Archives for July 2014

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A)

August 17, 2014

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’” (Matthew 15:10-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15

A friend, who is a senior Master of Divinity student, and I had a conversation about veterans today. He and a mutual friend, who is an Episcopal priest in the Austin area, work together on the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship here, planning services and pilgrimages; creating safe space for those who served in America’s wars and military actions. At one point in the conversation, my friend stated that many of the veterans have difficulty with reconciliation. He meant the rite – the ministry – of reconciliation found in the Book of Common Prayer. In so many ways, these men and women already feel excluded, set apart, from mainstream culture – the military subculture that they learn in training separates them at the beginning of service, and the treatment they receive after their service are examples. How much more might they feel excluded in having enacted violence against others in the name of their country?

Reconciling this violence within themselves and with God, with the intention of welcoming them back into church, into society, into humanity, into feeling God’s love, may prove painful and difficult; may exacerbate feelings of exclusion.

How might today’s lesson of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers be used to help a veteran overcome these feelings?

Psalm 133

“When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage) –
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage.”

Those are the first 12 lines from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in 1475 in England. In this long poem, an assortment of pilgrims travel to the cathedral at Canterbury, where Thomas Beckett was murdered by Henry II – a very popular pilgrimage. Some people also undertook pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Although the above verses have been translated into modern English, Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which, for us, now, is strange and exotic to the ears when heard and difficult to read. And even after translation, some of the images, metaphors and similes are no longer familiar to us either.

Today’s psalm is one of the Songs of Ascent (in Hebrew, Shir Hama’aloth), which scholars believe pilgrims recited or sang on their way to Jerusalem. Read it aloud once or twice; if in a group, have two different people read it. Maybe even attempt to sing it. Does it also contain, like “The Canterbury Tales,” images that may not be familiar to us?

What is important about the dew of Hermon falling upon the hills of Zion? For what might it be a metaphor? What about oil upon the beard of Aaron?

What are the similarities between Psalm 133 and “The Canterbury Tales”? What do you notice about them? What feelings do they evoke? Why?

Does America have any poems or cultural icons relating to pilgrims? How do we relate to pilgrimages in our Christian lives? How do we relate pilgrimages to Christ?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” What does Paul mean here? The lectionary omits a large portion of verses in this lesson. How does reading them change your understanding of Paul’s statement, if at all?

Some scholars view Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church he did not found, as an attempt to gain support for a trip he wished to undertake to Spain – a mission trip. Re-read all of today’s lessons. How might they speak to us of the differences between mission and pilgrimage?

What are the differences between a mission trip and a pilgrimage?

How is your life as a Christian informed by mission and pilgrimage?

Matthew 15:10-28

In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew relates two powerful episodes in Jesus’ life. The lectionary treats the first story (verses 10-20) as optional. How do these verses, along with the beginning of the chapter, change your perception of the conversation? How is Jesus choosing to relate to the Pharisees and scribes?

Hand sanitizer has become a ubiquitous part of 21st century American culture. Bottles or wipes are available for consumption just about everywhere; a person can choose to use it before grabbing a shopping cart or prior to taking communion. Cruise ships apparently have crew members standing ready to squirt it on the hands of those in line for buffet; the website on which I read this did not mention whether this was optional for passengers. How many, if any, askance glances might one receive for refusing hand sanitizer? Would you judge someone for not using hand sanitizer before partaking in a communal meal?

The Pharisees take offense at the actions of Jesus and the disciples because they “[broke] the tradition of the elders” (verse 2). This tradition reflects Jewish concerns with ritual impurity and preserving the Law (Torah). The Pharisees did not worry about bacteria and germs in their insistence on washing hands prior to a meal; rather, that is our cultural concern.

Might the use of hand sanitizer be a ritual for some people? How might tradition be related to purity for us as Christians? How might tradition be related to purity in 21st century America or Western culture?

How might purity be related to exclusion? What about tradition? Is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” a stumbling block for your church in terms of hospitality and inclusion?

How might concerns about tradition and purity be related to the story of the Canaanite woman?

