Archives for August 2015

God’s Story, Our Story, Proper 19 (B) – 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

On October 1, 1996 a book called The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks made its debut. Almost ten years later, on June 25, 2004, the movie adaptation came out with the story coming to life through actors Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, and James Garner. The story is about an elderly couple that is dealing with the wife’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in an assisted care facility and her husband visits her regularly, always with a notebook in hand. What the story reveals, through a series of flashbacks to when they were young, is that the husband is reading, from his notebook, their love story over and over again, in hopes that his wife will remember some of it one day. It is a sweet, poignant story that those of us who have experienced loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia can certainly relate to.

The wife in the story does not remember who she is and so the husband reminds her over and over again. He tells her who she is and who they are together. Their story is important, not only to her, but to him. It is gives him meaning and purpose in the midst of tragic circumstances.

How often do we need to be reminded of our own stories? As we continue to grow and change as people faced with a variety of circumstances, we can lose sight of our true selves and need to be reminded. This happens in all aspects of our lives, including our faith.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts of his time. Then he will be killed and after three days, rise from the dead. Jesus knows his own story and he does not make excuses about it. In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, knowledge of one’s own death was a sign of wisdom or of someone with great powers. Jesus is matter of fact about his story because he is focused on serving God. He is connected to our experience of human life and clearly sees the lay of the land, but it does not deter him from obedience to God and understanding his belonging in God’s story.

Later, he asks his disciples, the crowd, and ultimately us, two very important questions that the Common English Bible version puts this way, “Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?” Another way to understand it is from the Bible version called The Message, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Remarkable questions. Jesus wants to know our stories and the answers to these questions reveal who we truly are and what we believe about our stories.

Those answers also reveal who we believe Jesus is. Do we believe in the story that he tells—the Jesus that Peter says is the Messiah? Do we believe in the Jesus that will be rejected by so many and left to die on a cross, only to be resurrected? Do we believe all of these stories? Do we believe in the ministry of suffering and self-sacrifice? It’s a tough one. Either Jesus is crazy, a con man, or what he says is true.

In your own life, when Jesus looks at you and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” How do you respond? When a friend or neighbor or colleague asks, “Are you a Christian?” What story do you tell? When we “get around [our] fickle and unfocused friends,” as Jesus says in a Bible version called The Message, are we embarrassed of the way Jesus is leading us in our lives?

The Gospel today has an interesting interpretation in The Message. Jesus says, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.” This is clearly a different message than what we hear from the world around us and from our human nature that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. God is calling us into living a different way; to be part of a different story than the one the world is telling us.

The idea that suffering and self-sacrifice are incompatible with faith is a danger. There is nothing in the scriptures that says that God will remove all the trials of our lives if we pray hard enough. Instead of asking for the trials to be lifted, perhaps we need to recognize where God is present in them. In these instances it is about prayer being a conduit for opening ourselves to what God wills and not trying to force God to do our will. Even though our desires to turn God into a magic puppet come from a deep place of longing, if we’re honest, when has that ever been successful?

God is asking us to offer our whole selves—our time, our talents, our treasures, and especially those parts of us that are suffering—and to trust that we will be led into a more meaningful life than what we could come up with ourselves. That’s a big commitment, but we can choose to make it on a daily basis, so it isn’t as overwhelming. It is the little things that we do that create the tapestry of life that we look back on. They may not be noticed in the moment, but they are felt over a lifetime.

In the book The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor puts it this way:

Just being who you are
not justifying or apologizing
it sounds so easy
it’s a life work
not to get caught in
producing
performing
proving
keeping accounts of indebtedness
waiting for gratitude, reward
ambition
manipulation
staggering self-pity
but cultivating
the habit of being.

It is cultivating a habit of being that seeks God first for advice and not our friends. That prays first, then responds. That embraces silence, instead of trying to fill it. That opens the heart and notices God’s abiding. That tells God’s story, hearing it echo in our own.

Like the couple in The Notebook, may we remind each other of God’s love story when we lose our way and may we have the courage to keep writing it, bit by bit, as we are transformed. AMEN.

 

Download the sermon for Proper 19B.

 

The Rev. Danáe Ashley has served parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota. She is currently the Associate Priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate.

Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B) – 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” Is this in the Bible? I hope everyone is thinking—no! It’s a proverb, of course, but one of Benjamin Franklin’s, not from the Old Testament. However, it could have been one as the book of Proverbs is full of earthly and spiritual wisdom.

We may think of proverbs as clever sayings thought up by people like Ben Franklin, who was a master at crafting these sayings. Parents have a million of these sayings at their disposal. It must come with becoming a parent. Saying such as, “Don’t make that face, it will stick that way.” “Don’t go out with a wet head, you’ll catch cold.” “Little pitchers have big ears.” I’m sure you could add many, many more, and aren’t they fun! For the next three weeks we will be treated to a different type of proverb, these are focused on wisdom – words that are not just clever clichés, but rather those that make us think seriously about how we live in our world and interrelate with each other.

