Archives for October 2013

The way of truth, hope and love, 25 Pentecost, Proper 27 (C) – 2013

November 10, 2013

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21 (or Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 17:1-9); 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17; Luke 20:27-38

As is fairly typical, in today’s gospel story Jesus replies to a conundrum with a conundrum. He’s given a sort of riddle about a woman who marries seven times – and just not seven times, but seven brothers, in succession. Each brother dies, leaving her a widow. After all, marriage vows are only valid while both partners are alive, right? “Until death us do part,” as we used to say, or “until we are parted by death.”

And the Sadducees, who are among Jesus’ critics, want to know: “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”

They don’t believe in the resurrection, you see, and so they are trying to mock him, to show how silly and unworkable an idea eternal life is. They are trying to demonstrate that the things we hold dear in this life, including the bond and covenant of marriage, will make no sense in the next life. And they are trying to depict Jesus as a kind of oddball faith healer and snake handler, whose fundamental claims just don’t make any sense.

And, of course, they are right.

Jesus is very easy to mock. Eternal life is a silly and unworkable idea. And the fundamental claims of Christianity really do not make any sense – especially when compared with the values of the secular world. This was true in Jesus’ time, and it is still very true in our day.

Let’s start with the most striking of the implicit assertions made by the Sadducees: The fundamental claims of Christianity just do not make any sense.

Let’s see – love God and love your neighbor. That’s fundamental, right? But most of our world is obsessed with power, prestige, wealth and control. If we but admit to the existence of God, then we have to acknowledge that the things we have are simply lent to us. We are stewards of our possessions, including our earthly bodies. All that we have is a gift from God, and only of value while we are alive on this earth.

But the culture we live in says this is my home, my money, my whatever. And I can do with it whatever I want.

But when we acknowledge the existence of God, we also acknowledge that we are not in control, not the ultimate judge, not the great power of the universe – or even the family.

But the world says otherwise. Our society is full of people who insist on their own way, on their own individual authority. It happens at the simplest levels of human interaction, and it happens at the highest levels of government and industry.

And those two points – not owning things and not being in ultimate control – they are just the first two steps toward acknowledging that God exists. It’s still a long, long way before one can love God.

And what about loving our neighbor? Our society doesn’t always uphold this, does it?

So, loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself – these two great commandments to those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians: They are not the values of our country, of our society or of our world.

Then there’s the idea of eternal life – a silly and unworkable idea. The Sadducees have shown us that. When we think of eternity like this, we are failing to use our imagination.

The problem is that they – and we – have failed to imagine it as something we will actually like. And yet we are promised ineffable joys, never-failing care, the strength of God’s presence, rejoicing in eternal glory, being received into the arms of mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and being reunited with those who have gone before in the paradise of God.

When you talk about those things, on that kind of scale, then wasting a lot of energy on whether we will live forever, or to whom we may be married, or whatever – well, it seems a whole lot more like another manifestation of that power and control thing, doesn’t it? “I demand to know, and I can afford to pay for the knowledge” or  something like that.

Yet, the fullness of God’s love and truth is not known to any of us – not yet. And that’s exactly why Jesus is so easy to mock.

We don’t know everything. As St. Paul says it, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.” Remember, that in the first century, a mirror was not likely to be one of today’s manufactured, perfectly smooth and clear glasses. Looking into a mirror was like looking into a brook or stream, or into a highly polished rock.

Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but when the end comes, “we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

The Christian dispensation acknowledges that we do not know, we do not have control, we are not in charge.

So, how is it we have come to believe?

Here’s a story, about two friends. Alice is a priest, and more than a dozen years ago, a seminarian called Bill spent a summer assisting in her parish. It’s a wonderful and special place. The first time he served Communion to Alice, she looked him right in the eye and said, “I believe!”

He was stunned. First of all, he was taught never to look anyone in the eye at Communion. He still isn’t sure why that was, but it used to be a kind of unspoken rule. And second, the Prayer Book clearly states that the appropriate response to “The Body of Christ” is a polite and reverent “Amen,” not an ebullient and loud declaration like “I believe!”

Over the course of the summer, Bill adjusted to Alice’s ways, and became accustomed to hearing “I believe” week after week. And his last week there, Alice invited him to dinner.