Who are the chosen?, 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A) – 2014

August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

In today’s passages we encounter the prickly theme of “choseness.” Does God have favorites? Is there really a chosen nation, a chosen people? If God is the Creator of us all, how can this be? Not easy questions to confront or to answer. Not when we now know what terrible acts have been perpetrated by those who believe that God is on their side – and that includes both Christians and non-Christians.

In the extraordinary New Testament story we read this morning, we encounter a side of Jesus that affronts our modern sensibilities and certainly our political correctness. The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth. What is going on here?

Let’s look at the story and its setting as Matthew describes it. Jesus has been teaching and walking across the country followed by large crowds. He heals the sick, forgives sins and challenges the established thinking on God. To everyone who thinks that God is satisfied with external piety he brings the enormous challenge of his spirit and his personal knowledge: God looks into the heart. God is not pleased with mere observances; God requires a new way of thinking, of praying, of being. And now tired and needing to escape the crowds, Jesus moves north out of Israel into what we know as Lebanon, the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Mark tells us that Jesus entered a home, probably belonging to friends, and asked them to keep his visit secret. In Matthew we see him entering the region, probably followed only by his disciples, and immediately a woman accosts him, not with a polite request, but with shouting.

There are many characteristics of this woman that fill us with admiration: She must have heard about him even before he entered her city because she is ready. What she heard about him, she believed. She is not a Jew, yet she is using language that is familiar only to Jews of the time. She calls him “Son of David.” She is absolutely certain that Jesus is who he says he is. Unlike his own people, who doubt him and try to trip him at every conversation, she takes it as a given that he alone has the power to heal her little daughter. And because she loves her daughter she will beg, ask and shout until his power gives her what she wants: the healing of her child.

In her pleading, her shouting, she asks first for mercy and then for healing. Apparently Jesus keeps on walking, but she follows. She doesn’t give up. Jesus, however, is silent. Even his disciples, embarrassed at her shouts, ask him to respond, to send her away. They, too, are certain that because she is not a Jew she doesn’t have the right to ask him for anything.

Now Jesus says something not to her or to them: It’s obvious that he is examining a question in his own mind: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is his mission as he has known it up to this moment. And he has worked at it every moment of his days – to bring his people back to God.

The woman hears his words, but she is the kind who is not deterred by national and religious differences. She will not let them keep her from seeking help. Now Jesus uses language that separates those who think they are God’s chosen from those whom they consider outside God’s grace. The Israelites are the children, and the outsiders are the dogs. In our age and our culture this is heavy language. We don’t exactly know what it meant at that time and in that context, but we know it was not complimentary. The bread is the essence of life. It must be given to the children.

The mother, however, does not budge. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” This poor outsider understands that God’s mercy is so great that even the tiny bit that escapes from the chosen ones is enough for healing and for doing good.

This is what faith means. She knows who he is and she knows that only Jesus can heal her daughter. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud; she is determined.

And Jesus responds to this faith instantly. In those few minutes, he recognizes that his mission has expanded. A poor woman has shown him this much: He did not come just for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well.”

Thus it is that we all benefit from that woman’s faith. An outcast becomes a catalyst. This is the wonder of the gospel stories. The Good News comes from unexpected places. A woman ignored and considered a nuisance becomes an object of admiration by Jesus himself. Instead of sending her away, he expands his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world. The encounter does not happen within the land of the chosen but outside it, in the pagan realm of Tyre and Sidon. Once again, God brings good out of what has seemed evil. The dogs enter the same realm as the children. They now eat from the table and not just of the crumbs that fall from it. We owe this woman a great deal. And the prophecy of Isaiah concerning foreigners is fulfilled: They, too, can minister to the Lord.

The Incarnation is vivid in this story, as is the theology of kenosis – the ‘self-emptying’ of our will to become receptive to God’s will. Jesus learns something from a humble woman and from a mother’s love. This is a story to be honored, to be proclaimed and to fill us with gratitude. “Lord have mercy on me,” she cries. And the Lord shows mercy to one considered an outcast.

God’s mercy covers all of us.