Today, in a very concise and clear set of verses, we consider justice and poverty, which is very topical considering what’s happening in the world around us. As with most proverbs, these get quickly to the point, which makes them very memorable. “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…” “Those who are generous are blessed …” When we think about the former, we should be reminded that not only do those who sow injustice eventually reap the punishment of calamity upon themselves, but sadly, they also reap calamity immediately upon those they persecute. We might usually think about the justice that will be dealt upon those who do wrong when we read scripture verses like these. But don’t we also wonder sometimes why punishment doesn’t seem to come quickly enough (according to us!) to those who deliberately do evil to others. It doesn’t seem fair that those who are unjust seem to get away with their crime against God’s people. People often say things like, “Why did God allow those young girls in Nigeria get kidnapped and tortured by the Boko Haran?” We may even say things like that ourselves. Why isn’t God’s justice immediate and complete?

Why, indeed, but we must remember one of the great gifts God gave to us as human beings is free will. If God had a finger in everything we do, if God pushed and manipulated us as a puppet maker can manipulate the strings of a wooden puppet, then perhaps the world would be full of nice people going about their business like – well, like puppets. We wouldn’t have to think. God would never cause us to do evil if God was the puppet maker. So we have to remember that we live in a very natural world. We live in a world full of human beings who are all made in God’s image and likeness, but all with the free will to behave as they choose. Too many people today forget that most wonderful section of Genesis where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” Part of that is remembering that within God is ultimate and perfect freedom and so we have the freedom to choose to do good or do evil.

Justice will come, but we may not know how those who do evil will be judged or what the outcome will be. It must be enough that we trust God and know that God loves all of us, good, bad, or indifferent. God also hopes that we who try to do good will pray for those who do evil. We will work however we can to show the world that love can overcome hate, generosity can overcome greed, the mystery of prayer can overcome evil.

But, it’s not all grim. We aren’t always faced with evil that we must suffer under or overcome. There is a very positive side to the proverbs. Parents also have those positive proverbs like, “You will always be my baby” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” In our reading today we find the proverb that says, “Those who are generous are blessed…” Yes, the generous themselves are blessed by grace, but also those who are the recipients of our generosity are blessed. There is a beautiful interaction there of blessedness. A woman therapist wrote in a blog that as she was waiting in a grocery checkout line one day, she made eye contact with another woman. They didn’t know each other, but they both smiled and in that moment, the therapist wrote, “I felt such love for her as a fellow human being. There was something beautiful in our acknowledgement of each other.”

We also must know many people who have touched our own lives with love and blessing. So many people touch our lives with their kindness, with the little things that have “made our day” as we so often say. Teachers often are the ones who help us change our lives. Many fall in love with those who have kindled a spark of something special within us. There is so much good in the world if we can only turn away from the news headlines and look into the eyes of our fellow human beings.

The Jewish people use the word mitzvah, which is often translated good deed. And rabbis will tell you that it means more—it comes from the root word tzavta, which means connection or commandment. Connection is a lovely translation. Whenever we share with the poor, speak out against injustice (especially when the injustice is right in front of our eyes), or respond with love to another, we are establishing a connection. That connection is not only between us and another person, but also between ourselves and God.

“The Lord is the maker of us all…” We dare not forget this, but isn’t it a much better mitzvah for us all to look on each other with the same love with which God looks on each one of us!

 

Download the sermon for Proper 18B.

 

Written by The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz who is currently a bi-vocational vicar in a 9 parish rural ministry team in North Devon and as a relief milker for 2 area dairies. Serves as Rural Dean for the Torridge Deanery, Diocese of Exeter. She was formerly on the faculty of the School of Theology, Sewanee, teaching contextual education and rural studies. She offers workshops and consultations for small churches and dioceses and is passionate about agricultural and rural small church issues.  

Love Received is Love to be Shared – Proper 17(B) – 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It is, in the end, the return of the spirit to the place where love of God is born, not where it is mastered, that right relationship with God and one another will be found. Remember that life is short. We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Simply, very simply: let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God will be received and given, in one fell swoop, in our relations with others and with God each day.

Yes. It is that simple.

To read the sermon, click here.

Download the sermon for Proper 17, Year B.

Written by Steve Kelsey who is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years Steve has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.

The Word Made Flesh – Proper 16(B) – 2015

(RCL) 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84 (Track 2: Joshua 24:1-20, 14-18 and Psalm 34: 15-29); Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Once we accept the miracle of the Incarnation, all other miracles, all other signs, together with the words of life eternal, find their proper place in creation. If we accept that, the greatest of all marvels, nothing else is marvelous indeed. We abide in the marvel of the Word that became flesh, the Bread of life. Thanks be to God.

To read the sermon, click here.

Download the sermon, for Proper 16, Year B.

Written by Katerina Whitley who is the author of Light to the Darkness: Lessons and Carols, Public and Private (Morehouse, 2008), and a teacher at Appalachian State University.