challenging the contrasting and distorted ways of the world.

Now, having reached Chapter 17 in the liturgical calendar, we find Luke recalling an episode in which Jesus was engaged by 10 lepers begging for mercy. These unfortunates suffered from what we now call Hanson’s disease. This malady, known among humans for thousands of years, went untreated in biblical times and caused permanent damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, compromised the immune system, and hastened death. Though it is now known to be only mildly infectious, the ancients considered it highly contagious and forced lepers to stay away from others, identifying their condition by announcing, “Unclean. Unclean,” when approached.

As a result, they were excluded from the general society and forced to make their own communities, not unlike leper colonies that still exist in some parts of the world. They became dead men walking – at the mercy of others, ostracized, alienated from the richness of family life and the comfort of communal religious practices.

Like others, the lepers in today’s gospel were outcasts who bound themselves to one another out of necessity and because no one else would touch them. All that mattered was their disease, as evidenced by the inclusion among them of a Samaritan who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in mainline Jewish society.

This band of 10 had nothing to offer others; nothing to offer Jesus when they saw him coming. But they recognized him, perhaps by his reputation as a holy man, and approached within shouting distance the one they knew by name. They cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Possessing enough inspiration, or maybe just a sense of desperation, they reached out to Jesus with an appeal for healing that went beyond all conventional expectations.

Jesus did not hesitate in his response. He did not back off or require the lepers to confess faith in God. He did not inquire about whether they were worthy. He did not ask anything of them. Jesus saw them and said simply, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

According to Jewish law, a cured leper had to appear before the priests, who would conduct a series of elaborate ritual actions in order to declare them cleansed. The lepers, who had hoped in Jesus, now displayed enough faith to obey him. They immediately left his presence to go to the priests as required and to begin the new lives Jesus made possible.

What Jesus did for them, of course, bore remarkable significance. Not only were they cured of a horrendous, disabling disease, but the cleansing also enabled them to overcome what was perhaps the greater affliction. Now they could return to the community, to become a part of the body that had cast them out. Now they could participate in life fully, restored physically and socially, and surely, experiencing the beginnings of emotional healing.

Yet, we might ask, did they gain everything Jesus hoped for? Did they achieve spiritual healing, as well? We will never know about all of them, but we have assurance that one did – the Samaritan who returned to give thanks. If we wonder what led to his distinguishing himself by praising God and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude, we might speculate that it was easier for him – as a double outcast – to see clearly the remarkable nature of what had happened. More likely, however, it was due to his greater maturity and deeper strength of character.

Whatever the reason, Jesus was saddened that he was the only one who turned back, and he used the one and the nine to teach his disciples another lesson about the values of God. He was clearly disappointed by the behavior of the nine, and in earshot of his followers, he said to the now-cleansed Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.”

In place of the word “well,” some translations use “made whole” or “saved.” There is ambiguity about the Greek meaning, but its use by Jesus surely implies more than simply being cured from a disease. “Your faith has made you whole,” seems closer to the way Jesus used this episode to provide a new teaching. The Samaritan was not simply cured like the others, but experienced something more important.

His response to being cleansed demonstrated that his view of God was closer to what Jesus came to reveal. He acted not out of selfishness to gain certification of his cure, not rushing to the priests without reflection, but paused to put his cleansing in a wider perspective, seeing God as the center of the personal miracle he was experiencing. Before anything else, the Samaritan gave thanks for the chance to renew his life. This was the beginning of his transformation, and it provided a fitting model for Jesus to honor. He was not only cured physically, but he also gained spiritual wholeness.

For the worshiper, there are several “take aways” from today’s gospel – community, inclusivity and wholeness in the life of the world and in Christianity. Think about the Eucharist this morning – or the powerful fellowship of the Holy Spirit if you are in a congregation without a priest, using Morning Prayer. The moment we experience among our fellow worshipers today, in prayer and at the altar rail, is unity in its purest form. Receiving the sacrament of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, all else is shut out but the holy context. We are at one with God and one another, in a sublime moment of grace.

In this moment we are made whole. Even if we lose this reality as we go out the door or back to our pews, we know it as a deep truth on which to draw on our journeys of faith. In that moment, we know that everyone is like the Samaritan, freed from alienation and separation from others in a realm of God that includes a circle of universal inclusion.