It was one of those late-summer evenings that are just perfect for sitting on the porch, rocking. He remembers they had corn on the cob, steaks on the grill, and tonic with their gin.

He mustered up his courage and asked her, “Why, Mother Alice, do you say ‘I believe’ when you receive Communion?”

“I started that a long time ago,” she told him. “It was a time of questioning and doubt for me. I couldn’t be sure there even was a God. And I wanted to know. I wanted to be certain, to be in control. And I figured the only way to get there was to ‘fake it till you make it.’ So one day, I just said, ‘I believe.’ What I really meant was, ‘I’d like to believe,’ or, even better, ‘I think I’m considering believing.’

It was all very tentative. And it was an invitation to God, at least as she intended it. As she explained, it was almost as if she were saying “Show me how to believe,” or “Improve my belief,” or even “Help my unbelief.”

“It was many, many years later,” she continued, “that I realized, O my God, I believe. I really do. Oh, I have questions, sure. And I have doubts from time to time. And a whole lot of this just doesn’t make any sense. But I believe, and that’s all that matters.”

Alice’s witness is a powerful one. It shows us how we can stand up to the powers that be in this society of ours, how we can continue to show another way to the world.

The way of truth, the way of hope, the way of love.

The journey of faith is not a life lived without doubt or questions, the life of a Christian is not one without trial or travail, and the earthly pilgrimage is not about control and power.

It’s about truth, hope, and above all, love.

And all of this begins not with “I insist” or “I own” or “I want” – but with the simple, elegant and hopeful proclamation, “I believe.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates is a priest of the Diocese of Newark. 

Doing faith, 24 Pentecost, Proper 26 (C) – 2013

November 3, 2013

Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

“It is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.” This phrase in the opening collect today is a major theme in today’s readings.

In the passage from Isaiah we hear God’s angry tirade against what the people think is true and laudable service: incense, offerings and sacrifice. But God is not interested in these things, and despises their context and content. “I cannot endure your solemn assemblies with iniquity.”

So, where does that leave those of us who worship regularly? It leaves us with the mandate to worship and act in faith.

Faith is not a noun as much as it is a verb, a word of action. Faith is about doing things that please God, because of what God has put into our hearts. Faith is about exercising our values, stretching them, strengthening them, and bringing justice to others.

Look what happens when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, the whimsical tax collector sitting in a tree. There is a dialogue, of which we only have a small piece. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus and Zacchaeus bond. You can see it: The Lord, an itinerant preacher wandering around the town, and the obviously curious and friendly Zachhaeus meet and are mutually attracted by their unique ways of viewing the world.

Zacchaeus doesn’t just hop down from his perch, he leaps into a new way of life. By the time he hosts Jesus at his house, he has come to a new understanding of his latent love for God, and he announces it through his generosity: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Taxpayers were allowed to extort additional fees for their living besides collecting the tax, which is one reason they were despised.

Jesus tells him quite simply, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus has found faith in a man outside the circle of the faithful. He has found a person who is prepared to share first.

A man recently died who had lived modestly in a van in a small town in the Ozarks. He had no close family, but a number of friends came to a memorial service for him held in the garden at a local church. “Al” was not a member of that church, but he often came to their Sunday night suppers during the cold winter months. He was also a regular recipient at the local food bank.

Before the memorial service, the minister invited people to share stories about Al. Many of the stories shared were of acts of kindness: how Al had fixed their tire or replaced a fan belt, how he had seen to it that a person had money to get new glasses, how he had helped another person with transportation, even though his own income was a small Social Security check each month.

By the time the service began, it was obvious to all that Al had been a faithful steward, using his simple gifts to serve others. His many friends rejoiced in his life, his kindness and his response to their needs.

This life, celebrated in a church garden, ended with the blessing of a new plant in Al’s honor. The giver of the plant said she wanted it to grow and remind everyone of Al’s unselfish care for others.

Al and Zacchaeus are two heroes who share their faith by doing for others what God wants them to do. They were not interested in large ceremonies or big public events; they wanted instead to serve others with what they had, and their lives are celebrated because of that.

Often when we see people who are generous and kind, we remark on how strong their faith must be. That is because faith is something given us by God to be used. Its expression is that of a steward doing his or her duty. Its sign is service, and its character is simplicity. We see in these generous lives the joyful and unbounded love for God expressed through service to others. It is what God commands, and it is what God defines as justice.

