Archives for February 2014

Bulletin Insert: 2 Lent (A)

Lenten Message from the Presiding Bishop

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The following transcript is from a video that can be viewed at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/presiding-bishop.

Lake Starnberg, Germany, 2009  (Photo by H. Bosch)

Lake Starnberg, Germany, 2009
(Photo by H. Bosch)

The reality is that the season of Lent, which Christians have practiced for so many centuries, is about the same kind of yearning for greater light in the world, whether you live in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere.

The word “Lent” means “lengthen,” and it’s about the days getting longer. The early Church began to practice a season of preparation for those who would be baptized at Easter, and before too long, other members of the Christian community joined those candidates for baptism as an act of solidarity.

It was a season during which Christians and future Christians learned about the disciplines of the faith – prayer and study and fasting and giving alms, sharing what they have.

But the reality is that, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, the lengthening days were often times of famine and hunger, when people had used up their winter food stores and the spring had not yet produced more food to feed people. Acting in solidarity with those who go hungry is a piece of what it means to be a Christian. To be a follower of Jesus is to seek the healing of the whole world.

And Lent is a time when we practice those disciplines as acts of solidarity with the broken and hungry and ill and despised parts of the world.

I would invite you this Lent to think about your Lenten practice as an exercise in solidarity with all that is – with other human beings and with all of creation. That is most fundamentally what Jesus is about. He is about healing and restoring that broken world.

So as you enter Lent, consider how you will live in solidarity with those who are hungry, or broken, or ill in one way or another.

May you have a blessed Lent this year, and may it yield greater light in the world.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 3/16/14
half page, double-sided 3/16/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 3/16/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 3/16/14

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

How can these things be?, 2 Lent (A) – 2014

March 16, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17John 3:1-17

A question that must echo through the centuries is this: Did Nicodemus ever get it? Did this righteous, sober, pious man ever let go of the letter of the law, of seeing and believing only what his eyesight perceived; did he let go of security to plunge into the uncertainty and wonder of mystery?

He was obviously a perceptive man. His first words to Jesus that night show that he understands what his eyes see: The signs of Jesus, known to us as miracles, are proof to Nicodemus that this young rabbi has come from God and acts in the presence of God. “You are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus, and he continues by admitting that no one can do these signs “apart from the presence of God.” This is a powerful statement, even though a question mark, a “but,” is about to follow. Why doesn’t Jesus accept it as is? What was it that he saw in this pious man that caused him to turn the conversation in another direction?

It is possible that the author omits a great deal; maybe there was quite a bit more said between them before Jesus speaks the words that have been repeated by Christians through countless testimonies, words that have been misused and misunderstood to the exclusion and detriment of many: “to be born again, to be born from above.” How many have gloried in these words, and how many have spoken them in derision in our troubled and divisive time!

Jesus does what he always does. He turns the conversation to what matters and points Nicodemus’ attention to the transforming power of God and to the reality of God’s kingdom.

He sees in Nicodemus the desire to see God’s will, God’s kingdom, this new order that gave the power to Jesus to perform his astounding signs. And Jesus wants Nicodemus to have his heart’s desire; if he would simply let go of what he knows as true, because it is thus written, in order to enter into the Spirit of the One who is not willing to be imprisoned by words.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks the literal questions: How can the old be born again? How can one reenter the mother’s womb? He is thinking of flesh, not of spirit.

Jesus tries again. He has come to open for us the door to God’s kingdom – to the truth and justice and love of God. He reminds Nicodemus of the baptism of repentance, being born of water; and the baptism of transformation, being born of the Spirit. He gives him the analogy of the wind that is felt but invisible; the origin and destination of the wind is not known. Everything that is real is not perceived by our five senses alone. The effects of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, are all around us and we feel them when we are born of the Spirit.

But Nicodemus again doesn’t get it. “How can these things be?” he asks, and we continue to hear his question phrased in similar ways all around us today.

“How can there be a God?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian when you are not born again?”

“How can you claim that you believe the Bible literally?”

“How can you ignore what the Bible says?”

