Archives for September 2015

Drink the Cup Jesus Drinks, Proper 24(B) – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b; Job 38:1-7,(34-41); Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

One remarkable thing about a lot of Christians is the way they approach the world and one another. There is a quiet reserve, a sense of hospitality and genuine submission to one another. People who observe this often mistake it for weakness, but it is a genuine behavior marked by love and concern for the other. That is because Christians who practice their faith and heed the teachings of Scripture do amend their ways over time.

In today’s Hebrew scripture and Gospel readings there is a theme of submission that is easily ignored in our culture of strong egos and competition. We begin with Job’s encounter with God. Job’s friends are debating why such suffering has been inflicted upon him. Job has lost his family, his cattle and land and has suffered impoverishment and illness. They finally conclude there is no answer except that God is “great in power and justice.”

Then God himself answers Job out of the whirlwind in some of the most majestic poetry in Scripture. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38 vss. 4-7 NRSV)

This is grandeur on a scale of which we need to be reminded. We often personalize God and reduce God’s image to that of benevolent teddy bear who gives us warm hugs. This God is no teddy; and Job is swept up in the presence of the God of creation resulting in his own humbling submission.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is confronted with a request: James and John want to join him as a power triumvirate in heaven. They presume their friendship and respect for him comes with a reward, and they want to lock it in while things are going well. Jesus’ response is to use their request as a teaching moment for his disciples and each of us: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:38-40 NRSV)

So, Job and James and John are looking at things the way we often do. They tend to see God as someone to be placated either through worship, obedience or honorifics, but they expect something in return. In Job’s case, he gets unmitigated suffering and loss. James and John are also warned that the cup of suffering will be theirs. Okay, so who signs on for that?

Well, many do. There are Christians throughout the world that have embraced the God of the whirlwind and have accepted the cup of suffering. Desmond Tutu comes to mind as one who could have simply held the positions of Bishop of Johannesburg and then Archbishop of Capetown with their status and privilege. Instead he used those offices and his Nobel Prize to challenge the evil of apartheid, risking his own life because he knew, loved and served a God who was above and beyond all earthly powers.

Carl is a man who had a successful career as a consultant. After his retirement he continued to attend his church, but he also devoted his time to finding out who were the poor in his community and bringing people together to help serve them. He helped organize weekly suppers for everybody at his church with meals supplied by local restaurants. He created new community where people from the neighborhood and all walks of life met for food and fellowship. He also organized a successful program that began providing food on the weekends for children in need. Now afflicted with a serious illness, he and his wife continue to remain interested and concerned about others.

These examples of Christians who are willing to drink the cup Jesus drinks are our guides to Christian living. They know what truly matters to God and they are at work in the world without care about their place or prominence in the Kingdom of God.

The readings today help us focus on the question of what God expects of us, and how we are loved by God. The teddy bear hugs are replaced with leadership for true and laudable service to one another, especially the stranger, the poor and the needy. When we behave as people of God on a mission, little else matters.

Download the Sermon for Proper 24B.

Written by The Rev. Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Arkansas.

Bible Study: Proper 23(B), October 11, 2015

(RCL) Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

There are two kinds of good love songs. The happy ones that make me spin around with the joy of new love and the sad ones that take me down to the pit of despair. There are very few in between. The song that Job sings in his despair to us takes our breath away. And this is how it must be for Job has experienced the death of his children.

Job’s friends have pontificated to him their religious wisdom. His own beliefs about the universe and the God who made him have crumbled one by one. Who could do otherwise? Who are we to judge?

His poem of abandonment silences his well-meaning friends and all of us who seek to theologize over the graves of children. His words echo through time and space, reminding us that the tragedies of life do not make sense. Our losses call into question everything we believe about the goodness of God and the universe.

We have heard that God is love and that God loves us, but how does God love us when our children die and God is nowhere to be found? Job is crying for justice and he is weeping for his losses. Sometimes that is all we can do. The ancient people of God join him in this cry, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

God did not give a theological answer to Job’s suffering, or all the suffering in the world since time immemorial. He gave his only son and this beloved son suffered on this planet. “Jesus is the answer to which every human life is the question,” said John Paul II.

If we can sing this song with Job, here in the dust of death, perhaps we are able to enter more fully into the mysteries and joys of the incarnation and resurrection.

  • What have you said when someone you know loses a child? What can you say?
  • Why is there evil in the world?
  • Where is God when I’m hurting?
Psalm 22:1-15 Page 610, BCP

“Eli, Eli,” Jesus cried from the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We do not know why these final words from the cross were recorded in Aramaic. Why would the evangelists record the words of Jesus in his mother tongue? He was clearly quoting this Psalm, using the Psalm as countless humans have used it over the centuries, to put into words that experience which has no words.

To be forsaken by God is to be ultimately forsaken. Even the word, “forsaken” has a haunting quality about it that makes us shudder. In his anguish, in his suffering, he gasps these words as he hangs between earth and sky. Our own words are too feeble, so we turn to Psalms like this and mumble them into the sink or shout them to the silent heavens.