 

— Katerina Whitley, a retreat leader, is the author of “Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women” (Morehouse, 1998) and “Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus” (Morehouse, 2002). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

 

 

Bulletin Insert: 9 Pentecost (A)

Video of 40th anniversary of women’s ordination celebration now available online

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August 10, 2014

A video of the July 26 celebration of the 40th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church is now available at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/live-demand-worship.

The Diocese of Pennsylvania hosted this celebration at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, the site of the first women’s ordinations, “the Philadelphia 11,” in 1974.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached and officiated at the Holy Eucharist for the celebration. The following are excerpts from her sermon, which can be read in full at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/public-affairs.

From Left to Right: The Rt. Rev. Alison Cheek, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rt. Rev. José Antonio Ramos, assisted at the 1974 ordinations; the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; the Rev. Merrill Bittner, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rev. Betty Powell, one of the Washington Four ordained in September 1975; the Rev. Marie Moorefield Fleischer, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wittig, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the first woman to be elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. (Photo by Mary Frances Schjonberg)

From Left to Right: The Rt. Rev. Alison Cheek, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rt. Rev. José Antonio Ramos, assisted at the 1974 ordinations; the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; the Rev. Merrill Bittner, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rev. Betty Powell, one of the Washington Four ordained in September 1975; the Rev. Marie Moorefield Fleischer, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wittig, one of the original Philadelphia 11; the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the first woman to be elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
(Photo by Mary Frances Schjonberg)

“The whole of The Episcopal Church gives thanks today that women serve in all orders of ministry.

“The recent decision of the Church of England to finally open the doors for women bishops has brought great rejoicing.  It’s also brought reflections about – what else? – what bishops should wear. A New York Times editorial titled ‘Give us a Bishop in High Heels’ actually offers the liberating perspective that while these women may still appear in dog collars, they don’t have to look like male bishops. …

“Women in all orders of ministry – baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops – can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding. Wisdom is afoot everywhere, freeing her people from oppressors, and she enters all sorts and conditions of human beings bound for the glory of justice and peace. Together, we are marching upward to Zion.

“Wisdom continues to give voice to the liberated and newborn. She has helped them say yes, she has helped them say ‘she’ and ‘her’ in the same sentence as leader, priest, bishop, deputy – and president of each of those houses. She is a prophet, she is a healer and a chaplain, she is a leader of her people, and we don’t just mean Deborah the judge, but Sandra, Ruth, Sonia, Elena – and Emily. She is the image of God, which is probably the most liberating part of the work started here 40 years ago – the balancing of centuries of narrow assertions and faulty theology about the divine and its holy and creative work. …

“Remember to take your shoes – boots made for walking, shoes for marching or slippers for dancing. Try to walk in the shoes of abused and trafficked women. Walk on to Zion carrying the children who are born and suffer in the midst of war. Gather up the girls married before they are grown, gather up the schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria, and gather up all those lives wasted in war and prison. March boldly, proclaiming good news to all who have been pushed aside, and call them to the table of God, to Wisdom’s feast. Dance upward in glory, listening for Miriam’s song and Sarah’s laughter, calling to us from the hillside. A banquet awaits. Go.

“Put on your shoes and take up those crosses. We’re marching upward to Zion.

“Come, we that love the Lord, And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne, And thus surround the throne.
We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.”

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 8/10/14
half page, double-sided 8/10/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 8/10/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 8/10/14

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

‘A Stable Birth’

"A Stable Birth." June G. Paul. Poynette, Wis.: Lovstad Publishing, 2014. 92 pp.

“A Stable Birth.” June G. Paul. Poynette, Wis.: Lovstad Publishing, 2014. 92 pp.

“A Stable Birth” (Lovstad Publishing, 2014)  is a story about the birth of Jesus. It’s not your typical Christmas pageant story. Covering only the first 24 hours or so of Jesus’ birth, this story focuses on the faith and courage of Mary and Joseph.

Mary is in the final stages of labor as they enter town for the census. Joseph looks for a place to stay, and a kind innkeeper offers his stable. While Joseph is preparing a place for Mary to deliver their son, he recalls his reaction on the day Mary came to tell him she was with child:

“He hadn’t believed a word she told him until later that evening. … And now, here they were together tonight. She had been considered ‘able’ by God to bring His Son, Immanuel, into this world , into their family, their families” (“A Stable Birth,” p. 12.)