Luke’s story of this encounter between Jesus and the lepers allows him to teach us about the disappointment Jesus felt because the nine failed to give thanks and the joy he experienced in discovering that the Samaritan recognized the deeper truths of God. When Jesus reflects on the difference, he speaks no less to us than the disciples of old. Today we are reminded of the sadness of our Lord when we, like the nine, fail to follow him, but we also are led to emulate the Samaritan. We can take joy in committing ourselves anew to respond in love and gratitude to the grace, forgiveness and wholeness of God that we all can have simply by accepting this freely offered gift.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

To hear and obey, 20 Pentecost, Proper 22 (C) – 2013

October 6, 2013

Lamentations 1:1-6 and Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 (or Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Psalm 37:1-10); 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Obedience, a highly prized virtue in the biblical narratives, is rather despised today. Pause for a moment to remember being obedient as a child. Was it required of you? Did you resent it? Do your children resent being obedient to you? Every child resents having to obey parents and teachers, but we all know that a child’s safety and survival depend on obedience. Necessary as obedience is in our childhood, we hear almost nothing about this virtue as adults.

In western cultures, marriage vows no longer include the word “obey” for many reasons, mostly because women’s status has changed in the last few decades; the word “obey” was eliminated from vows and from the culture because of a new understanding of inequality and even injustice. This seems to be the crucial word: “injustice.” When a command is just, most people have no trouble obeying it. But when it is unjust, they have every right to reject it, for we know that unjust demands and commands caused untold harm through the ages.

Women and children were delegated to less than full humanity even as late as the 19th century. Women could not even vote and children had no rights. In order to survive, both women and children had to obey men. Is it any wonder then that the virtue of obedience came to be resented? The institution of slavery to which Jesus refers in this passage was accepted as a given in the world of the first century, and to our great shame it continued to be accepted as the natural order of things in the United States. In some parts of the world, this terrible situation continues. No, this kind of obedience is not attractive to us.

Then, why is it that so much emphasis is placed on obedience throughout the Bible?

From the very beginning we are told the value of obedience and the consequences of disobedience: Adam and Eve disobey and are ordered out of the garden. Abraham obeys and is promised great things for his descendants. Moses obeys and becomes a liberator.

We need to pause here and consider the meaning of the word “obedience” both in the Old Testament and the New. In both Hebrew and Greek the word is based on the verb “to hear.” In Hebrew, the same word means both “to hear” and “to obey.” In the Greek, the root word is “to hear” with the prefix hypo, which means “under” or “beneath.” So one who hears and obeys is one who is in a lower position than the one speaking. God speaks; human beings hear and obey. Whenever God speaks through the prophets, the word “hear” is repeated. Before the proclamations of the prophets, we read the words, “Hear, O Israel.” Jesus says to the crowds that follow him, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Hearing in the biblical context is much more than allowing sound to pass through the ears to be understood by the brain. It means hearing with the understanding that the word comes from God and must be obeyed. This kind of hearing implies also the conviction, the trust, that God is good and deserving of obedience. Jesus calls it faith.

In today’s rather strange New Testament passage, so difficult for us to understand because its context is different from ours, Jesus is asked by the disciples to increase their faith. With his usual figurative language, he gives examples that seem greatly exaggerated: faith as tiny as a mustard seed, a mulberry tree that is uprooted on its own and plants itself in the sea. This language shows us how ridiculously small our trust in God really is. Jesus, with his words and acts, has already shown the disciples that he has been able to perform healing miracles through his total obedience to his Father. This obedience to the Father is a recurring theme in Jesus’ ministry. Again and again he feels the need to withdraw, to hear the words of his Father, in order “to do the will of him who sent me,” as he repeatedly reminds his disciples.

Jesus obeyed God because he was convinced that God is good. The great prophets obeyed the Word of God because they were convinced that God is just and that God wants only what is good for God’s people.

Hearing the word of God while trusting that God is acting already for our good seems to be the essence of obedience. God expects obedience because God is good and acts on our behalf. This is what we learn from the prophets and this is what Jesus showed us in his life. In this manner, to hear and obey means to be changed. St. Paul was changed radically when, on his way to Damascus, he recognized the voice calling him as the voice of the one he was persecuting. From then on he lived a life of obedience that changed the world. His words to Timothy, in the epistle read today, reveal that Timothy also heard, obeyed, and lived a life of faith. This faith must be rekindled, Paul reminds him, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

We need obedience in God, in the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ, in order to live with courage and not cowardice – and how desperately we need courage in this confusing world of ours. Power and love and self-discipline do not come without hearing the Word and doing it.

This then is the meaning of obedience: to trust that God is good, to hear his Word knowing that it is already at work within us, and to know that through grace even faith as tiny as a mustard seed can perform the miracles of love.

Obedience to a good God is still a virtue to be prized. Let us recapture it. Who knows what surprising results we will see in our lives? It’s worth a try.

 

— Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Louisville, Ky. She is an author, speaker and retreat leader. She can be reached at katsarkakk@gmail.com.