These words are powerful, for they go deeper into the depths of despair than any other words we find in all the poetry of the world. They go deep into the heart of darkness, the abyss, that yawns before us and beckons us to abandon all hope therein.

No one can say these words out-loud without feeling their intensity. If you heard them on that first Good Friday you would never forget them. Not ever, no matter how many years separated you from the first Good Friday.

And that is why they are preserved in the original Aramaic.

  • Have you ever found a poem that expressed your thoughts better than you could?
  • What do you feel when you read that first line?
  • Was there a time in your life when you thought God had forsaken you? What did you do about it?
Hebrews 4:12-16

I have only used a sword once in my life. I was a young Marine Corporal, the lowest Non-commissioned officer rank in the USMC. Being a corporal authorized me to wear the “Blood stripe” on my pants and carry a sword. The only day I carried a sword was one of my fellow Marine’s wedding day. I was part of the “Sword arch.”

On that day we stood at the back of the church, three on each side of the aisle. I stood facing another Marine from my Combat Engineer Company. We tried not to laugh as we stared into each other’s eyes for a very long time. When the bride and groom came down the aisle, we unsheathed our swords and pointed them straight ahead, forming an arch. The happy couple walked underneath the crossed swords.

A sword is a mark of rank in the military and no matter how ceremonial it is, it’s still a weapon. It’s blade is meant to cut into the flesh of the enemy and kill him. Swords are dangerous things. And so is the word of God.

The author of Hebrews says it will cut us to the bone. The word of God can determine what is happening in our hearts. It is little wonder that the Service of the Word in our Prayer Book opens with the Collect for Purity, a prayer that comes from this text of Scripture.

The word pierces and cuts us, reminding us of how far we have to go to be perfect, to be righteous. Thankfully, this text also tells us that we have a high priest who understands this about us. Reconciliation happens for us in two acts. First, when the God’s word pierces us and we stand honestly before God. Second, when our great high priest brings us right up to the throne of Grace.

  • Have you ever felt that God was speaking to you?
  • Was it a good feeling?
  • What do you think about during the collect for purity?
Mark 10:17-31

My wife and I recently took our boys to a small art gallery in Austin. My pre-teen boys were intrigued by the simplicity of the paintings on the wall. Since they were in jocular moods, they started to quote lines from the Bob’s Burgers episode, “Art Crawl.” It’s easy to make fun of contemporary art, especially if you are eleven or you don’t look at it closely.

Then one of them said it. “I could have done that.” “I could be an artist.” My classic response, of course, was “But you didn’t” and “Sure thing, have at it!”

As we were leaving, I showed the boys the Catalog. When they saw that one of the paintings was selling for $45,000 their eyes grew wide with wonder. They looked at me. “Could this be?” They said.

Why does our understanding of something change when we know something was bought for $45,000? For most things in life the retail cost is about the only way we know something is valuable.

Money isn’t going away anytime soon. However, Jesus offers us the possibility to see past it, especially when it comes to the things that matter most in life. He tells this young man there is freedom in leaving things behind. Being with Jesus and his disciples is how we ought to judge value in this cash-rich and love-poor world.

  • If you could put a price tag on every person and thing in your life, what would that look like?
  • Do you love anything that isn’t worth money?
  • What is the largest amount of money you have ever given away to a poor stranger that you’ll never see again?

 Download the Bible Study for Proper 23B Bible Study

Written by The Rev. Dr. David W. Peters from Seminary of the Southwest

The Rev. Dr. David Peters has served as an enlisted Marine and an Army Chaplain in Iraq. His experience in Iraq and homecoming is detailed in his memoir, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War (Tactical 16 Press). His essays on war and spirituality have been published by the Huffington Post and Oxford University Press. He lives in Austin, Texas at Seminary of the Southwest, where he is working on a Masters of Arts in Religion.  

What do you think heaven is?, Pentecost 18, Proper 21 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (Track 2: Amos 6:1a, 4-7 and Psalm 146); 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

What do you think heaven is?

A man told this story of his experience just before his father died. The man and his sister were taking care of their father who was in the last stages of cancer, the man staying with their bed-ridden father during the day and his sister staying with their father through the night.

It had been a hard day. The man and his father had not always gotten along well, and on this particular day his father was especially irritable and giving him a hard time. The man was impatient, waiting for his sister to come for the night shift. He had his coat and shoes on so he could leave as quickly as possible when she arrived. But he heard his father call to him from the other room. He went in, and his father asked, “What do you think happens to us after this life?”

A big question. A serious question. The man didn’t have many words, but he thought he could show his father his answer. He got into the bed and lay down beside his father. He asked him, “Dad, do you love me?”

“You know I love you,” his father said.

The man touched his own chest and then touched his father’s, right above his heart. The man asked, “How much of our ability to love do you think we use during our lives? Ten percent?”

