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.

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.

 

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).

Careful Seasoning, Proper 21(B) – 2015

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

Lest you think you’ve inadvertently stumbled onto yet another cable television cooking show, remember that Jesus himself brought it up: salt.

Salt is essential to human life. The National Academies of Science recommend that each of us, on average, take in about 2400 milligrams of sodium daily. That’s about eight-hundredths of an ounce, or roughly a teaspoonful.

If you eat a whole lot less than that, your cellular electrolytes may become unbalanced, resulting in an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Yes, that’s right—for most people, low sodium intake is dangerous.

And if you consume a lot more than the average, you can take on extra weight or become at risk for high blood pressure. Excess sodium can also be toxic. So, high sodium intake is also dangerous.

So—salt is essential to human life, but having either too little or too much is fraught with risk to our health, safety, and even survival. Hey, maybe this is about cooking, after all: too much salt, and the dish is ruined; too little salt, and the dish is tasteless.

Jesus’ metaphoric use of salt deserves some deconstructive analysis. It’s a complex metaphor. You’ve heard the old expression, “He’s the salt of the earth,” right? That indicates that someone is dependable, decent, and trustworthy. Jesus uses that very expression in the Sermon on the Mount—“You are the salt of the earth.”

Yet salting the earth is a destructive thing. This was the “scorched earth” tactic of warfare before Agent Orange was devised. According to the Book of Judges (9:45), Abimelech sowed his own capital of Shechem with salt after quelling a revolt. He killed all the people, razed all the buildings, and then salted all the fields—assuring that no one would forget who was the boss.

Salt, you see, is itself neither good nor evil—but it can be used for good or for evil, to sustain life or to prevent it, to regulate the body’s electrolytes or to induce a stroke.

You can take something with a grain of salt, thereby making it more palatable; or you can rub salt into a wound, thereby increasing the pain.

Add to this that in the Roman Army, salt was a regular part of a soldier’s compensation. If a solider was “worth his salt,” if he had performed well, he’d be paid accordingly. And, before refrigeration and freeze-drying and chemical stabilizers, salt was the best preservative known to humankind.

Salt is so powerful a symbol that Mahatma Ghandi was able to use it to topple the British colonial rule of India. In 1930, the British levied a tax on salt, as they had a monopoly on the salt trade. Ghandi decided to walk some 240 miles to the sea coast, a journey lasting 23 days. And the procession following him grew until it was 200 miles long. Upon reaching the ocean, Gandhi raised a lump of mud and salt and declared, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” He then boiled it in seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally produce—salt. Historians consider this event a turning point in the movement for the independence of India, something that was not finally achieved until 1947.

Something remarkably similar happened with tea in Boston harbor, you may remember—a turning point in the movement for American independence.

The British in 1930, it seems, had very little appreciation for their own history, and thus were destined to repeat it. And, they did not understand the importance of salt.

Jesus, of course, does not underestimate the power of figures of speech, or images, or allegories. And so his discourse on salt is just jam packed with meaning, and nuance, and symbolic value.

And, although many paths present themselves, there’s just one particular direction for us to go with this sodium-soaked sermon: a discussion of religion in contemporary society.

We are all familiar with over-salted religious organizations and sects—radical fundamentalists, extremist ideologues, that sort of thing. You can almost feel the severely high blood pressure in the veins of most television evangelists, can’t you? This kind of religion clearly suffers from a surplus of salt, for when their bodies naturally try to expel the excess, they try to rub the salt in other people’s wounds. As if to punish people for being wounded.

This kind of religion is very dangerous—and it is always focused on demeaning and degrading others, because they are not living up to some fictive standard of behavior. I call their standards fictive, because they are always based on human interpretation, not true divine inspiration. Women must obey their husbands, men should not sleep with men, men must not marry the daughter of a foreign God—all these are abominations in the sight of God; that’s what our holy Scripture tells us.

And these folks, who are condemning these few things as Holy Writ, go off and eat their shellfish, or shed innocent blood, or sow discord in a family, or tell lies, or dig into that delicious pork tenderloin (or any meat that was killed more than three days ago)—and, you know what? All these are abominations, too.

This is the danger of over-salting religion. While we see more and more of it around us, fortunately we Anglicans are more delicate in our seasoning. We’re too careful in the crafting of our language, too shy for emotive outbursts, too reticent in our outward expression. And don’t get this wrong: these are all good things! We rarely suffer from too much salt.

But we more often risk the other danger—too little salt in our religion.

For this, there is inspiration not from the Holy Spirit, at least not directly, but from J. Edwin Bacon, Jr., the Rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California.

In a sermon, Father Bacon expresses concern that the preaching from pulpits in this country has become too neutral—less salty, if you will. And, as a result, religion becomes more and more of a problem. “Jesus proclaimed that religion too frequently is not a part of the solution. Too often is not only a part of the problem. It is the problem.” Like salt that has lost its flavor.

The Revelation to St. John (chapter 3)—quoting Father Bacon again—“speaks of the Church … that had become so bland, so ineffectual, so callous to human suffering, so cowering before the saber-rattling of the empire of the day, so lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, that God said, ‘I will spew you out of my mouth.’ That is exactly what happens to churches and other faith communities that do not stand up, speak up, and act up when human beings are not treated with the dignity and honor due those who bear the image of God.”

It’s easy to see the over-salted religious zealots and say, “That’s not us!” But what of the diet of bland spirituality served at so many altars?