Many ways to share, 19 Pentecost, Proper 21 (C) – 2013

 September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (or Amos 6:1a, 4-7 and Psalm 146); 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

[NOTE TO READER: The Latin word dives, in the seventh paragraph, is pronounced “DYE-veez.”]

“I always thank the person for asking, even when I don’t have anything to give at the time.”  These are the words of Archbishop James Salisbury of the African Orthodox Church in America, about being asked for money by people on the street.

If you look up Archbishop James up on their church’s website, you’ll see that he has the look of a beneficent and cheerful grandfather. You can imagine his kind, dark eyes looking deep into the soul of a poor person and thanking that person for having the courage to ask for something.

Now, you may be saying to yourselves, how could an archbishop not have money in his pocket to share? To be honest, don’t we all have times when we don’t have a cent on us, usually because we’ve forgotten to go to the ATM or in this difficult economy there are days when we, who may be far from homeless, stayed away from the ATM until we were sure there was something there that month?

It might be nice to do what James does when we are asked for some spare change on the street instead of assuming the person is too lazy to work.

Another thing that would be thoughtful when we interact with people in need, is to ask their name and have a conversation with them. If you read “Down and Out in Providence” by Bishop Geralyn Wolf of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, you would read her journal written during the time that she lived among the homeless for her sabbatical. She talks about how important it is to be acknowledged by name – how desperately alone and invisible the homeless feel when no one speaks their names. Read her book. It’s life changing.

Each of our passages today reminds us that those in need are our responsibility. God expects us to care for the poor. It’s all through the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Every prophet, from the Old Testament to the Liberationists and beyond reminds the people that the poor are our neighbors and that none of them should ever have to beg for the crumbs that fall from our tables.

Isn’t that image from the gospel heart rending? We can’t imagine that a rich man would be so callous as to ignore poor Lazarus who lay by the gate of his house. He was so poor and so sick that we’re told dogs would come and lick his sores. If you Google “Lazarus and the Rich Man” or “Lazarus and Dives” – dives is Latin for “rich man” – you will find many images in art portraying this scene. In most, the dogs look like friendly sorts, just lolling around calmly with their tongues hanging out. It probably wasn’t like that at all. Dogs will fight over the taste of blood. Lazarus had a horrid and probably frightening existence, and still, the rich man ignored him.

Jesus tells this story to point out that some of the Pharisees were ignoring the needs of their own people just like the rich man – and we may be surprised at the reluctance of those religious leaders to understand Jesus’ concern.

But why might we be surprised? Again, we need to see what this is teaching us.

In Jesus’ day, the assumption was that a man like Lazarus was that way because of his or his parents’ sin. In our day, isn’t the assumption often that a person in Lazarus’ condition, the homeless, the poor, the down and out, are that way because of their “sin” of laziness or poor judgment or that they’re scamming us?

We often hear people say that they don’t give a street person any money because he or she will spend it on alcohol – end of story.

Yes, sometimes they do, but many times they don’t.

When we assume why a person is in need, are we any better than the rich man or the Pharisees? This is when it’s helpful to engage a person in conversation. Like most human beings, the person in need often yearns for someone to listen, to show even a few short moments of care. If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or soup kitchen, you know that’s the truth.

However, in considering the image of rich versus poor, there’s another issue to think about today. Our own economy places many of us in very difficult circumstances. Sometimes those who may look quite comfortable are hiding the fear of losing everything if the next paycheck doesn’t come. God doesn’t expect us to put ourselves or our families in danger because we give others our last bit of money.

There are many ways to share – we all know this. Acknowledging the humanity of another is one way; listening, volunteering – these are all ways of being human.

First Timothy gives us another. The author reminds us about the danger of excesses. Our culture also encourages us to amass much more than we need, doesn’t it? If we’re honest, we might have more to share if we were more content with having enough.

“But those who want to be rich, fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Now, those are scary words. Strong verbs, “trapped” and “plunged,” warn us that greed can lead to our destruction.

Isn’t it annoying, though, when we see some extremely rich and assumedly happy people splashed over magazine covers and news articles?

Ah, but there’s a catch. We assume, we don’t really know. We don’t know what’s really going on inside them; we can’t. So it’s better if we turn our faces toward those who need what we can share – our thoughtfulness, our care, and sometimes our material goods.

All people should be content as Timothy says – content with having enough.

 

— 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.