“Fifteen,” said his father.

“Okay,” said the man. “In heaven,” he said, touching his own chest and then his father’s, “100 percent.”

The next day the man got a call from his sister, telling him his father had died, quite peacefully. But before he died, he made a gesture she didn’t understand. Just before he died, he looked at her, and he touched his chest – his heart – and then reached up and touched hers.

In heaven, 100 percent: true connectedness, true love, right relationship, no chasms between us.

We were made for relationship. We were made to be in right relationship with God and one another, 100 percent. But we don’t live that way. We always have a relationship with something else, something that takes up part of that heart space so we don’t use all 100 percent for loving God and loving our neighbor. Sometimes that something is money or seeking our own comfort over the needs of others.

In our reading today from 1 Timothy, Paul exhorts the faithful not to get too close to the uncertainty of riches, but instead draw close to “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” If you live in right relationship with God, it will show in this way, says Paul: doing good, being rich in good works, being generous and ready to share. And living this way will allow us to “take hold of the life that really is life.” Not the appearance of life – what this world trumpets as the good life – material comforts – but the life that really is life, the abundance that comes from living heart to heart, 100 percent now.

The story Jesus tells in the gospel could be an elaboration on this reading. It is easy to talk about righteousness in general, as a concept, in the abstract. It is quite another matter to deal with it in the particular.

“Poverty” doesn’t lie outside the rich man’s gate; a poor, starving human being does. He is covered with sores, willing to eat scraps; a man, with a name: Lazarus.

The rich man, although his sumptuous lifestyle would have him deny it, has a need too. The rich man needs to serve Lazarus as a brother. Together they could help each other experience “the life that really is life.” But during this life, the rich man does not notice Lazarus, much less care for him. It’s as if Lazarus doesn’t exist for him. A great chasm separates the two men, a chasm of the rich man’s making.

The scene shifts to heaven. All is reversed. Lazarus is content. The rich man is in torment. The rich man longs for even a drop of water to cool the tongue that had tasted so many pleasing foods during his life.

And yet, the rich man still does not care about Lazarus. In his torment, he wants to use Lazarus as a servant. “Send him to put a drop of water to cool my tongue,” he asks.

“No,” says Abraham. The chasm between you that you dug during your life has become impassable. The gulf by which you were comforted in life has become un-crossable.

The truth of this parable is that the rich man needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs the rich man. The independence that riches seem to bring is only an illusion. The rich man thinks he can afford not to see Lazarus lying outside his gate. The rich man lives under the illusion that we are islands, contrary to John Donne’s wisdom, entire of ourselves. We are separated by gulfs, and we can only build so many bridges. The rich man lives with the illusion that we are intrinsically separate beings, our own possessions, and that to be responsible only for ourselves is enough.

Like Cain in Genesis, the rich man shrugs, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” assuming it is a rhetorical question, not dreaming that the answer may be “yes.” Yes, you are responsible, and your choices – to see, to notice, to serve, to love, or not – matter.

Perhaps for the rich man the gulf between himself and the beggar with his sores brings him a sense of safety. Perhaps he feels there is little he can do, little difference he can make. Perhaps he sees the gulf as a necessary evil. Perhaps the rich man is afraid of really being seen – of being revealed as inept or powerless or empty despite his material success.

Jesus’ parable points to something better for us, something better and more real – the reality that we were created not to be alone, but to be loved; not to be users of one another, but to be partners in the world. We were created not to dig chasms and let gulfs separate us, but to build bridges.

Who are we in this parable? We are not Lazarus, although we may be longing for something. We are not the rich man, although we may have more than we need of material possessions. We are the five brothers, the brothers and sisters of the rich man, still living, whom the rich man wishes to warn, to save from the torment of being on one side of a chasm; the torment of being separated from God; the torment of being able to envision only using people, not loving them, and ignoring the poor, not serving them. We are the five brothers, in danger of waiting for some spectacular sign from God before we will take the message seriously.

No, says Abraham, you have all the sign you need.

And we do. We have the Word, we have the prophets, we even have a man risen from the dead.

All of us have someone sitting by our gates – someone who gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promises of our baptismal covenant, promises to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every person. We have a choice: to build bridges or dig chasms. And we can choose to use 100 percent of our capacity to love now and not wait for heaven.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter
The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, along with her husband, associate, and fellow Sermons That Work contributing writer, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano.

Bible Study: Proper 22(B), October 4, 2015

(RCL) Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Poor Job! Alone in a garbage dump, he has lost all he owned, almost all he loved, and is reduced to scraping his sores with broken trash. Unaware of his starring role as the most blameless and upright person in this heavenly wager, Job’s faith is tested to the limits of his mortal life. Yet he refuses to question God for his misfortune…for now.

When tragedy and illness strike we often wonder how God can seem so absent. We ask why the “blameless” must suffer, and how bad things can happen to good people. Like Job’s friends later in this story, some of us blame divine retribution for our sorrows. What we do know is that no one in this life is spared the realities of pain and loss. Faith does not prevent our suffering, but it holds us in relationship with each other and the One who carries us tenderly through it.