Together with Nicodemus we cry, “How can these things be?”

We live in an age of astounding technological and scientific advances. We are used to having everything explained. Even religious desire, even the longing for God, we are told by experts, has a biological basis in the brain. Everything depends on the body and on chemical balance or imbalance. We are losing the gift of mystery, the gift of being born of the Spirit.

Everything in today’s remarkable story is surrounded by mystery. This is what has made it so irresistible through the ages. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Given Jesus’ status as a man who had nowhere to lay his head, the meeting probably took place outside, under the stars, beneath a tree, probably shortly after Jesus had lain down to rest and perhaps to sleep.

A man better dressed than Jesus and his companions arrives in the night. He is probably well known to them by sight. He comes to reassure Jesus that he recognizes in him the gifts of God’s presence because of all the visible signs performed by him in the light of day. And Jesus takes the man and plunges him into mystery. Nicodemus, a man who has spent his whole life studying the Law and the prophets, studying the Scriptures, does not get it. He is too committed to what he has known until this point. This talk of being born of the Spirit, of participating in God’s life through eternity, of death on the cross – these are new concepts and he cries out, “How can these things be?”

In sorrow, Jesus says, “You are a teacher and you do not understand these things?”

To paraphrase: Oh, Nicodemus, if you don’t believe me, the one who has come from the Father, whom are you going to believe? God loves you and all these friends around me, yes, even the whole world. God sent me to testify to this love. All you have to do is trust in this love and be saved from despair.

There is much talk of spirituality in our culture. “I am a spiritual person,” we hear friends tell us, “but I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church.” Others say, “I am a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God.” And many other variations of this same theme, the vogue of vague spirituality.

Yet here is Jesus offering us someone visible and recognizable who embodies the Spirit of God, himself! And unless we take the plunge into the mystery of the incarnation, we, like Nicodemus, don’t understand, and reject him. “How can these things be?”

The answer is that these things are real because Christ is real and present. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

This is a question to meditate upon throughout Lent, a daily discipline in the dark of night that can lead us to the light of Easter Sunday.

 

— Katerina Whitley, an author and retreat leader, lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

 

Bible Study: 2 Lent (A)

March 16, 2014

Brian PinterGeneral Theological Seminary

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-4a

The story of Abram’s call is an archetypal narrative that is repeated again and again throughout the biblical record. Artistic in its presentation, this text also presents deep spiritual truths. Notice, for example, the author’s use in verse 1 of a literary device called hendiadys: “your country and your kindred.” A single idea is cleverly expressed through the use of two words. We also see that the number of blessings Abram will receive is the classical biblical number signifying perfection: seven.

Beyond its beautiful, artistic form, this passage invites us to follow in Abram’s footsteps – to abandon ourselves to the guidance of God; to prepare ourselves to commence the great journey; to leave what is familiar, comfortable, but ultimately small and limiting and go to “a land that I will show you.” Our spiritual life is this archetype – going from what we know to what we don’t know; from the secure to the insecure. God calls us to follow God into the unknown. Where this journey will take us we cannot know, but we can be confident that by surrendering ourselves (i.e., our ego and all its small needs), we will be a blessing to many.

Is there a word or phrase in this passage that speaks to you today?

How have you experienced God’s call in your life to leave home “for a land that I will show you”?

Psalm 121

This psalm takes the form of a dialogue between a worshipper and a Temple priest. We notice a shift from first to second person within verses 1-4. The psalmist expresses confidence in the protection of God, reminiscent of the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

This text continues the theme begun in our first reading from Genesis – the great spiritual pilgrimage of life. The “hills” of verse 1 represent both the heavenly dwelling place of God as well the holy city. The journey to this spiritual place will require protection and sustenance, and will not be without challenges. (For example, the sun of verse 6 will be hot!) Above all, the God who calls us to this journey will not forget us; will not fall asleep on us, unlike Baal of 1 Kings 18:27, whom Elijah mocked, “Maybe he’s asleep!”

While we will face dark nights and times of doubt, this psalm invites us to trust that God is sustaining us, shading us, supporting us as our pilgrim road bends over the horizon.