Mary and Joseph fall asleep after Jesus is delivered. The author shifts the attention of the reader to the shepherds in the fields. After tending their sheep, they settled down for the night when an angel announces the savior has been born. Those who heard the message run off to find the savior. Joseph is protective of Mary and Jesus, interrogating the shepherds until he is certain they mean no harm. Mary and Joseph allow them in to see Jesus, after which they return to the sheep and the one shepherd who had stayed behind. In the morning the innkeeper and his wife come to the stable for breakfast. Later in the day Joseph recounts to the innkeeper the details about who Jesus and Mary are. He, in turn, has to find a way to let his wife know who Jesus is and the importance of keeping the news to themselves for now.

“A Stable Birth” can be ordered here.

“Author Paul brings the biblical story to life in a good page turner. She also includes questions for discussion for readers to use for education and formation purposes. This is a book for people who might have wondered what it was like to be Mary and Joseph during and after Jesus’ birth. It is for people with curiosity about the shepherds who came to see Jesus, and even for those who might have thought about an innkeeper who does not appear in the Gospel but is important to the telling of Paul’s story.” — Kathy Whitt, “Whitticisms” blog

Bulletin Insert: 8 Pentecost (A)

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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August 3, 2014

“The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ,” detail from Duccio di Buoninsegna’s  “The Maestà” (1308-1311), tempera on wood, altar of Sienna Cathedral, Italy

“The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ,” detail from Duccio di Buoninsegna’s “The Maestà” (1308-1311), tempera on wood, altar of Sienna Cathedral, Italy

August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which commemorates Jesus’ unveiling as the Son of God, and his radical change of appearance while in the presence of Peter, James and John on a mountaintop.

The Gospel of Matthew records that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” At this moment Moses and Elijah appeared, and they were talking with Jesus. Peter, misunderstanding the meaning of this manifestation, offered to make three “booths”  (or “dwellings”) for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. A bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud stated, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples fell on their faces in awe, but Jesus encouraged them to arise and “have no fear.” When the disciples looked up, they saw only Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8).

The Transfiguration is also mentioned in two other gospel accounts (Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36) and is referred to in the Second Letter of Peter, which records that “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” and “we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel (Photo by Berthold Werner)

Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel
(Photo by Berthold Werner)

The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment because it revealed Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion, and it anticipated his resurrection and ascension. It also prefigures the glorification of human nature in Christ.

Celebration of the Transfiguration began in the eastern church in the late fourth century. The feast is celebrated on August 6, the date of the dedication of the first church built on Mount Tabor, which is traditionally considered to be the “high mountain” of the Transfiguration. There are scholars, however, who believe the Transfiguration occurred either on Mount Hermon, which borders Syria and Lebanon, or on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Collect for the Transfiguration

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 243).

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 8/3/14
half page, double-sided 8/3/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 8/3/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 8/3/14

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

Our faith inside the boat, 9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A) – 2014

August 10, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28and Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (or 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13)Romans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Jesus calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and sidetracked from keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. And if we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. If you do an Internet search on “walk on water,” you’ll get links to business consulting firms, fashion companies, science projects – all of them proponents of going the extra mile (another biblical phrase that’s gone mainstream). It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box,” “The early bird catches the worm,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.

But is that really what Jesus really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.

So I wonder if when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the church. And no wonder. Think of a ship, a vessel large enough that it takes a number of people doing diverse things to get it to move. A ship is a great symbol for the church. Moving through the waters on a gorgeous day can be simply glorious. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbor. Christians have long treasured this image of the church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.

In today’s lesson, Jesus makes the disciples, those who would follow him, get into a boat, and head out across the sea. The gospel says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.

But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Jesus doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their scriptures. Psalm 77 says, “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. … Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” In Job 9:8, God overcomes the powers of chaos, pictured as a stormy sea. It says, “God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”

If.

There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, beautiful, real Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”

If.

Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.

That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives them a promise – all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Jesus has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.

There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

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

 

Ben Maddison

Ben Maddison is a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary. He was ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons on November 1, 2014 in the Diocese of New Jersey. He enjoys spending time with his wife and their two Great Danes.