  • How do you share God’s love and mercy with those who suffer?
  • Where do we find God when our hearts and lives have been shattered?
Psalm 26

This psalm is a personal plea to God for justice and mercy, and lays out a case in support of the petition. Like Job, the psalmist is said to have lived a life with “integrity.” A modern appeal could sound like this:

God, please rule in my favor because I am a good person. Get out your fine-toothed comb and see for yourself: I always trust you; I never fall down on the job; you can even check out my heart and thoughts; I love you; I am faithful to you; I don’t hang out with losers, liars, or gangsters; I am thankful to you; I worship you in the right way; and I tell everyone how awesome you are. I will continue to be a good person, so please, don’t throw me out with the bad guys. I promise to remain true to you.

Luckily, God’s love, mercy, and grace are not dependent upon our purity as seen through a divine microscope! The “come as you are” invitation to God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and divine embrace is waiting for each of us right now.

  • What might keep you from accepting this invitation?
  • When do you feel you could use God’s love, mercy, and grace the most?
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

This sermon-letter was written to an early Christian community living through an identity crisis fueled by public animosity and persecution. They are suffering for their faith and need encouragement. The author begins with a statement of faith about the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus to remind the listeners of their own confessions of faith. We continue to explore a theme of suffering in this reading, and see that through his own testing, suffering, and death, Jesus is “not ashamed” to call us all brothers and sisters who share one heavenly parent. As the drama of Jesus’ death ends in grace, honor, and glory, we too are welcomed as God’s children. We are reminded of this when we pray for our brothers and sisters to “Rest in peace and rise in glory!”

  • Has your own identity as a follower of Christ ever been “in crisis?”
  • Have you ever felt ostracized for your faith?
Mark 10:2-16

Jesus takes on toe-to-toe Torah with the Pharisees as they test him with a question about divorce and law. How does one argue against the authority of Moses? Jesus explains it is their “hardness of heart” that requires the law, which sits in opposition to God’s original design. This debate over the commandment is really a glimpse into the kingdom of God, where the restoration of God’s creation trumps our legislation.

We are given another peek into the kingdom when Jesus insists the disciples give the little children access to him. They still don’t understand that the kingdom belongs to the lowliest, the weakest, and the most vulnerable. In welcoming, holding, and blessing these children, Jesus demonstrates for us again that the greatest of all is the servant of all, including the least of all.

  • It can be tempting for church bodies to look to canon and law when faced with conflict. What would a kingdom response look like instead?
  • Who do we knowingly or unknowingly restrict access to in our own communities? To whom would you like to extend the gift of God’s kingdom?

Download the Bible Study for Proper 22B.

Written by Jennifer Pavia of Bloy House, The Episcopal Theological School at Claremont

Jennifer is a third-year seminarian at Bloy House, The Episcopal Theological School at Claremont, a Chaplaincy Intern at Good Samaritan Hospital, Los Angeles, and a postulant to the priesthood in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She serves as Director of Children’s Education at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Monica, and lives with her spouse of 19 years and two daughters, ages 10 and 18.

The Depths of Despair and the Promise of the Kingdom, Proper 23(B) – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 22:1-15; Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

The readings from the Psalm and Job seem to contrast sharply with the gospel and epistle lessons appointed for this day.

In Psalm 22 and in Job we hear the human cry of abandonment and grief caused by the perceived absence of God. By contrast, in the mysterious letter to the Hebrews we are assured of a God who is indeed present to us; God shares in our suffering, the author writes, through Jesus, our high priest. And in the gospel of Mark we are given the promise that we can indeed enter into the presence of God, referred to here as eternal life, by the grace of God. Let us then look at each of these readings.

Job puts into words the experience of so many human beings who cry out to God only to be met by silence:

“Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him,
I turn to the right, and I cannot see him.”

In plain language, God is nowhere. God is absent to Job. In our day, in this advanced 21st century, what comes to mind immediately is the plight of refugees pouring into Europe by the thousands, escaping the horrors of war and utter loss of safety. One wonders: what are they feeling about their God? If they could articulate their pain, it would sound very much like Job’s.

Or to pluck out an example of a fellow Christian from our tragic 20th century history: We see Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1945 sitting in his cold prison in Tegel, echoing the agony of the psalmist and of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

Bonhoeffer, one of the very few Christian pastors to protest the treatment of Jews in the terrible Hitler years in Germany, was imprisoned for a long time and then executed following one of the last orders of that murderous dictator. In a letter from prison he writes:

“God would have us know that we must live as [human beings] who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. . . . Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.” These paradoxical sentences are as tough to listen to as the cry of the psalmist and the lament of Job. And yet they are rejuvenating in their honesty and faith, unlike the silly and empty declarations of what constitutes Christian faith that we hear in the public arena today by people who have no idea how costly Christianity is. Bonhoeffer’s words are life giving because they are the words of one who understood the good news: that the gospel makes no sense without the tragedy and darkness of the cross.