Salt is essential to human life, but having either too little or too much is fraught with risk to our health, safety, and even survival.

Finding the balance is a life-long journey. It includes taking risks, being willing to allow failure, making mistakes, and trying new things. And it includes turning around, going back to what works, avoiding hazards, and steering clear of danger.

It’s a never-ending, constantly changing, and life-consuming crusade. And the only way any of us has even a glimmer of a chance of success is because God’s wills it so.

Here, among the faithful, we find the strength to persevere. Here, among the faithful, we heed the warnings to avoid pitfalls we might otherwise suffer. And, here, among the faithful, we find the motivation to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

So, here we are, friends:

  • A place where we have never put too much salt on our liturgy.
  • A place where you do not need to check your conscience at the door.
  • A place where our worship can serve to transform the people of God, empowering us to daring action on behalf of the oppressed.
  • A place where every part of you is welcome, and every hurt can be healed.
  • A place where salt is used liberally—but not to excess.

It is here, in the carefully seasoned assembly of the faithful, that we will find the strength, the wisdom, and the inspiration to use the gifts God has given us to transform ourselves and the world around us for good. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 21B.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates who is interim rector of St. Peter’s Church, Essex Fells, New Jersey. He welcomes your comments, questions, and challenges (revdocbates@gmail.com).

 

The Path of Discipleship, Proper 20(B) – 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

For much of Christian history, being identified as a “disciple of Jesus” has been considered high praise. The disciples, after all, were the handpicked group of followers who lived, learned, and labored alongside Jesus. They were commissioned to heal the sick, baptize sinners, and proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to the ends of the earth.

But if we listen closely, we can’t help but notice that Scripture does not always portray the disciples with such glamor and reverence. Consider today’s reading: For the second time in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes the disciples aside to teach them that he will soon be given over to human hands and will suffer, die, and rise again. And for the second time, the disciples don’t get it.

In fact, Mark’s Gospel tells of Jesus trying to teach the disciples this crucial lesson on three different occasions, and each and every time, the disciples don’t get it. Instead, they’re concerned with things like which one of them is the greatest and what the folks in town thought about them and what they were going to eat for lunch.

But what is most perplexing of all is the fact that, not only do the disciples fail to understand Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection, but they’re also too afraid to ask Jesus any questions about it!

And as maddening as the disciples’ failure to understand or even ask questions with the hope of understanding may sound to us, how often are we guilty of precisely the same thing? How often are we afraid to ask a question because we think we should know the answer, or because we’re afraid our question is stupid, or even because we’re afraid of the answer?

After all, if knowledge is power, then ignorance is weakness.

Perhaps the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus a question because they should have been paying better attention. Or maybe they were afraid to ask because Jesus would think they were ignorant. Or maybe, just maybe, they were afraid to ask Jesus a question because somewhere deep down, they already knew the answer.

Jesus said, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Mark, with his characteristic briskness and brevity, doesn’t reveal the expressions on the disciples’ faces when they heard Jesus utter these words. He doesn’t tell us about the gasps and the horrified stares and the hard gulps. And he says nothing about the heavy hush that surely descended upon the disciples. All Mark says is, “They were afraid…”

And although Mark is also silent as to why the disciples were afraid, we can surmise that they feared for the fate of their friend and leader. Each and every one of them had left their families and their livelihoods to take an enormous risk in following Jesus, and so hearing that he expects to be arrested and killed—never mind the bit about rising from the dead—all comes as quite a shock.

But what if the disciples were afraid for another reason as well? What if, along with their fear about what would become of Jesus, they were also afraid of what would happen to them? After all, if Jesus was arrested and killed, surely his closest associates would come under scrutiny as well. Perhaps what was at the root of the disciples’ fear is the fact that they were beginning to understand, even just a little, what the true cost of discipleship is.

In a world where wealth is good but more wealth is better; where consumerism is king; and where our worth is measured by what we have rather than what we give, the cost of discipleship is hard news that many would prefer not to hear. But it is also the Good News that we so desperately need to hear!

A few weeks ago, Episcopalians from around the world gathered near Hayneville, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels who was killed during the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1965. Daniels’ death came as a result of his pushing an African-American teenager named Ruby Sales out of harm’s way when the two walked into a corner store to buy a soft drink, only to be met by an irate man pointing a loaded shotgun at them.

The cost of discipleship was, for Jonathan Daniels, his very life. And as the disciples began to process their fear about what Jesus was teaching them, perhaps they were beginning to realize the heavy cost that discipleship would place on their own lives. These are, of course, extreme cases, but they make plain the fact that we cannot confess the faith of Christ crucified and risen without coming to terms with the reality that discipleship places a claim on us—it costs us something. For some of us, it may cost us what is popular. For others, it may cost us our comfort zones. And for still others, it may even cost us a friend.

Of course, there is an easier way. We could simply listen to Jesus’ hard teaching about suffering and death and resurrection and continue on without asking any questions—as if nothing had ever happened. But deep down in our bones, this path will leave us wanting. It’ll leave us to preach a half-hearted and watered-down Gospel that has more to do with being comfortable and complacent than with the cross of Christ.

No, the path of discipleship is hard. It leads us through suffering and even death, and it costs us dearly. But in the end, we discover that it is this path that leads to resurrection and life! Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 20B. 

Written by The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly who is the Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.