Read Ben’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Proper 14 (A).

Read Ben’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 1 Advent (B).

Bible Study: 9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A)

August 10, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Genesis is an origins story. Through Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and Rachel and Jacob (Israel), God worked and blessed one family – one dynasty – to set aside God’s people on earth. Chapter 37 is the final story of Genesis – that of Joseph recording how the people of Israel would come to Egypt and inevitably be enslaved, leading to the events of Exodus.

Unlike the earlier patriarchal narratives, Joseph’s story is conspicuously lacking any direct intervention, or disclosure, of God’s will or direction. Several times throughout Joseph’s narrative, God’s absence is noticeable, but never more than during the plot to murder Joseph. However, if we look closely, we can see God working throughout the narrative, especially, in this instance, through Ruben, the eldest of the 12 sons of Jacob. While his brothers plot to kill Joseph, Reuben exerts his right as oldest son to change their plans. In verse 22, Reuben demands that his brothers “Shed no blood,” plotting instead to come later and rescue Joseph.

Despite Reuben’s plans, Joseph is still sold into slavery, and the Joseph narrative continues to Egypt. However, Reuben’s act of compassion (whether out of fraternal love, fear, self-interest or expectation) portends Joseph’s words of forgiveness to his brothers in 50:20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

Discuss the roles of various parties in this story (Joseph, Jacob, Reuben, the brothers, etc.)

In what ways do you see God working in this story – directly or indirectly?

Have you experienced times of God’s absence? If you have, how did you look for God working in your life?

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

In New Testament studies there is German word –  heilsgeschichte – that describes the work of God throughout history; in English, heilsgeschichte translates as “salvation history,” culminating in the redemptive and reconciliatory work of Jesus Christ. However, as Paul shows in Romans, salvation history did not begin with Jesus, but with the dynasties of the Israelite families.

Psalm 105 provides us with a brief and poetic retelling of God’s salvation history for the people of Israel, from Joseph to Canna.

The psalm begins with an exhortation of the work of God (verses 1-6). This psalm of praise clues us into the purpose of the psalm – to thank God for the work God has done, and to be affected by and remember that work. In short, this psalm is a call to remember and a call to respond.

However, what is noticeably absent from the psalm is the disobedience of God’s people – of Joseph’s brothers or the Israelites in the wilderness. All records of history have a lens through which they view past events – sometimes it is a whitewash and other times it is an unfair representation. However, the writer of the psalm makes the lens clear to us: “That they might keep his statutes/and observe his laws. /Hallelujah!” (verse 45). In short, we give thanks to God because God provides for us in the past, present and future.

Discuss the elements of Psalm 105:16-22 in relation to Gen 37:1-4, 12-28. What is similar or different?

Where in your life have you seen God’s hand?

How do you give thanks to God, or respond, when you feel that God is moving and working for your benefit?

Romans 10:5-15

For centuries, Romans was used by theologians as a “Cliff’s Notes” for theology, gleaning singular theological truths from Paul’s first-century letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome. However, scholarship that is more recent understands that Romans is Paul’s creative reimagining of Jewish salvation history, now completed by the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

Chapter 10 of Romans is the last chapter of Paul’s second section of reimagining salvation history. In this section, Paul shows how the salvation history of Israel is completed through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Verses 12-13 are central to this radical inclusion: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” In this pericope, Paul shows that faith – which in Chapter 4 Paul showed preceded the Law, because Abraham was justified by his faith prior to the covenant of Moses – eliminates the distinctions that separate Jew and Greek. No longer, says Paul, will some be excluded from God’s plan of salvation; the work of Jesus is for everyone!

Discuss how Paul understands salvation history, and how his narrative is similar to and different from the earlier readings.

In what ways are you, your family or your church living into the truth of Paul’s words that there is no “distinction” between any of us?

Matthew 14:22-33

The writer of Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians and to Jews to help them understand the role of Jesus as the Messiah. In his gospel narrative, Matthew includes many miracles to point to the power and authority of Jesus, God’s Son and the Messiah. One such sign, and one of the most well known, appears in today’s gospel reading: Jesus walking on the water.