“God has made my heart faint,” Job acknowledges. “The Almighty has terrified me. If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”

Terrible words and utterly truthful; if we have never felt such fear, then we will have difficulty understanding the good news of the kingdom that emerges from the cross. If we have never been confronted by such darkness, we will miss the light. In theological language, we cannot experience resurrection without the death of Good Friday.

In the Letter to the Hebrews the writer reminds his readers who were being tested by severe persecution and suffering that they are not alone:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

By comparison, the gospel story at first reading doesn’t sound so tough, does it? Here comes a lovely young man who is obviously attracted by the message of the charismatic prophet Jesus who speaks words of truth and who heals the sick. How exciting to be in his presence. The man, referred to elsewhere as a ‘rich young ruler,’ comes to Jesus prepared; he is decent and he loves his religion, as do we who are gathered in church today. He is in earnest as he asks an important question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” One cannot help wondering: What kind of answer is he expecting? Jesus gives him a rather obvious Jewish answer. “Keep the commandments.” What a relief the rich young ruler must have felt. “I’ve done all this,” he replies, “I’ve kept the commandments,” and we can almost hear his sigh. He is probably ready to go away, feeling that he is already in, a member of the inheritance club. And then something strange happens. Jesus looks at him and sees a great potential for the kingdom. He loves him. He wants him as one of his followers. He must have reminded Jesus of Peter and John when he first called them. Jesus does not coerce; he gives a choice. Here is a man who is already doing the churchy things: he observes the law, he fulfills his duties as a member of a family and of a religious tradition. But in order to become a follower he must give up the one thing that is most precious to him, the thing that stands between him and his ability to become a disciple. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. . . then come follow me.” The man, who a moment ago had been so confident, was shocked and went away grieving, “for he had many possessions.”

And suddenly, the story that seemed so sunny and hopeful, becomes a tough one to listen to. For it forces us to ask the question: What is it that I cannot give up so that I can follow Jesus? This gospel encounter makes it clear that for those who have much, the great difficulty lies in giving up their possessions. But even those of us who have few possessions are tied down to a treasure that may not be counted as money or things. What obsession, what addiction, what personal pride, what ambition, what other love keeps us from loving God enough? It sounds so difficult that we are forced to ask with those present that day in Palestine: “Then who can be saved?”

The answer that Jesus gives turns us from ourselves to God’s power and grace. Once we reach the point of knowing that nothing we can do will save us, that with Bonhoeffer and with the writer of the letter to the Hebrews we recognize that God knows our suffering because he suffers with us, then we are ready to ask, “What can I do to inherit the kingdom, to have eternal life, to be saved,” if we are to use an expression familiar and misunderstood by many.

Again, Jesus’ answer is difficult. Give up the self and follow me, he tells us, for the one who is first will be last, and the one who is last will be first. These biblical passages together show us quite clearly and rather painfully that the values of the kingdom are radically different from the values of our society. The darkness is necessary for the light to come. Those who are last in the world become first in God’s kingdom. The God who seems absent is the God who is with us and, to save us, God lets himself be pushed on the cross. Thanks be to God.

Download the sermon for Proper 23B.

Written by Katerina Whitley

Katerina is an author, lecturer, and a retreat and workshop leader. She was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and emigrated at 16 years of age to the United States to study music and literature. She spent years studying theology and teaching children of all ages, edited Cross Current for the Diocese of East Carolina, worked for the then Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, freelanced as essayist for two decades, and has six books in circulation, five biblically based books published by Morehouse and one, her cookbook, published by Globe-Pequot/Lyons Press. Her latest books, two novels, are waiting publication. She lives in Louisville and is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.  

Bible Study: Proper 21(B), September 27, 2015

(RCL) Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124, James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

 “Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9: 40-41)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

One of the most joyous occasions in the Jewish calendar is the festival of Purim, when the Jewish people remember the story of Esther. Esther is one of many stories where the Jewish people faced a mortal threat, yet were delivered by God through a chosen emissary who would thwart the powers that threatened their lives. In this story, Queen Esther is that emissary.

Out of resentment toward Mordacai (Esther’s cousin and adopted father), Haman (the chief minister of the Persian king) convinces King Ahasuerus to order the genocide of the Jewish people. The origin of Haman’s evil desire is pride, as he resents Mordacai for not bowing before him outside of the palace gate.

Mordacai tasks Esther (Ahasuerus’s new queen) to convince the king to delay this order and to spare the Jewish people. Although Esther is anxious about this task she sets out to complete it, and this is where our reading begins. In the end Haman is hung from his own gallows and the Jewish people are spared from attempted genocide.