But what about our lives?

Are we faithful stewards who take what we are given and share it with those less fortunate? Are we people who think that faith is a noun or a verb? Do we see our church communities as gathered for worship and then sent forth to “do” our faith?

These are the values Jesus celebrates. These are the behaviors that God calls for. These are the behaviors that result in true and laudable service.

 

— 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. 

The blessings of the saints, All Saints’ Day (C) – 2013

November 1, 2013

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Since the earliest days of Christendom, the faithful have gathered to give thanks for the life and ministry of the saints – women and men whose witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been a blessing in every generation.

The witness of many of these blessed women and men – such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Theresa of Avila or Saint Augustine of Hippo – are well known. Many of their writings have become popular, their deeds inspire us to name hospitals and schools and churches for them, and their service to the Church is taught to the faithful in every generation. Yet, for others – such as Saint Simon or Saint Jude – little is known beyond their names.

But regardless of how much or how little we know about these faithful witnesses, one thing is certain: Their life and ministry has richly blessed the church. And as we gather to celebrate the Feast of All Saints, we are called to give thanks to God for the blessings that the saints have bestowed upon the church, as well as the many blessings God has bestowed upon us.

Of course, by worldly standards, it would appear that the saints didn’t know very much about blessings. Most of them didn’t know the first thing about wealth, and many lived all or part of their lives in poverty. Status and the power that comes with it was a foreign concept, as many of the saints never knew high-paying or revered jobs, choosing instead to work for little or no money at all, serving the poor and the helpless. And far from inspiring fear or subordination, many of the saints were hated and met their untimely death precisely because of the faith they so boldly proclaimed.

But worldly standards weren’t how the saints patterned their lives. They lived by Jesus’ standards. And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus’ standard for what constituted a blessing is radically different from the standards that the rest of the world is accustomed to:

“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

Poverty, hunger, mourning, hatred, exclusion, revilement and defamation – these things certainly don’t seem like blessings!

But Jesus is convinced that they are. And most shocking of all, Jesus says that these are the sorts of people to whom the Kingdom of God is entrusted.

Of course, some will raise their hands in objection and say, “We can’t possibly entrust the Kingdom of God to a bunch of poor folks. They don’t know the first thing about business or what it takes to run a kingdom.”

Others may say, “The Kingdom of God is just a fancy term tossed around by theologians. It isn’t possible on Earth. There’s just too much violence and oppression and chaos.”

Or worst of all, some will hear the words of Jesus and say, “See there? Jesus will take care of the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated in heaven. Who am I to get in the way of God’s will?”

Yet, with piercing clarity, Jesus looks the opponents of the Kingdom of the God in the eye and pronounces a stern warning: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation!”

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry!”
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep!”
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

In other words, woe to you who don’t know what poverty looks like, or what hunger feels like. Woe to you who have never known an occasion for mourning. And woe to you who manage to tell everyone what they want to hear instead of the truth they so desperately need to hear.

And so, we gather here on this Feast of All Saints with words of blessing and words of woe ringing in our ears, amidst beautiful trappings and festive liturgies and memorial celebrations. But let us not lose sight of the fact that today, God is calling us to action – God is calling us to bear witness to the Kingdom of God!

And the Kingdom of God witnessed by Jesus in Luke’s gospel is not some abstract theological term about a time and place the world has never known. In fact, the Kingdom of God can be a place that all of us can come to know.

The Kingdom of God breaks through when we love our enemies. It takes hold when we do good to those who hate us. It comes alive when we bless those who curse us. It shines brightly when we pray for those who abuse or mistreat us. It shows up when we honor the request of beggars.

And when we live our lives by the principle of “do to others as you would have them do to you,” we become citizens of the Kingdom.

Of course, the work of building the Kingdom is not easy. But then again, as Jesus reminds us here in Luke’s gospel, life with God isn’t easy, either. Life with God means that we will know what it is to be poor, hungry, sorrowful and cursed.

Life with God means that we will know what it is to be unpopular – to be discounted and overlooked.

And life with God means that we will know what it is to be hated.

But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is built – brick by brick, stone by stone – by people such as these: people who know what poverty and hunger and sorrow and being cursed looks like. People who know how it feels to be overlooked and discounted. People who know what being hated feels like.