In verse 33, Peter proclaims to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.” However, two verses earlier, Peter doubts the power of Jesus, and fails to walk on water. How are we to understand the role that Jesus plays in our lives and his power to reconcile us to God if even the disciples doubted Jesus’ authority?

The most important thing to glean from this story comes from verse 28. When Peter sees Jesus, he is so inspired and moved by his power that he asks Jesus to let him participate in the miracle. As the other verses have shown, God’s plan for humanity is a long one, but God is always there to provide. What the story of Jesus walking on the water does is remind us that we are a part of salvation history. We are not passive participants in the work of God, but we are active co-creators, bringing about the Kingdom and will of God on earth. We are Peter; we want to walk on the water with Jesus.

How do you see this passage illuminating the person and work of Jesus?

Have you ever doubted? How were you able to find faith in times of doubt?

How will you participate in salvation history?

Who is Jesus to us?, The Transfiguration (A,B,C) – 2014

August 6, 2014

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

Each year, we hear the story of the Transfiguration twice – once on the Last Sunday After Epiphany and again on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is a narrative common to all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Moses and Elijah, long-deceased prophets of Israel, appear on a mountain with Jesus, whose appearance has radically changed. All in front of the disciples, who don’t seem to know quite what to make of all this, with a voice that comes from a cloud proclaiming Jesus as the Beloved Son and a command to listen to him. Admittedly, it is a strange story – especially to our modern, enlightened, scientific culture. Rather than seek a rational understanding of the spectacular details in this story, it might be more helpful to consider why it is told rather than what is said.

The Transfiguration in Luke follows on the heels of four vignettes that frame the repeated question of Jesus’ identity. First, Jesus sends out the 12 disciples and gave them “power and authority” over all demons and to cure diseases. As Christians who know the rest of the story, we might never stop to think about the audacity of this act. Who does Jesus think he is to grant mere mortals the power and authority over demons and to cure disease? Luke’s original audience might have asked this question at this point in the story. Who does Jesus think he is? He tells them to take nothing for their journey – in other words, rely on God alone for the provision of your needs. The disciples do as Jesus commands them, and we hear they bring the good news throughout the villages and cure diseases everywhere.

The second vignette cuts to Herod the Tetrarch hearing about “all that had taken place,” and we hear he is perplexed about the identity of Jesus. The buzz in the street is that Elijah had appeared or one of the prophets of old had been raised from the dead. Herod knows this cannot be John the Baptist – he ordered John beheaded. Luke tells us Herod tried to see Jesus, but there is no indication he was ever able to arrange the meeting.

This perplexity of Herod and the introduction of the idea that Jesus might be Elijah returned sets the stage for the third vignette: the feeding of the 5,000. Here we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the meager offering of five loaves of bread and two fish. This feeding miracle is not directly linked to Elijah, but to his successor prophet Elisha, who, as recorded in the Second Book of Kings, fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread. This feeding miracle, preceded by the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain in Luke 7, is linking Jesus to these great prophets of ancient Israel. Could Jesus be one of these great prophets?

Now Jesus puts the question clearly to the disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

Who the crowds say that Jesus is has been set up by Luke’s narrative – he’s John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets arisen. But it is Peter who speaks the deeper reality: “You are the Christ of God.” While Peter says this, it is not clear that he or the disciples understand the full ramifications of what it means. Jesus continues on and tells them the Christ of God, the anointed one, must suffer and die at the hands of the very religious experts who claim to speak for God! This teaching just doesn’t make any sense to a first-century Jew – surely it perplexed the disciples.

It is after all of this that Luke tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus’ appearance was “transfigured” or, in Greek, “metamorphosed.” Instead, he says the appearance of Jesus’ face “changed,” which in Greek reads “became other.” Jesus’ face became different, and his clothing became dazzling white. This change in the appearance of Jesus’ face is reminiscent of the change in appearance of Moses’ face as he came down from Sinai, which continues the theme of Jesus being one of these ancient prophets. It is at this point our idea that Jesus is either Moses or Elijah is shattered when both of these ancient prophets appear with Jesus and begin to speak of Jesus’ departure – or, in Greek, “exodus” – which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. All three appear in glory as they speak of another exodus – an exodus through the suffering of the cross. Suddenly, the meaning of what it is to be the Christ of God is revealed as the veil is lifted for the disciples to see.