Is there a word or phrase in this passage that speaks to you today?

Where do you find yourself now on the spiritual pilgrimage of life – waiting for the call? The first steps? Resting in the shade? In the hot sun? How have you experienced God’s action on your journey?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

We see the thematic links in today’s reading from Romans with the first reading from Genesis. To understand Paul’s thought here, some background might be helpful. First, Paul did not found the church at Rome and, when he dictated this letter, had not yet visited the city. “Romans” was his way of introducing himself to the Christian community there and making his travel arrangements.

Second, Paul strongly believed that because we are now living in the age of the Messiah, the Mosaic Law is no longer necessary. Paul, in fact, spent a great deal of time in conflict with some Christians who felt otherwise about the Law. It is this issue of the necessity and validity of the Mosaic Law that Paul speaks to in this passage.

Paul points back to Abraham as the example par excellence that obedience to the law does not earn one God’s favor. The Grace of God is a gift. The promise to Abraham of many descendants and blessings was not because Abraham followed any law, but because of Abraham’s trusting faith. If God rewarded people simply because they observe a law, faith would mean nothing.

Furthermore (and this is one of Paul’s favorite issues to hammer), the presence of the Law only makes things worse. As the great biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., noted about Paul’s thought on this, “The prescriptions of the law are honored more in than in observance; in thus furthering transgressions, it promotes the reign of sin.” In other words, when there are more laws, there are more opportunities to break them. Paul saw this as a vicious circle that brought people nowhere.

Is there a word or phrase from this passage that speaks to you today?

Do you accept that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s blessing and grace? What are the obstacles you face to accepting this gift?

John 3:1-17

A key to understanding today’s text lies in the previous chapter, John 2:23: “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”

Faith cannot be based on signs and wonders, just as God’s grace and blessing cannot be earned through obeying laws and performing works. In this passage, the author of this gospel uses one of his favorite literary devices – misunderstanding. Both those who believed in Jesus because of his miracles, and Nicodemus, misunderstand Jesus. Nicodemus thinks that Jesus’ performing of miraculous deeds is a sign of God’s approval. Jesus, however, explains to Nicodemus that Jesus has come from God’s presence.

Our gospel text is thematically linked with our previous readings through Jesus’ observation about the work of the spirit in verse 8. Entrance into God’s Kingdom cannot be earned by human beings; it requires the outpouring of the Spirit. The final verses of the reading provide the answer to Nicodemus’ question about being reborn of the Spirit – this occurs through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Once again, a grand biblical archetype is tapped here – the way of ascent is descent; the way to life is through wounding and death; God has the power to transform death. Our challenge is to let God’s Spirit into to our broken hearts in order that the transformation, the rebirth, might begin.

Is there a word or phrase from this passage that speaks to you today?

What are the challenges you face to allowing God’s Spirit to lead to the new birth of which Jesus speaks?

Bulletin Insert: 1 Lent (A)

Episcopal Relief & Development Sunday

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A participant in a food security program in Saytan, Philippines  (Photo courtesy of Harvey Wang for Episcopal Relief & Development)

A participant in a food security program in Saytan, Philippines
(Photo courtesy of Harvey Wang for Episcopal Relief & Development)

Today, the First Sunday in Lent, the Episcopal Church invites dioceses, parishes and individuals to support the work of Episcopal Relief & Development and pray for people around the world who are struggling with poverty, hunger and disease.

This Lenten season, Episcopal Relief & Development focuses on creating economic opportunities and strengthening communities. In collaboration with church partners and local organizations, Episcopal Relief & Development empowers individuals, families and communities to generate earnings by:

• Enabling people to develop small businesses in a variety of fields
• Training people to become effective managers, marketers and small business owners
• Helping families in underserved communities access financial services, including building local partnerships that introduce savings, loans and insurance products
• Promoting cooperatives that help individuals pool their resources and maximize their earning power and potential
• Assisting communities in gaining access to local markets and improving the value of products to increase profits
• Helping farming communities increase crop yield so the surplus can be sold for income

For more information, please visit  http://www.episcopalrelief.org/sunday.

lenten-covers-2014

2014 Lenten Meditations

Episcopal Relief & Development’s Lenten meditations are available free of charge, in English and Spanish. This year’s devotional focuses on creating economic opportunities and strengthening communities, with a particular focus on empowering women. Download this year’s Lenten meditations at http://www.episcopalrelief.org/lent.