So today, on this Feast of All Saints, let us begin to live by a different set of standards. Instead of worldly standards, let us begin to live by the standards of the Kingdom.

It starts today. It starts by loving our enemies. It starts by showing kindness to people who don’t deserve it. It grows into the ability to bless those who curse us; to pray for those who mistreat and take advantage of us. It manifests itself in the ability to listen and show honor to those who are forced to beg.

It is lived out, not in the comfort of our homes or our churches or our offices, but among the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated; because, after all, the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

And when we do that – when we exchange our worldly standards for Kingdom standards – the blessed communion of saints cries out, “Alleluia! Alleluia!”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Kentucky (Diocese of Lexington). He holds a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Are we like the Righteous Man?, 23 Pentecost, Proper 25 (C) – 2013

October 27, 2013

Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65 (or Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-6); 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In the gospel we have just heard, Jesus tells a shocking story. Perhaps you didn’t experience the shock? Part of the problem is that many of us have heard the parables so often since we were children that we know what’s coming: It’s like watching a movie for the tenth time.

Another part of the problem is that we only vaguely get the shocking bits. Indeed, they often go straight over our heads. Yes, we know, or think we know, that the Pharisee was probably like one of those people we may know, who are so proud of their own rectitude and morality that they have no compassion for anyone who doesn’t live up to their standards. It’s easy to be completely lacking in sympathy for this Righteous person. After all, we are tolerant, accepting, open people. We hope our parishes are welcoming places, open to all who join us or want to join us. We can feel secure in disliking this person who lists the sins of others, is sure he’s God’s particular friend and has God’s approval, a person of good values.

We can also approve of the penitence of the Publican, who bewails his faults, dares not even to assume the customary attitude of prayer, standing with arms extended, but who crouches on the ground and begs God for mercy. Our approval comes easily because we don’t know what a “low life” the Publican is. To understand just what a crook the Publican is, we have to remember who the tax gatherers were in Jesus’ day.

Tax collectors worked for the hated Romans, who were not only unclean gentiles, but oppressors, those who had conquered the Jewish state and ruled it with sometimes savage enthusiasm. Jewish tax collectors were the equivalent of those who collaborated with the Nazis, or the Soviets in occupied Europe during World War II, or Christians in Rwanda who stood by or participated in the massacre of their fellow citizens.

A tax gatherer was given an area and told to raise a certain sum of money. How he did this wasn’t an issue; how much he pocketed for himself didn’t matter as long as the Romans got the money they wanted. Probably no one was hated as much as a tax gatherer, not even a self-righteous Pharisee who looked down on those who didn’t meet his standards.

So when Jesus approves of the Publican, the tax-gatherer, one can imagine the shock that went through his hearers. It would be as if he’d singled out someone who has ruined people with a Ponzi scheme, and now enters our church and professes repentance in the company of those defrauded. If we are to be polled, we’ll vote to approve of a self-righteous but upright person over a swindler and a crook.

To tell the truth, we, too, can sound like the Righteous Man who thanks God that he is not like other people. How often do we blame the poor, saying that they are feckless, irresponsible and culpable in their own poverty because they haven’t bettered themselves or taken advantage of the American Dream? We don’t want to be taxed to pay for their health care, housing, feeding. Why should we share that which we’ve worked hard for with those we regard to be lazy and unworthy? To justify our lack of “faith, hope and charity,” we trot out examples of people who really want to live off others, and blame all poor people for the indolence of a few.

Worse still, we feel that God owes us his attention to our needs, that we deserve his love and grace because we are better than others and keep, or think we keep, God’s laws. We trot out “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” quite easily.

“Forgive us our debts,” that which we owe God and owe others implies that there is something to forgive, that we do fall short. Of course we do.

This morning, here in the presence of God, we feel secure because we believe that God is ever loving, ever forgiving, always ready to restore us. We are right. Jesus offered himself for us, placed himself between “our sins and their reward” in an act of self-sacrificial love.

We come before God today not secure in our own righteousness, but as the old prayer puts it, “in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

God approves of the wretched tax gatherer over the Righteous Man, because the tax gatherer admits his faults. We show our own penitence not just by making our confession together, but by our willingness to forgive and love those who are in need.

Without God’s love, our love isn’t up to that task. With God’s love, we can love even those who repel us.