As Moses and Elijah depart, Peter, not really knowing what he was saying, blurts out his offer to build three booths: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. While Peter’s thinking was lacking clarity – cloudy, if you will – a cloud descends on the disciples and they enter the cloud filled with terror. They hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice interrupts Peter’s babblings about booths and brings clarity to all of the disciples: Jesus is no ordinary prophet. He is not just another great teacher. Jesus is the Son of God, the Chosen one, and this is why we are to listen to him.

The story of the Transfiguration is one that grounds the identity of Jesus as Son of God, but through the experience of suffering, death and resurrection. Luke’s narrative hints at the glory of the empty tomb, but only after Jesus says it will come through the darkness of suffering and death. The earthly trappings of glory – power, riches and fame – are not the same as the glory of God brought to us through the cross.

The Transfiguration is a story that calls us to face our understanding of Jesus’ identity: “Who is Jesus to me?” and “Who is Jesus to us?” And although we hear this story over and over, we still have trouble accepting a Christ of God whose glory comes through suffering and death.

After 2,000 years, we still resist this message! Our cultural trappings around Christianity have distorted his glory as being grounded in something other than his suffering, death and resurrection. We are tempted to wrap Jesus in all kinds of false messages, because glory through suffering still makes no sense. We see evidence of this when we hear Jesus wrapped in nationalism by those who claim we are a “Christian nation” and attempt to enshrine biblical interpretation in secular law. We see it in the claims of prosperity from theologians who claim that all God wants to do is to bless you with more wealth and privilege, and imply that if you do not receive these blessings, it is because you are not “right with the Lord.” All of these false messages of glory through something other than the cross are false teachings. But they are persistent because God’s glory revealed through death and resurrection just does not make rational sense.

But just because something is not rational does not mean it is not real.

We may, like the disciples, see only brief glimpses of God’s glory in this life, while other worldly claims seem more prevalent. But our call as Christians is to see through false claims of earthly glory. We are to face the cross, its suffering and death, trusting that a resurrected life in God lies beyond.

Who do we say Jesus is? He is the crucified one with whom we are joined in baptism in a life where suffering and death happen, but are not the last word.

 

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

Bulletin Insert: 7 Pentecost (A)

The Feast of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany

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

July 27, 2014

Icon of Christ at the home of Mary and Martha from the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem (Photo by Vladimir Shelgunov)

Icon of Christ at the home of Mary and Martha from the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem
(Photo by Vladimir Shelgunov)

Each year on July 29, the church celebrates the Feast of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. These siblings, who lived in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem, are described in the gospels of Luke and John as not only being devout followers of Jesus, but being his close friends as well.

One of the most familiar gospel accounts of Jesus’ relationship to Mary and Martha is in the Gospel of Luke, which describes Jesus visiting their home:   

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV).

“The Raising of Lazarus” folio from “Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry,” a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of the Book of Hours,  Condé Museum, Chantilly, France

“The Raising of Lazarus” folio from “Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry,” a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of the Book of Hours,
Condé Museum, Chantilly, France

When their brother Lazarus fell ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus to heal him. Although Lazarus “had already been in the tomb for four days” (John 11:17) when Jesus arrived, Jesus performed a miracle. He prayed to God and “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).

Later, when Jesus was at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus for a dinner in his honor, the Gospel of John identifies Mary of Bethany as the woman who “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (John 12:3).

“Holy Women, Holy Men” (Church Publishing, 2010) describes the devotion of Mary, Martha and Lazarus to Jesus as “an example of fidelity and service to the Lord. Their hospitality and kindness, and Jesus’ enjoyment of their company, show us the beauty of human friendship and love at its best. And the raising of Lazarus by Jesus is a sign of hope and promise for all who are in Christ” (p. 492).

Collect for Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany

Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (“Holy Women, Holy Men,” p. 493).

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 7/27/14
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black and white, full page, one-sided 7/27/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 7/27/14

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