The Dishonest Manager in all of us, 18 Pentecost, Proper 20 (C) – 2013

September 22, 2013 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9 (or Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113); 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Jesus is not making a whole lot of sense in our gospel today, at least at first blush. He tells the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, and people have beat their heads against this text for generations trying to figure out what in the world he was talking about. Clergy, lay people, seminary professors and commentators – everyone agrees that, at least as far as Luke 16 goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Let’s review the facts as we know them. We start with two characters: the rich man and his manager. Word on the street is that the manager has been embezzling funds and taking kickbacks, and the rich man summons him to his office for a pre-firing dressing down. In serious hot water, the manager realizes he’s not trained for any other type of job and he’d better lay some groundwork for his future. So, going to his master’s clients, he reduces their bills, thereby earning himself their gratitude and restoring his master’s reputation from someone who employs corrupt officials to someone who is generous with his clients.

We can follow up to this point. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he’s already defrauded his boss, he might as well go whole hog and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount of money the clients owe.

You might think that when the rich man found out that his manager had again cheated him out of money, he would call for the tar and feathers. But no. Jesus said that the “master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What?

Jesus’ words are completely baffling. They just don’t seem to match the type of behavior he usually asks us to display. There’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount like, “Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by means of dishonest wealth.”

Well, if any of you are in the same boat with this parable, don’t panic: There is hope. First of all, remember that parables are meant to be confusing. They are meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head, leave listeners scratching their heads and praying for guidance.

But Jesus does not leave us totally without resources. He hands us stories like this and says, “Trust what you know of me and figure this out.”

So let’s give it another go.

What exactly is it that the manager does that is unethical or wrong? He forgives the clients’ debts. Uh-oh. That sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it? Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. This parable is about forgiveness! Ding, ding, ding! Come on down, solver of the Million Dollar Parable, and receive your all-expense paid trip to further spiritual confusion.

Because, why? This still doesn’t make sense. If Jesus wanted to talk about forgiveness, why didn’t he just say, “There was this guy who had a lot of people owing him money. He could have been a jerk about it, but he said, OK, you guys don’t have to pay, and everyone lived happily ever after.”

Well, once again, we stumble over the nature of our God who doesn’t let us get away with easy answers. And why not? Because our lives don’t have any easy answers.

Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Think of the way the connections you have to the people you love sometimes get hopelessly tangled and snarled, until you can’t remember what the problem was in the first place, but you sure can’t figure out how to fix it now. Think of the times you’ve been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess.

Are you still sorry Jesus told us the story of the Dishonest Manager?

Jesus knows that our lives are not black and white, and he also knows that we need guidance to live out of our better selves. And so he gives us the gift of forgiveness. He offers his forgiveness openly, freely and without restraint. There is nothing we can ever do that will take God’s love away from us. There is no way we will ever be anything less than God’s most cherished children, no matter how many mistakes we make or people we hurt. We are forgiven before we know we are going to do wrong, because Jesus loved us even unto death.

And knowing that forgiveness is ours for the asking at every step of the way, how can we not want to try it out ourselves?

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That’s what happens in this parable. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. And this is the best part: It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty.

Because once again, Jesus knows that this is what our lives are like. We are not God, and we cannot offer one another perfect love. We are human, and we are always going to have mixed motives, and screw things up, even when we’re trying to do the right thing; in part, we really want to have integrity and in part we just want everyone to see us as having integrity.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and in this parable, he tells us that it’s OK.

It’s OK to have mixed motives and make mistakes – what’s important is that we keep trying. If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse. Jesus is saying, just haul off and do it. Forgive everyone. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.

Seriously, right now, where you’re sitting, think of someone who is just making you furious. It could be the guy who cut you off in traffic; it could be your daughter who is “throwing her life away.” It could be your spouse who never remembers to take the garbage out; it could be the sibling who hurt and betrayed you so badly you haven’t spoken in years. Just do it. Say to that person in your mind, “I forgive you.”

It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel anything. You might feel an overwhelming rush of love and grace, or you might still feel cranky and self-righteous and just plain mad. It doesn’t matter. You’ve taken the first step. Whatever else is in your heart right now – anger, fear, disappointment – there is also a little seed of forgiveness that has sprouted. And one day, if you keep practicing, you’re going to find that forgiveness in your heart has grown so great that you can start to forgive yourself. And that will be a great day in the Kingdom of God.

There’s a bit of the Dishonest Manager in all of us, wheeling and dealing in front of God and trying to “manage” our lives to look good before the Divine. Jesus tells us today that he sees right through us – and loves us dearly anyway.

Loving not the ideal but the real – that is the challenge. Loving each other even when our frailties and failures are so apparent – that is the struggle.

And when we can’t do it with the generosity and grace we strive for, the Good News is: We are forgiven.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind.,  in the Diocese of Indianapolis.