 

 

 


Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 3/9/14
half page, double-sided 3/9/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 3/9/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 3/9/14

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

David W. Peters

David W. Peters is a Master’s of Arts and Religion (MAR) student at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, where he enjoys running, breakfast tacos and urban hiking with his wife and two sons.

Read David’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 1 Lent (A).

Read David’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Easter Day (A).

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

Bible Study: 1 Lent (A)

March 9, 2014

David W. PetersSeminary of the Southwest

“The tempter came and said to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’” (Matthew 4:3-4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “God made man because he loves stories.” And what is the first story about humans? It is a story of temptation, disobedience and clothing manufacturing. Other than the talking snake, this story in Genesis always strikes me as so ordinary and mundane. When they eat the forbidden fruit, nothing happens. There is no lightning bolt from heaven. There is only the opening of their eyes to their nakedness.

My temptations are ordinary too. I am rarely tempted with high crimes. Most of my temptations are just like Eve’s and Adam’s, they are my desire for physical pleasure (“good for food”), beauty (“delight to the eyes”) or wisdom (“to make one wise”). Like them, I’m always looking for love in all the wrong places. From my reading of human history, and my own history, this seems to be the story of humanity. Perhaps that is why God loves us so much.

What stories in your life contain tragedy and hope?

What are some of the places you have searched for pleasure, beauty or wisdom, and been disappointed?

Psalm 32

Happiness, for the psalmist, comes after the withering of the bones, much groaning, and drying out like a raisin in the sun. By the time this psalm is written, the psalmist’s sin is old news, but the effect on the body is still felt. In the darkest watch of the night, he/she cries out to God.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that repentance always comes at the 11th hour. It is after we have run out of back-up plans and exhausted our limited resources that we turn to God. We run to the only place where the great waters cannot reach us, the hiding place.

My experience as an Episcopalian leads me to conclude that pages 446-452 in the Book of Common Prayer, “The Reconciliation of a Penitent,” are seldom used by most of us. Perhaps they would have more use if we connected confession and reconciliation with a chance for happiness.

How is your physical health connected to my spiritual health?

If God is our hiding place, what is God hiding you from?

Romans 5:12-19

If metaphors become too complicated, they cease to be metaphors. St. Paul’s metaphor of Jesus as the second Adam is simple. Just as Adam’s sin brought death to all people, so Jesus’ act of righteousness brings life to every person. The savvy reader will notice in the Old Testament lesson a small problem. Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, how did sin get passed on from generation to generation, especially when my newborn baby is so cute? Perhaps it is better to keep Paul’s words simple. Perhaps it is better to put them into a Christmas carol as Charles Wesley did in 1739:

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

How does Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection help us get back to how we were in the Garden of Eden?

Where did you first hear about the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ?

Matthew 4:1-11

Every time I go near the railing on a high balcony a thought pops into my head: What would it feel like to jump? Then I get a nauseating feeling in my stomach and back away from the edge. Every time I skip breakfast because I’m late for work, I long for an egg and bean breakfast taco and hope that it might magically appear on my dashboard. Every time I hear that a former high school classmate of mine won an award, I wonder what it would be like to get it instead of her.

The devil mocks me to force God to accept my timeline for my life, rather than wait for God to show up in God’s time. The devil mocks Jesus to do something spectacular to prove he is the Son of God. He tempts Jesus to force God’s hand to declare him to be the Son of God – or just fall onto the hard stones of the Temple. Jesus needs no more proof of his sonship than that which is written.

Martin Luther wrote about the devil in his words to the hymn, “A mighty fortress”: “One little word shall fell him.”

Jesus quotes the word, thus proving that he is the Word, and the devil disappears.

Both the devil and Jesus quote scripture in this story. How has scripture been used in your life for encouragement or temptation?