 

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

Patina of faith, 22 Pentecost, Proper 24 (C) – 2013

October 20, 2013

Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104 (or Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121); 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

In North America, the railroad gauge – the distance between rails – is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. A strange number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s how railroads were built in England, and English expatriates designed the American railroads.

But why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and they were using the tools and jigs that had been used to build carts and covered wagons.

OK. Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, that was the space between the ruts in the English roads, ingrained through centuries of use.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match to avoid destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for imperial Rome, their wheel spacing was standardized.

So, the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an imperial Roman war chariot, and they were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two war horses.

At one level, this story is laughable – so much for civilization’s supposed advances and innovation. But what if we looked at the story in a different way? What if we saw it as wonderful?

In a way, it’s good that the only progress we make is through building on the accomplishments and insights of others. To be sure, when NASA wheels its latest rocket boosters onto the launch pad rails, they’re the width of a horse’s backside. But what does that matter? Surely the point is that we cannot do anything without reference to what has gone before. We take the old knowledge and apply it to the new context. As Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Oddly enough, it is this same sentiment that Paul seems to be reminding Timothy of in our New Testament reading today.

Paul says, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”

Tradition is much more meaningful if we know its provenance.

You know what they say about Episcopalians? Do something once, and they hate it. Do it twice, and they don’t mind it. Do it three times, and it’s a cherished tradition.

Our rituals in church might seem arcane until we bother to take the time to trace their ancestry; then they can come alive in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, tradition seems more often to be regarded in a negative light. For example, the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” conjures up images of people who blindly and unthinkingly do the same things over and over and over again.

We are living in the midst of turbulent times in the church. The world is changing at a faster pace than any other time in human history, and we often struggle to make sense of it. We know that the Episcopal Church has to adapt to survive. We often hear suggestions that the church needs something radical to shake it up, such as radical new liturgies or some radical new thinking. We hear it in church, and we hear it in the world of business – phrases such as “radical departure.”

But what does “radical” really mean? We can easily forget that it means “getting back to our roots.” So a radical departure, in a sense, becomes a paradox. If it is to be “radical,” it’s anything but a departure from; in fact, it’s a return to.

What is it that Paul, if he were writing to us, instead of Timothy, might be saying that we need to return to?

Well, to start off, he’d probably be posting a message on our Facebook walls. Old knowledge, new context.

First, he would surely reiterate what he said to Timothy, that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And then he would add, “but notice that I said ‘inspired by God’ and not ‘the literal word of God,’ so don’t forget to make use of the intelligence and powers of reason that God gave you to apply the essence of the gospel to today’s situation.”

Second, he would reinforce what he said to Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” And then he would add: “And just look at the church now. People going to church expecting to be entertained and wanting the preacher to make them feel good about themselves, as if church was just a spa for the soul.”

Faced with manifold challenges, it is tempting for us in the church to market our services and programs as if they were consumer products or self-help accessories to complement our busy lifestyle choices. It is tempting for us not to demand too much of people, tempting for us to make church as convenient as possible, tempting for us to simply collude with a culture that flits like a butterfly from one shiny thing to another, and tempting for us to pander to the myth of instant gratification.

Today’s gospel reading, the story of the persistent widow and the pestered judge, is, at first sight, confusing. It seems as if Jesus is saying that the unjust judge is like God.

He isn’t, of course; in fact, Jesus is saying the opposite.

The widow goes to the unjust judge time and time again and only gets anywhere because the judge wants to be rid of her. With God, the widow can go time and time again and will get God’s full attention every time. Jesus isn’t saying that the widow won’t visit any the less if it’s God. He’s saying that, unlike the unjust judge, God isn’t interested only in his own comfort and getting the pestering widow out of his hair. When we go to God in prayer, no matter how persistent we are, God will always be there to listen and to give counsel. In fact, God is so unlike the unjust judge that he wants us to go back time after time to appeal to him for help. A deep and meaningful relationship with God is built over a lifetime of such meetings with Him, not just a quick fix for instant gratification.

These meetings with God augment each previous one, building up, over a lifetime, a cumulative richness in our souls that bespeaks something of God. Like a piece of treasured antique furniture that has been handed down through the generations, it will have its share of knocks and dents, but will also a have a precious, unique patina patiently gained through years of everyday, prayerful life.

 

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