To this day, Jewish people around the world celebrate God’s deliverance as told through this story with costumed festivity, food and wine, the giving of alms, exchanging gifts, reading the story of Esther, and offering prayers of thanksgiving to God. I once heard this and many other Jewish holidays that commemorate their history in biblical tradition this way: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”

  • In what ways do we commemorate the saving works of God?
  • How can we, beyond celebration of the Holy Eucharist, joyously celebrate some of the beloved stories from scripture that have become important to our tradition?
  • How does the story of Esther speak to you?
  • What tasks have you been anxious about and how has God strengthened you to perform them?
Psalm 124

This psalm is appropriate for following a reading from Esther. With beautiful poetry that likely was used liturgically as a call and response prayer, perhaps with some liturgical drama, this psalm praises God for always standing with God’s chosen people through hardship. This psalm acknowledges that we can do little without God’s grace; that without God, the people of Israel would have been defeated by their enemies. But because God is good and remains with the chosen people, they have been delivered from destruction. While it is possible that this psalm is post-exilic, this language suggests that the psalm may have been written prior to the exile, as psalms written during the Babylonian captivity are often psalms of lament and post-exilic psalms, while giving thanks to God for deliverance, do not share the same triumphalism that is expressed in Psalm 124.

  • What hardships has God gotten you through?
  • How have you noticed God’s presence with you in the midst of challenges or conflicts?
  • How do you give thanks to God for remaining with you through the good times and the bad?
James 5:13-20

In this portion of his letter, James writes about the goodness of God experienced through the power of prayer. Those who suffer should pray, those who are cheerful should praise God, those who are sick should have the community of the faithful pray for them while anointing them and laying hands of healing upon them. Through all this God will hear and answer their prayers in God’s own way with holy wisdom. James says that the prayers of the righteous are both powerful and effective; they work. God hears us and responds. But sometimes it might not be the response that we expect.

  • How do we deal with unexpected answers to our prayers?
  • Does that challenge our faith or make us more aware of the mystery of God?
  • We know that God’s ways are not our ways. How do we bring that knowledge into our prayer life?
  • How can these experiences develop wisdom?
Mark 9:38-50

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” The Gospel admonishes us not to set up stumbling blocks in another’s path to God. This is the well-known, macabre-sounding reading about amputating our hands and plucking out our eyes when they cause us to sin. Of course one way to interpret this is as a metaphor for eliminating behaviors and practices from our lives that lead us toward sin. When a novice brother or sister in Anacmhara Fellowship, one of the Episcopal Church’s new dispersed monastic communities, is being clothed in his or her Habit, the aspiring novice as asked to prepare a list of distractions, habits, and behaviors from their past life that he or she wishes to leave behind when entering the new life as a religious. These are behaviors or practices that inhibit us from living most fully in relationship with God, others, and ourselves.

  • What behaviors or practices do you wish to leave behind today?
  • What are some stumbling blocks you have run into – either those that have been set up by others or those that you have set up in the way of others?
  • How do you live into Jesus’ statement that whoever is not against us is for us?

Download the Proper 21(B) Bible Study

 

Written by Brother Paul Castelli from Bexley-Seabury Seminary.

Paul is from the Diocese of Michigan, is a senior M.Div student at Bexley-Seabury, and is working on an STM at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. As a vowed brother of Anamchara Fellowship, one of the Episcopal Church’s dispersed monastic communities, Paul serves as the prior of the Columba Priory in Ohio.

 

Bulletin Insert: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (B)

Indigenous Ministries

October 11, 2015

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day on October 12 and Native American Month in November, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s Office of Indigenous Ministries and the Office of Lifelong Formation in partnership with Forward Movement present a new resource “In The Spirit of the Circle.” In the Spirit of the Circle is a Christian formation resource created by Native American and Indigenous members of The Episcopal Church intended for people of all cultures seeking a wider vision of the Christian faith.

In the Spirit of the Circle speaks with uniquely Native American and Indigenous voices, yet it addresses the hopes, concerns, and commitments of all Christians. This resource represents a Native response to a church-wide need—to provide in-depth, quality Christian formation that is culturally aware and authentic. This resource speaks in the theological tradition of the people, is accessible to Native communities, and inspires a deep, more profound sense of pride among Native American and Indigenous Christians everywhere. At the same time, this resource is available to the entire Church, regardless of tribal or ethnic identity.

In the Spirit of the Circle can be used in a variety of ways:

  • As the formation program on Sunday morning
  • As part of the Liturgy of the Word in the celebration of Holy Eucharist
  • As a focus for discussion in youth groups and confirmation classes
  • As program material for retreats and convocations, or any time the community gathers to worship and learn

2372-SpiritCircle_Po#719DC9 (2)Different congregations and communities have different needs, so the posters are designed to be flexible (workbooks are also available). The posters can be used as a single lesson, as a smaller set of lessons on a particular topic, arranged by liturgical season, or as a yearlong program of thirty classes.

The posters, with their beautiful art, may also be suitable for framing or hanging in a classroom or gathering space. Our deep hope and earnest prayer is that this resource will inspire all people and congregations to learn more about Native American and Indigenous sacred stories and to continue to create and develop community and connection.