Jesus’ temptations take place in the wilderness, far from other people and creature comforts. How is temptation greater when we are alone and uncomfortable?

Choosing to lose paradise, 1 Lent (A) – 2014

March 9, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

In our Old Testament lesson, we find a test case for free will in the Garden of Eden. We humans usually have good excuses to offer for the bad choices we make. Like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” who steals bread to feed his sister’s family. Or we can look to someone who kills in self-defense finding justified an action he or she would usually condemn. But the Garden of Eden is paradise and the only two human occupants have everything they need. All excuses are removed.

They don’t want for food. They don’t need clothes, as they don’t even realize they are naked. No animal will harm them. Adam and Eve were created as perfect companions for each other. The Hebrew describes Eve as equal and corresponding to Adam, the King James Bible translated that the closest by calling her his “Helpmeet,” meaning a helper who was meet, or equivalent to him. God even walks in the Garden with them. What need could they have?

Into this perfect situation comes a single choice. In the middle of the Garden is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve tells us that it is a nice-looking tree, with very tasty-looking fruit. On one level, the only choice in Eden was to decide whether to avoid eating from that one tree or not. But at another level, the real choice in the Garden of Eden was to decide whether or not you can trust God.

Looking more closely at the text, the conversation with the serpent proves interesting. Eve tells the talking serpent that they could eat of any tree in the Garden but one. Then Eve herself expands God’s prohibition. Eve says that not only can they not eat of that tree, they can’t even touch it. This is more than God told Adam. Now in Eve’s words, they can’t even touch the tree or they will die.

The serpent goes on to tell Eve that they won’t die, and we should note here that the snake is right on this point. Neither Eve nor Adam dies. In fact, the snake is right in telling her that what will happen is that they will know the difference between good and evil. The snake says that eating of the tree will make them like God, and on this point God agrees later on, in the section past our reading for today.

The snake uses the truth to lure Eve into checking out the fruit, much as Satan will quote scripture to Jesus in seeking tempt him away from God’s will. Eve gets a nice piece of fruit, examines it closely and finds that it is a delight to the eyes, and, knowing that it can make one wise, she takes the fruit and eats. Then Eve gives some to her husband. Notice that Eve does not go track Adam down to bring him up to speed on everything. Adam was there all along, going along with everything first by not speaking up, then by eating. Adam was together with Eve in desiring the forbidden fruit. They both chose not to trust God.

The fruit did give them knowledge. Now Adam and Eve knew that they were naked. That cheap knowledge is all Adam and Eve got for their disobedience, and they go from eating forbidden fruit to wearing fig leaves in nothing flat. Adam and Eve were given one choice to make. They chose not to trust God and to eat of the fruit of the one tree God said could kill them.

While the fruit did not kill them that day, through disobeying God, Adam and Eve became mortal. They were destined to die for their wrong choice. But that is not the end of the story. When our Old Testament reading for today ends, Adam and Eve are hiding in the Garden, fearful God will find them, cowering behind their fig leaves.

God will make Adam and Eve own up to their wrong choice. They will confess and be punished for their disobedience. The cost is mortality and expulsion from the Garden. But God does not leave them alone. God fashioned clothes for Adam and Eve, and caused them to settle East of Eden. Innocence was gone. Paradise was lost. The way back into the Garden was barred forever, and yet with all that said and done; God did not abandon his first two humans. Even in expelling them from Eden, God provided a future for Adam and Eve.

As a test case, Eve and her quietly consenting husband Adam show that, given everything they could ever need, humans would still choose to disobey. Some claim that this proves that Adam and Eve were teenagers. While funny, that claim is neither fair to teenagers nor honest to adults. All of us can be given every chance in the world and still make bad choices.

Unlike Adam and Eve, we already have the knowledge of good and evil. With that knowledge, most of our choices, the ones that matter, boil down to either trusting God or not trusting God. God warned you not to murder, steal or commit adultery, among other things. Just look back through the Ten Commandments. God says that if you do those things you will die. Do you trust God or not? If you trust God, you will try to keep his commandments. If you do not trust God, you will ignore them as you go through life.