Christian formation is a lifelong journey to Christ, with Christ and in Christ. These resources will help develop deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus. This is a gift to all of God’s children, in Jesus’ name.

For more information or to obtain the resources, go here:  http://www.forwardmovement.org/Products/2402/in-the-spirit-of-the-circle-setbr-posters-and-workbooks.aspx

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

Bulletin Insert: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost (B)

St. Francis

October 4, 2015

On October 4th, the Church celebrates the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan and Clarissine Orders, advocate for the poor, and friend of the animals.

Born in the late 12th century, Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant and his high-born wife. Despite living a life of general comfort and ease, he found himself called toward a life in pursuit of “Lady Poverty”. After a series of humbling interactions with the poor, Francis devoted himself to the care of the sick and poor, giving up his business interests and material possessions (much to his father’s chagrin). It could not have been easy, but Francis’ faith demanded that he trade in his fine clothes for sackcloth and financial security for scarcity. In the words of the prayer attributed to the saint, he found that “it is in giving that we receive.”

Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor, which demanded a strict vow of poverty, in the belief that worldly goods too often proved distractions from a sanctified life. With Clare of Assisi, he would form the Poor Clares, a religious order for women similarly dedicated to service. A Third Order would follow close behind, for those men and women who would live out Franciscan values in the context of everyday life. In Francis’ thought, to fully embrace one’s poverty was to embrace reliance on God alone; to physically suffer was to identify with Christ’s own suffering.  According to Holy Women, Holy Men, this made Francis, “the most popular and admired [saint], but probably the least imitated.”

St Mark's Cathedral SeattleWe may perhaps remember St. Francis best for his devotion to nature and animals; in several hagiographies, or stories of the saints, Francis is depicted as preaching to and otherwise communicating with fish, birds, and even a wolf. He believed that the Creator, is praised through all His creatures and, indeed, creation itself.  It is in this spirit that many Episcopal churches offer blessings of pets and other animals each year on Francis’ feast day. In order to commemorate the love Francis had for all of God’s creation, churches may draw on The Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare’s Rites and Prayers for the Care of Beloved Animals. These resources, authorized at the 2012 General Convention, can be found here: http://www.franciscan-anglican.com/enaw/resources.htm.

Collect for the Feast of St. Francis

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (“Holy Women, Holy Men,” p. 623)

 

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

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

Bulletin Insert: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost (B)

Children's Advocacy

September 27, 2015

children's advocacy picFall is a time when certain days are lifted up to help us observe the importance of addressing children’s health and education as well as the impact of poverty on the lives of children. Caring for children is part of living into the Five Marks of Mission as we are called to respond to human need by loving service and transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

We invite your congregation to examine these topics and ask, “How am I responding to children’s needs in my community and throughout the world?” While the observances have specific dates, you can choose to mark them anytime this fall.

October 16-18 – Children’s Sabbath

The 2015 National Observance of Children’s Sabbaths, “How Long Must I Cry for Help? Bending the Arc toward God’s Vision of Justice for Children,” will focus on real solutions to significantly reduce child poverty now. This is a way for faith communities to celebrate children as sacred gifts of the Divine, and provides the opportunity for congregations to renew and live out their moral responsibility to care, protect and advocate for all children. http://www.childrensdefense.org/programs/faithbased/faith-based-action-programs-pages/childrens-sabbaths/National-Observance-of-Children-s-Sabbaths.html

United Nations Observances

The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and Episcopal congregations and dioceses refer to UN observances and special days to highlight areas of ministry of the church and to focus on the spiritual and material needs of Episcopalians worldwide. Through social media and participation in live events at the UN, Episcopalians raise awareness of girls’ rights and concerns, birth registration and child trafficking, in partnership with other non-governmental organizations, the UN Working Group on Girls and UN agencies including UNICEF and UN Women. Episcopalians also use these observances to honor the children in their midst, highlighting their particular needs, ministries and contributions within their communities.

October 11 – International Day of the Girl Child

The empowerment of and investment in girls is critical for economic growth, and the achievement of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals that will be adopted this September. They include the eradication of poverty and extreme poverty, as well as the meaningful participation of girls in decisions that affect them. http://www.un.org/en/events/girlchild/

November 20 – Universal Children’s Day

This day was the date of adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). It is a day on which we can recall the ideals and objectives of the United Nations Charter as they relate to the world’s children and the promises the world has made to children: that we would do everything in our power to protect and promote their rights to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and to reach their full potential. http://www.un.org/en/events/childrenday/

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided 9/27/15
half page, double-sided 9/27/15

black and white, full page, one- sided, 9/27/15
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Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Hearts of Flesh, Proper 22(B) – 2015

(RCL) Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Today’s gospel leaves many of us uncomfortable for one reason or another.  It doesn’t come across as good news.