Know that you have a real choice. You can decide not to trust God. You can live your life as if God does not exist, make your decisions without ever putting God in the picture. However, that choice will come with a cost. Just as Adam and Eve made the wrong choice and found death, you too will one day find death further down the road of not-trusting-God.

But notice that even in your wrong choices, God will not abandon you. The grace in Eden was that even when Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, God still cared for them. In God’s story, wrong choices have bad consequences, but God still offers us a chance to make the right choice. The way God tells the story, you can go your own way and choose to lose paradise, or you can trust God and live.

During this season of Lent, you are called to examine your life. Do you trust God? Are you willing to live your life as if God’s promises in scripture are true? God offers you a chance to give your whole trust. God is still holding out hope that you will one day come home to the Garden.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

What audience?, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014

March 5, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today’s gospel text almost comes as a relief: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. It’s a relief because we can be fairly reluctant to show signs of piety before others, especially when we’re outside of our worship service. If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus. So a gospel lesson in which Jesus says it’s better to practice your religious duties in secret may elicit a sigh of relief.

But it’s odd, isn’t it? Especially when a few weeks ago when we read Matthew 5:15, Jesus talks about letting our “light shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” Why the emphasis today on secrecy? And why the emphasis on secrecy today, on the one day of the year when we actually receive a visible mark, the imposition of ashes, that unmistakably says, “Something different is going on here”? Are we trying to show something? If so, to whom?

We have to start by noting that the ashes are not for God. We’re not trying to show God something by wearing ashes on our foreheads. In Isaiah, God says it clearly: What I want from you is not sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want you sitting around looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something. Something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.

Does God want to see something? Yes. But it’s not ashes. It’s us getting busy. Doing God’s work in the world.

Jesus wants to see action too. His message today is about practicing our faith, linking our spiritual lives to action, through almsgiving – giving money for the care of people in need, and through prayer and fasting. These were three very important demonstrations of spiritual devotion in the Judaism Jesus practiced. Notice that Jesus assumes his followers do these three things. He says, “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” and “when you fast” – not “if.”

Living our spirituality through action is an important way to respond to God. So why does Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”?

Jesus’ words highlight two things that can rule human life, two things that can distract us from having a right relationship with God. Jesus knows we can be motivated and misled by concerns over audience and reward. By audience, we mean, for whom are we acting? For whom are we doing our religious activities? Who is our audience when we give alms or do any charitable act? When we pray? When we deny ourselves anything? For whose benefit do we do these things? Who are we hoping will notice?

Who is our intended audience? The word Jesus uses in his instruction is “hypocrite,” from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus warns us against being like hypocrites who draw attention to themselves when they put their check in the offering plate or say maybe too loudly as they wave the plate away, “I give online”; who make a show out of praying in public, who clear their throats before taking their Bibles out to read in front of you. The hypocrite acts for others. The hypocrite plays a role, and may not even realize it’s only an act.

The other concern that goes along with audience is reward. When the hypocrites do their religious duty as an act for the benefit of being seen by others, they have received their reward: They have been seen by others. That’s it. They have been noticed by people. Jesus invites us to put our faith into action, not so we can be noticed by people, but so we will receive our reward from God. Three times he says, “and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.”

Is it wrong to be noticed by others? No. If we let our light shine, if others see the good we do, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s compassion, mercy and love. But Jesus says if we’re motivated by being noticed by people and rewarded by people, that will be our only reward. If all the attention you want is from other people, help yourself. But why settle for less than the reward God wants to give us?

So why the ashes? If they’re not for God, and they’re not about being noticed by others, why do something so visible and exterior?

Ashes are a reminder of humility and honesty. Sometimes we get confused about what true humility is. It’s not beating ourselves up. It’s not denigrating ourselves and saying bad things about ourselves to bring ourselves down a notch. It is not some strange reverse pride where we say, “Really, no one is as bad as I am, no one is as stupid, foolish or forgetful as me. I have achieved the bottom-most rung of human reality. How can God possibly love someone as lowly as me? God couldn’t possibly love me; I’m just dirt.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will hear as we receive our ashes, reminding us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground. If we are dust, we are beloved dust, and God can do great things with just plain dirt once it’s filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.

Humility is about looking at what is true and real. Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, nonetheless.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others because we are loved by God.

We are invited to take on a discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around it us.

God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. Let’s not settle for anything less.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Bulletin Insert: Last Sunday After Epiphany (A)

World Mission Sunday

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Young Adult Service Corps member Sean Brown, in a pumpkin patch in Japan.

Young Adult Service Corps member Sean Brown, in a pumpkin patch in Japan.

Today is World Mission Sunday, observed each year on the Last Sunday After the Epiphany. On World Mission Sunday, the church comes together to focus on the global impact of the Baptismal Covenant’s call to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305), and to raise our awareness of the many ways in which the Episcopal Church participates in God’s mission around the world.

God calls us to go out into the world and be with our brothers and sisters, whether they are halfway around the world or halfway down the block. Today we remember and give thanks for those in our church who are building, strengthening and deepening relationships throughout the Anglican Communion by serving as missionaries of the Episcopal Church. They are in Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Tanzania, Hong Kong, South Korea and many places in between. They listen and learn. They teach and preach. They work in offices, classrooms and on sustainable farms. Through their presence, they connect one part of God’s world to another part of God’s world.

Many Episcopal missionaries maintain blogs to share stories and pictures from their ministries at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/content/blogs/yasc and http://www.episcopalchurch.org/content/blogs/mission.

A few examples:

Will Bryant, from the Diocese of Western North Carolina, serves as a chaplaincy assistant with the Mission to Seafarers in Hong Kong: willbryantyasc.blogspot.com.

Thomas and Dianne Wilson installed as lay missionaries by Bishop Martin in the Diocese of El Salvador

Thomas and Dianne Wilson installed as lay missionaries by Bishop Martin in the Diocese of El Salvador

Sean Brown, from the Diocese of Hawaii, serves as a volunteer with the Asian Rural Institute in Japan: pilgrimsascending.blogspot.com.

Charlotte File, from the Diocese of Indianapolis, serves in the Diocese of Yokohama, Japan, as an education and international exchange program assistant at the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project, Kiyosato: cfile-yasc.blogspot.com.

Heidi Galagan, from the Diocese of Wyoming, serves in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika in Tanzania. She teaches at the Canon Andrea Mwaka School in Dodoma: teachprayserve.blogspot.com.

The Rev. Dr. Ted Gaiser, from the Diocese of Massachusetts, serves as the director of Mission Development in the Diocese of Colombia: tedabroad.wordpress.com.

Thomas and Dianne Wilson, from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, serve with the community of El Maizal in the Diocese of El Salvador: tomcaticus426.blogspot.com.

For more information, please contact Elizabeth Boe, officer for Global Networking: eboe@episcopalchurch.org.

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 3/2/14
half page, double-sided 3/2/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 3/2/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 3/2/14

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

Bulletin Insert: 7 Epiphany (A)

What Is Lent?

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Memorial at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 2008  (Photo by Craig O’Neal)

Memorial at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 2008
(Photo by Craig O’Neal)

Today is the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany, which brings the season of Epiphany very near to its end. In 10 days, the church will begin observing Lent. Ash Wednesday falls on March 5 this year, and marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter.

The period of 40 days, which, traditionally, does not include Sundays, commemorates the “40 days and 40 nights” (Matthew 4:2) that Jesus fasted in the desert and then resisted temptations from Satan.

The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word for “spring,” and is derived from the German word “lang,” meaning “long,” because during this season before Easter, the hours of daylight become longer.

“The Temptation of Christ,” illustration circa 1411 by the Limbourg Brothers

“The Temptation of Christ,” illustration circa 1411 by the Limbourg Brothers

The Book of Common Prayer explains Lent in this way:

“The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 264-265).

The Episcopal Church invites us to observe Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 265).

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 2/23/14
half page, double-sided 2/23/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 2/23/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 2/23/14

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