First, we have what sounds for all the world like Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce. That’s enough to cause us to squirm if we have a divorce in our personal background or as part of our family history. It’s uncomfortable as well for others of us who realize that our intact marriage does not make us better people than those whose marriages have collapsed; we too could have experienced divorce.

Jesus sounds demanding as well when he confronts his disciples over their efforts at crowd control. He doesn’t want children to be kept from coming to him. However, the thought that runs through the mind of many a parent and grandparent is, “but should there not be some decorum?”

Jesus offers us children – in all their innocence, spontaneity, and even wildness – as a model for the kingdom he has come to proclaim. The entrance requirement for that kingdom is that we become like them: accepting, trusting, in the moment.

We who are adults may understand all too well what Jesus means about children and the kingdom, we may even admit that what he says rings true. But we look at our sad adult selves and realize that we are jaded, calculating, suspicious, and world-weary, hardly fit to pass through the portal; and this makes us sad and disappointed in ourselves, disappointed by life.

Today’s gospel deals with these discomforting matters, but the real center of what Jesus says here lies somewhere else. It is to be found where he speaks about “hardness of heart.”

Do you recall where that phrase appears? Jesus is explaining why the law of Moses recognizes divorce: “because of your hardness of heart.” The passage in question, found in the twenty-fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, doesn’t legislate divorce, but simply admits that it takes place. It then legislates about certain cases involving remarriage of the same couple after their divorce. Jesus says that hardness of heart required this legislation. Then he raises the discussion to a higher plane by citing the establishment of marriage when humanity was brand new.

Hardness of heart is the problem. The big one. Not just for people who divorce or come close to doing so. It’s a problem for all of us adults, whatever the state of our relationships. This hardness of heart can damage our most intimate relationships, and it gets played out in other areas of life as well. Hardness of heart is what distinguishes us from the young children whom Jesus offers us as models for his kingdom.

The heart in question here is not that beating organ in your chest, the subject of cardiology, nor the heart pictured on Valentine’s cards, the emblem of romantic feeling. What is meant is the heart in the biblical sense: the core of human existence, what makes us who we truly are.

The hardening of this heart is the great danger in life. A hard heart is a lost opportunity, for God most readily works in the world through hearts truly alive.

A heart that has become hard cannot be pure because it cannot pursue the purpose for which it exists. To the pure in heart Christ makes a tremendous promise: they shall see God. To miss the realization of this promise is to miss everything.

Yet all of us suffer from hardness of heart to one degree or another, and such hardening can happen without our awareness of it.

The core of our existence hardens when we run scared, when forces such as pride and fear and hatred reign inside us.

Our hearts harden when we accept glittery substitutes, sensational idols, or even prosaic security in place of the authentic and challenging life God constantly offers us.

Many forces in this world, including people and institutions, contribute to hearts becoming hard. The deadening of our core is often presented as something else: a toughening, a maturation. Sometimes it is even applauded. We take this internal deadness as a normal development rather than as a travesty.

Christianity claims that in response to this menace, God wants to replace stony hearts with hearts of flesh, hearts tender and alive.

One place where the exchange is meant to happen is in worship. This is what we are about here and now. Public worship is an important part of Christianity’s discipline for maintaining a heart that lives.

All this carries important implications for how congregations worship, for the messages communicated through liturgies, sermons, hymns, and sacred actions. Anything that passes for worship yet causes hearts to harden takes people in the wrong direction and must be rejected. But worship that fails to soften hearts and restore them to life is also seriously flawed. Attending church must not increase the deadness at people’s centers nor leave them unchanged. What all of us need is nothing less than a new heart.

The Christian tradition refers to many reasons why people attend church, indicating how public worship is in truth a complex activity. These reasons include praising and thanking God, hearing the Scriptures and the sermon, praying for the needs of all people, participating in the Holy Communion, and engaging in fellowship with believers. All these reasons are important.

Yet the case they make for public worship may not be convincing to people who have not experienced such worship on a regular basis or have not found it engaging. To them these reasons may seem unrelated to their concerns and those of the world.

However, tradition offers this further reason for attending church that may make more sense and possess greater urgency: through participation in public worship, our hearts can be kept from becoming and remaining hard.

This reason for public worship may make sense to some people who do not appreciate the other reasons.

These people recognize hardness of heart as a human problem.

They wonder where a remedy lies.

They believe, or want to believe, that our God can replace stony hearts with hearts able to love.

These people are standing on the doorstep of this temple.

They are eager to find a fellowship where week by week those who participate welcome God’s gift of a living heart.

They await an invitation to enter, so that together with us they may experience through worship how hardness of heart need never have the last word.

Let us pray.

God of astounding mercy, make the heart of each of us like that of a little child, that we may welcome your kingdom with joy.  Give us hearts of flesh, able to love with a love like your own.

Through our worship continually transform us, that we may welcome others who desire your gift of a new heart.

We ask this in the name of Jesus, and in the power of your life-giving Spirit.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 22B.

Written by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker who is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Maryland.  He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications).