Archives for January 2016

Bulletin Insert: Last Sunday After Epiphany

The Feast of Absalom Jones

February 7, 2016

This famous image of Jones was rendered by Philadelphia artist Raphaelle Peale in 1810.

This famous image of Jones was rendered by Philadelphia artist Raphaelle Peale in 1810.

On February 13, the church celebrates the Feast Day of Rev. Absalom Jones, who, in 1804, became the Episcopal Church’s first African American ordained priest. The Archives of The Episcopal Church writes:

“Born into slavery in Delaware at a time when slavery was being debated as immoral and undemocratic, he taught himself to read, using the New Testament as one of his resources. At the age of 16, Jones was sold to a shopkeeper in Philadelphia where he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. Following the purchase of his own freedom in 1784, Jones served as lay minister for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.

The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. Alarmed by the rise in black attendance, the vestry decided to segregate blacks into an upstairs gallery without notice. When ushers attempted to remove the black congregants, the resentful group exited the church. This exodus triggered the establishment of the Free African Society by Jones and Allen in 1787 to aid in the emancipation of slaves and to offer sustenance and spiritual support to widows, orphans, and the poor.

In 1794 Jones and Allen, with the assistance of local Quakers and Episcopalians, established the “First African Church” in Philadelphia. Shortly after the establishment that same year, the African Church applied to join the Protestant Episcopal Church, laying before the diocese three requirements: the Church must be received as an already organized body; it must have control over it’s own affairs; and Jones must be licensed as lay-reader and if qualified, ordained as its minister.

Upon acceptance into the Diocese of Pennsylvania, the church was renamed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. The following year Jones became a deacon but was not ordained a priest until 1804, nine years later. At 58 years old, he became the first black American priest. He continued to be a leader in his community, founding a day school (as blacks were excluded from attending public school), the Female Benevolent Society, and an African Friendly Society. In 1800 he called upon Congress to abolish the slave trade and to provide for gradual emancipation of existing slaves. Jones died in 1818.”

Collect

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Source: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/Afro-Anglican_history/exhibit/leadership/jones.php

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided 2/7/16
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Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Bulletin Insert: Last Sunday After Epiphany

Lenten Resources

February 7, 2016
February 10 is Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, which is the 40 day period before Easter Sunday. Although Lent is traditionally considered a time of fasting, self-denial, and repentance, we are also encouraged to use it as a time of prayerfulness, self-reflection, and service. To guide individuals and congregations through their Lenten journeys this year, the church is offering a variety of Episcopal and ecumenical online resources.

The Episcopal Church is also encouraging congregations and individuals to share photos of Lent and Ash Wednesday events such as “Ashes to Go” here: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/form/photo-submissions

Lenten Resources:

Journey to the Cross at d365

http://d365.org/

Episcopal Public Policy Network Lenten Series on Beloved Community and racial reconciliation

 http://advocacy.episcopalchurch.org/blog

or sign up to receive the EPPN Lenten reflections to your inbox here

http://advocacy.episcopalchurch.org/app/register?1&m=16835

Episcopal Relief & Development Lenten Meditations

 http://www.episcopalrelief.org/press-and-resources/press-releases/2016-press-releases/walk-the-path-of-lent-with-episcopal-relief-and-developments-2016-lenten-meditations

Episcopal Church Lenten series featuring reflections on scriptural mentions of “Go!” http://www.episcopalchurch.org/blog/LentenReflections

https://www.facebook.com/episcopalian/?fref=ts

Society of Saint John the Evangelist Lenten Series

http://ssje.org/ssje/growrule/

Young Adult and Campus Ministry Lenten reflections on racial reconciliation http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/yacm/

Download bulletin insert as PDF:

full page, one-sided 2/7/16
half page, double-sided 2/7/16

black and white, full page, one- sided, 2/7/16
black and white, half page, double-sided 2/7/16

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

Bible Study, Last Sunday after Epiphany (C), February 7, 2016

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]; Psalm 99

Exodus 34: 29–35

When we read the Bible, it’s easy to squint dutifully at the small print and wonder what exactly it is that God is trying to say through these ancient and holy words. We read hoping for an encounter with God that increases our understanding. But we can treat this passage from Exodus as a challenge to reframe what a successful encounter with God might look like: it is not, first and foremost, a matter of understanding, but rather one of transformation.

There is Moses, back at the base of Mount Sinai, and in his arms are the holiest of God’s laws, the Ten Commandments. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (and, indeed, throughout Jewish and Christian history) there will be no shortage of effort to understand the content of those two tablets. But here, for a brief moment, the laws resting in Moses’ arms seem entirely secondary next to the astonishing realization that “the skin of his face was shining.” Moses’ shining face helped the Israelites know that God was indeed working through him.

  • How do lives of holiness help us see the ways God is at work in the world?
  • Have you known people who seem to glow with faith-fueled joy, peace, and compassion?
  • Is your faith outwardly visible to others? In what ways do you wish it were?
  • The image of the veil might be useful in thinking about our prayer practices. When we pray, how can we learn to remove the veil of busy-ness, distraction, selfishness and impatience – a veil that our split-screen culture so often encourages us to wear?
Psalm 99

Many psalms celebrate God by using the metaphor of a king. In Psalm 99, God is “enthroned,” and we hear that all people should “tremble” and “[p]roclaim the greatness of our God,” falling “down before his footstool.” Ancient kings would boast of their military power as being the evidence of their greatness – and, of course, some modern leaders still do. But note how the psalmist portrays God’s greatness as coming from a very different source: God’s justice.

It’s hard, likely impossible, to speak at length about God without using metaphors. The Psalms offer us an astonishingly rich library of images and understandings of God. In one moment God might be portrayed as a king perched on a throne (Ps. 99:1) and in another as a midwife delivering a child (Ps. 22:9-10). It is always important to remember that no single metaphor for God is sufficient on its own – for each obscures as much about God’s nature as it reveals.

  • Have you ever been a part of a community where there are leaders whose authority comes not by virtue of a title, but rather as a consequence of their goodness?
  • Pick two hymns and examine the metaphors that each of them uses to describe God. In what ways do the hymns present different understandings of God? How do the hymns complement each other? You might find it particularly fruitful to compare the militaristic imagery of a hymn like #473 “Lift high the cross” with the pastoral images of one like #664 “My Shepherd will supply my need”.
2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2

Too often, passages like this one from 2 Corinthians have been used by Christians to justify ugly, and frequently anti-Semitic, dismissals of Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures – as though the value of these sacred texts is limited to how they can be viewed in light of Jesus’ life and death. Read in its context, amid Paul’s defense of his teaching authority, the passage seems less a treatise against the Jews and much more a polemic about Paul’s teaching authority in Corinth. When he assures his readers that: “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word,” we hear the implication: unlike some other people I know.

One of the joys of the passage is that it allows us to peek over Paul’s shoulder as he reads the passage from Exodus 34 discussed above. He interprets Moses’ shining face as evidence that encounters with the glory of God leave their mark on believers, transforming them “from one degree of glory to another” till the divine image shines more clearly in and through them.

  • How do we hope our encounters with God will transform us?
  • How might these hopes shape our intentions when we study the bible or partake in Holy Communion?
  • When does God’s image shine most brightly through us?
Luke 9:28–36, (37–43a)

This passage contains Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, the mountaintop miracle when Jesus’ appearance so thoroughly reflects God’s glory that even his clothes seem to glow a “dazzling white.” It’s a well-told narrative, full of dramatic touches. The sleepy disciples who must have wondered whether they were dreaming; the mysterious appearance of Moses and Elijah; the voice of God speaking from a cloud, calling Jesus “my Son,” and telling the disciples, and us, to “listen to him!”

We know that Jesus’ life and teachings provide our clearest window into the nature of God. But we often forget that Jesus also provides our clearest illustration of what a human life looks like in its highest form. The account of the Transfiguration is a useful reminder to look to Jesus as a paragon for what our lives might be. There on the mountaintop the distance between God and man utterly collapses. The task for us, the journey of Christian discipleship, seems clear: start climbing towards God.

  • In what concrete ways can we strive to obey the voice of God as it spoke through the cloud, called Jesus “my Son” and told us to “listen to him”?
  • Surely we all are aware of a persistent gap that divides the life we live from the life we ought to live. What practices have been helpful in your efforts to “mind the gap” and grow closer to becoming the person God is calling you to be?

Download the Last Epiphany Bible Study.

Written by Robert Pennoyer

Robert Pennoyer is a third-year seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, where he is also a member of the Institute of Sacred Music. He is a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of New York. He lives in New Haven with his wife and their one-year-old daughter.

 

Driven by the Spirit, Lent 1(C) – 2016

[RCL] Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

It is the first Sunday in Lent and it seems as if Advent was just a few days ago. During Advent and Christmas we were confronted with the scandal of the incarnation: the wondrous and terrifying news that God entered our humanity in a specific place, at a designated time, in the form of a particular man – Jesus of Nazareth. We hardly had time to catch our breath when Epiphany arrived and we watched with wonder as the reality of Incarnation was acknowledged by the wise of this world, the magi, and by the unorthodox within the religious community, John of the wilderness, John the baptizer. We stood in awe as Jesus emerged from the waters of the river to hear the words that would set him apart while at the same time plunging him into the sufferings and joys of daily living: the words uttered at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

How can one hear these words and not feel frightened or ready to run away? The evangelists tell us that Jesus decides to withdraw for a while. He goes to the wilderness to think upon these words and their meaning, as they would affect the rest of his life. We know almost nothing of his previous years, but it is obvious at his baptism that he had spent them obeying and acting upon the will of God. Otherwise, those crucial words would not have been uttered: “with you I am well pleased.” So we come to the great temptations in the wilderness, the beginning of both his ministry and the start of the road that would lead to crucifixion. Matthew and Luke tell us that the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness. Mark, who in his usual laconic manner uses only two verses to describe the experience, says: “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Now, we enter Lent with a strong awareness of the incarnation, of the full humanity of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews testifies that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are. The vivid metaphors of those days in the wilderness show that he was tempted in the most intense manner possible. “He emptied himself,” St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “taking the form of the slave.” Jesus responds to the most powerful temptations that can be aimed at a human being by taking the form of a slave.

We don’t know exactly what span of time forty days actually means because this number is so common in the writings of the times and so imbedded in the Hebrew stories. Obviously, it was a considerable span of fasting and of profound thinking and wrestling. The evangelist tells us that at the end of the fasting period he was “famished.” In that weakened state he is offered the temptation of using his exceptional powers for magic and for his own benefit. “Turn this stone into bread, come on. It’s easy for you. You are not like everybody else. You can use your remarkable powers to help yourself.”

A person who is starving will do anything to relieve the pangs of hunger. Those who have more than enough to eat find it very difficult to understand the urgency of this need. Starvation is overwhelming because it is life threatening. Jesus turns temptation on its head by using the scriptures he must have memorized during the years of his preparation for ministry. “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” What good does it do us to take care only of the body and to forget to feed on God’s words? The second part of the verse quoted is often neglected; it is important for us to remember that Jesus never neglected it.

How useful it is to be immersed in the words that sustained Jesus. How much would we be helped if we memorized enough of the Bible to sustain us in times of trouble and temptation? The pattern of his ministry emerges: in each instance he rejects the easy way, the magic, if you will, by feeding on the words of the holy scriptures that he understood so fully.

The second temptation is one that every politician today would fail miserably: the chance to be given authority and power in exchange for worshipping power, greed, human pride and arrogance. The culture of the developed world worships money and guns. It is a culture passionately adopted by those who long for similar power. Someone once suggested that the money spent on one airplane intended for war would educate every college student in America for years to come. If this isn’t idolatry, it’s hard to figure out what this temptation means. We see people selling their souls for power while children are shot, starved, made sick by contaminated water, or drowned in the seas while their families try to escape bombing and destruction. The list of offenses is unending but the answer that Jesus provides takes us back to the original commandment to worship the one God, the Creator. Imagine a world where the leaders prayed constantly, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Following the wilderness, Jesus would spend the rest of his short life turning aside from all temptations to put his self first. Even when someone calls him good he says, “No one is good but the Father.” At every instance of living he was connected to his father by prayer, and because of that he did not falter. People marvel at Jesus’ authority, but he knew that he acted on God’s authority.

The third temptation is even more intriguing because the Tempter, Satan, the Devil, whichever name you prefer for the power that opposes God, this tempter uses Scripture to accomplish his purpose. Listen to the pundits and the false prophets, to those who make money by taking advantage of the poor, listen to them and hear how they too use Scripture to accomplish their dark purposes. “Take a chance with your life,” the tempter says to Jesus. “No matter what chances you take, God is supposed to take care of you. You are a favorite of God’s, aren’t you?” There is in all of us a tendency to bargain with God and a great temptation to misuse scripture for our own purposes. Out of such misuse wars have arisen. Jesus is adamant on this: You shall not put your God to the test.

Both Matthew and Luke agree that when, finally, the terrible temptations were finished and the tempter left him alone he did so only for a while. “Until an opportune time,” Luke writes. Because of the incarnation, Jesus would be tempted again. There is that heart-breaking time when Peter tries to dissuade him from following the road that would lead to his death. After all, the tradition did not say anything about Messiah suffering and dying! But Jesus hears in Peter’s rebuke, the echo of Satan’s temptation: “I have the authority, I will give it to you.” Once again Jesus turns away from the temptation, and from his good friend, knowing that his own way of obedience to God would lead to his early death.

This is how the season of Lent begins, with the victory of Jesus over temptation. The knowledge that he belongs to God and to God alone keeps him from succumbing to any thought that he might rely on his own powers alone. The knowledge of Scriptures, of the words of the Lord, as Jesus describes them, becomes a shield to protect him from the meddling of the tempter. Jesus’ connection is never torn because, in prayer, he always turns to God. May it be so with us.

Download the sermon for Lent 1C.

Written by Katerina Whitley

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Katerina Katsarka emigrated at 16 years of age to the United States to study music and literature. After her English degree she spent years studying theology and teaching children of all ages. In the 1980s she edited Cross Current for the Diocese of East Carolina. In the nineties, she worked for the then Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief in New York as a church journalist. She wrote and created all the public relations material for the Fund and traveled to 26 countries to witness and report on the Fund’s grants. She free-lanced as essayist for two decades and then started writing books. She 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. Contact Katerina: katsarkakk@gmail.com

Becoming a Place of Resurrection, Ash Wednesday (C) – 2016

[RCL] Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus warns us to practice our piety in secret. We are not to give alms, to pray, or to fast in a way that plays to an audience of other people. Instead, we are to do these things in secret. And in each case a blessing is attached to this secret practice. As Jesus tells it, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Hearing these words now, on this opening day of Lent, means that whatever we do by way of Lenten practices is not done for a human audience, whether others or ourselves. The significance of these practices appears at a different level, that place where we encounter God. This is a hidden place, concealed certainly from others, and in a real sense, a secret even from ourselves. God meets us in our depths, in places that remain beyond our conscious sight.

Yet still it is easy for us to look on our Lenten practices as an area where we can earn rewards, the frequent flyer miles of the spiritual life. If we do well at keeping our Lenten practices then God is pleased with us that much more. If we do not do well, if we make scramble of Lent, then God, who sees in secret, is that much less pleased with us.

It’s easy to regard our Lenten practices in this way. Perhaps it is unavoidable, but to do so is to miss the point. What God sees in secret is something more than our accomplishment.

Almsgiving, prayer, fasting – these are classic practices of Lent. There are others as well. But all of them, I have come to believe, lead us to the same place. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider only how almsgiving, prayer, and fasting take us there.

So you give alms to help people in distress. Perhaps you donate to our local food pantry to assist suffering people in your community. Perhaps you write a check to Food for the Poor or Episcopal Relief and Development. Maybe your almsgiving in expressed in action. You visit the sick, the lonely, people in prison. The giving of alms can take these forms and many more. However it’s done, almsgiving brings us much closer than usual to the raw edge of human need.

What happens when we go there? We find out that human suffering is not a problem to be solved like an arithmetic exercise on a blackboard. Instead, we give alms and we find ourselves keeping company, directly or indirectly, with people whose suffering we would rather not have to consider. We lose our innocence about the state of the world; we trade satisfaction for solidarity.

Somebody else is fed or housed or comforted, but we are transformed. That’s the real cost of almsgiving for us. Not only do we empty out a little of our treasure, but we are made a bit more compassionate, perhaps against our better judgment.

This is how God, who sees in secret, rewards us. We would have settled, say, for a framed certificate of appreciation and instead God changes our lives.

So you pray more than usual during the forty days of Lent. Perhaps you sit in silence before God for a specified period of time, you attend a weekday service, or you say a certain prayer once a day. Keep this up and in time you may make a discovery, it may be thrust upon you, that our prayer is something poor, dust and ashes, before the majestic reality of God.

The devotional practices we engage in may be eloquent, orthodox, time-tested, and even enjoyable. But the doing of them is full of distraction, characterized by uncertainty, an exercise in always starting over.

People of prayer are likely to have experiences like what Mary Lou Kownacki describes for us when she says:

“On my morning walk
My fingers move mindfully
Over the wooden beads
In my pocket.
Jesus, have mercy.
Jesus, have mercy.

“Stopping on the street
To talk with a crazed woman
Who has twenty-two cats
I forget the beads
I forget the mantra.

“Once again,
I fail to follow
The prescribed meditation technique.
After forty years of practice
I still do not know
When I am really praying.”

We pray, or think we do, and what we discover is the poverty of our prayer, the emptiness of our words, the shallowness of our silence. Yet through prayer we are made a little more capable of recognizing the generosity of God.

Once, we may have believed that prayer changes God, aligns God with our view of the world. In Lent, we find that through our prayer God changes us, lets us recognize ourselves for who we are. It is in this way that God, who sees in secret, rewards us.

Then there is fasting. Maybe it’s a meal regularly skipped or certain kinds of food abstained from. There are other fasts as well. People give up alcohol, television, book buying, or grumpiness as part of their Lenten observances. But all forms of fasting resemblance abstinence from that which feeds us. This traditional religious fasting is not done to make us trim, though it may do that; it is done to make us empty.

A food fast deserving of the name will leave us hungry. We will recognize our frailty, that our lives encompass not only the spiritual but also the biological. We are dependents of the food chain. We are based in our bodies. We cannot live on bread alone, that’s true, but without bread, we cannot live at all.

The fleshly hunger that we feel as a result of such fasting reminds us of the spiritual hunger that we need to feel to be truly alive. Yet often this spiritual hunger is sated, concealed due to the ingestion of one form of junk food or another that lust for our allegiance.

Hunger for God is our healthy state, yet often our hearts are stuffed with what cannot nourish us. An empty stomach will give us hope that our hearts may become empty enough to receive the God who is our only satisfying food.

Through our fasting God changes us. We are reminded that we are constituted not by our achievements or even our failures, but by the need for God. Our hunger is not for bread alone, but for the holy.

The practices of Lent are good for us, but not if we see them as achievements. They are instead ways in which we become aware of our poverty and awake to the generosity of God. What we seek is not a successful Lent, a checklist of what we have done. What we seek instead is a holy Lent, an exposure of our emptiness, so that each of us can be a place of resurrection.

Download the sermon for Ash Wednesday C.

Written by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker 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). Many of his sermons appear on Lectionary.org. Email: charleshoffacker8@gmail.com

Listening for God, Last Epiphany (C) – 2016

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]; Psalm 99

In the coming week, churches around the world will undergo a transformation of sorts, as the liturgical calendar moves from the season after Epiphany to the season of Lent. Our praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia!” will give way to Lent’s solemn petition, “Lord have mercy.” Many churches will retire their finest brass and festive hangings in favor of simpler and more contemplative fixtures. And the lectionary will lead us down from the mountaintop where the transfigured Christ is revealed in glory, through the valley of the shadow of death, and ultimately to Jerusalem where the cross and tomb await.

Lent weighs heavily on us. It urges us to recall the suffering and death of our Lord. So, in many ways, we arrive at this final Sunday before Lent with a mix of anticipation and anxiety, a combination of joy and dread. It is no accident, then, that every year on this Sunday, we hear again the story of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountaintop because, at the heart of this story, we find these all-too-familiar feelings: anticipation diluted by anxiety and joy thinned by dread.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus summons Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop. Without getting our contextual bearings, we may be tempted to believe that the chosen disciples happily agreed and gleefully followed Jesus without reservation. However, we must recall that just a few verses earlier in chapter 9, Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise from the dead.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” As Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the mountaintop, they are forced to come to grips with the horrifying truth that Jesus, their beloved friend and leader, must suffer and die!

When they reach the top of the mountain, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them and Moses and Elijah appeared. As the disciples beheld their Lord, they realized that they were in the very presence of God. But even in this incredible moment of divine transfiguration, Peter could not forget what Jesus had told them before they came to the mountain.

“Master, it is good for us to be here,” Peter petitions, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

At some level, most of us can’t help but sympathize with Peter. Who among us would knowingly submit our self or our loved ones to pain and suffering? Peter’s efforts to protect Jesus are undoubtedly acts of love and devotion – but they are also acts couched in Peter and the disciples’ need for safety and security. They had seen a glimpse of God’s glory in the face of Jesus, and they wanted desperately to hold onto it, to protect it.

But the moment that Peter gets into cahoots with James and John to try and hold onto and protect Jesus, is the moment that a voice from above breaks in, proclaiming: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”

And notice what happens next: As the disciples came down from the mountaintop, they didn’t rush into the closest town and tell the first person they saw about what they had just witnessed. They didn’t wait until Jesus wasn’t looking to talk about it. And they didn’t take to Social Media with the news. Luke’s Gospel tells us that they “told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Although most biblical scholars interpret the disciples’ silence as a mark of fear over what they had seen and heard—which is certainly a plausible explanation—perhaps there’s more than one dimension here. What if the disciples’ silence allowed them to be obedient to God’s command?

The disciples had heard God say, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” So instead of running and telling the world what they had seen on the mountain, what if they chose instead to obey; to be silent so they could listen?

In a world bustling with noise and chaos, where words and rhetoric are shouted with impunity, stirring up fear and angst, perhaps this is the word from the Lord that we need to hear.

Amidst all of the joys and heartbreaks of the world; in the face of all of the delight and despair that surrounds us; and despite all of the things we know and can never know, God beckons us, ever so gently: Listen.

Imagine for a moment, what the world might look like if we listened—not in preparation to respond, but in order to understand.

What might our politics look like if we listened more and argued less? What might our schools look like if we taught our children how to listen as intently and deliberately as we taught them how to speak and to write? And what might our churches look like if we listened intently for the voice of God from those who differ from us?

In his book, Bread for the Journey, the Catholic priest and theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen writes:

“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept… The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”[1]

As our Lenten journey approaches, and the chaos of the world presses in with voices of despair clanging in our ears, may we remember how to listen. For it is in listening that we truly hear one another.

And it is in listening that we hear the voice of God.

Amen.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany.

Written by The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). A native of Paris, Kentucky, 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. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. 


[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (HarperOne, 1997).

Living Eucharistically, Epiphany 4(C) – 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Baptism is an amazing gift and an awesome responsibility. We Christians are set apart, commissioned, and ordained to boldly confess Jesus as Savior, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to seek and serve the Christ in everyone we meet.

And we can see this theme reflected in today’s gospel passage and Old Testament passage . Jesus picks up a scroll in the synagogue and reads from the Prophet Jeremiah:

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Now, that is living baptismally! As one whose job it is to help put the world to right.

Jesus, of course, will go on to preach good news to the poor, to heal the blind, to set many of the oppressed free, and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of righteousness. He understood what it is to live baptismally. There’s also another big piece of the journey for sacramental Christians: living eucharistically.

Living eucharistically means much, much more than coming to church and receiving communion. That’s how we gain the sustenance to live eucharistically, but it is not living eucharistically. Living eucharistically is to live a life of gratitude. That’s what “eucharistic” means. Living a life of thanks, appreciation and positive reception to the world around us.

It’s really difficult to do this. We live in a world that is full of suspicion, full of hatred, and full of fear. And don’t be confused: there are things of which we by rights are suspicious, things we should hate, and things we must fear. But there are also times when our blindness to the truth prevents us from seeing the good in everyone and causes us instead to seek out what we see as evil.

We are not alone in this. We humans have been doing it for centuries. Like in today’s gospel. Jesus proclaims what must seem like a pretty harsh truth to the people in that synagogue. They don’t like it, they don’t agree with it, and they don’t want to hear it. And so they become filled with rage and they drive him out of the town, prepared to hurl him off a cliff. They are not living eucharistically. Instead, they are seeking to sort out the things that trouble them, the concepts that offend them, the words that they consider an affront. They had a choice, and they chose a path of destruction.

Living eucharistically, on the other hand, would call for them to look for the signs of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the concepts that inspire them, and the words that give them hope. Living eucharistically would call for us to listen carefully for what resonates with us in a sermon, in a hymn, in a scripture reading—and then living into that truth from God. Living eucharistically means putting aside our critical nature, leaving behind the things that upset us, and finding a way to be grateful.

This life of gratitude begins with a shift in how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. It means no longer being content with fast-food spirituality that makes us feel good in the moment but leads only to chronic disease, discontent, and disappointment.

Instead, living eucharistically means investing ourselves in the sustained bread breaking of authentic and attentive prayer, mindful and deliberate service, and careful and sensitive listening. As the late Alex Haley, the author of Roots, once said, he strove to live his life by these six words: “find the good and praise it.”[1]

“Find the good and praise it.” And, sometimes, what is good for us, what we really need, what we have to confront: sometimes, this is something painful. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, racial justice requires the complete transformation of social institutions and a dramatic restricting of our economy, not superficial changes that can be purchased on the cheap. That is a truth that hurts. But accepting that basic tenet leads to something quite wonderful: coming even closer to the bringing of that promised kingdom of God here on earth. “Find the good and praise it.” Just as we cannot find buried treasure without doing the hard work of digging a hole, we cannot grow spiritually if we are unwilling to confront our own stumbling blocks.

Perhaps it is helpful to remember that the gospel writers were not like us. They were not interested in facts, exactly, although very much interested in truth, and not much interested in details, really. This is especially helpful to remember this as we read the gospel narrative on Sundays. It probably never occurred to them that we would add chapter and verse numbers and divide their narrative into little snippets and read just a bit here and there. So it may be well to remind ourselves of just what scripture, exactly, Jesus is claiming is fulfilled in their hearing in that synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. We heard it just last week, you may recall. From the book of the Prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Now the Nazarenes may well be astounded that this young man they knew as Joshua, could read at all. It was not the usual thing, of course, for people to read, let alone the children of menial workers — isn’t this Joseph’s son, they ask. But, we imagine they are also astounded at what he chose to read: the very promises of salvation. Is Jesus proclaiming himself as a prophet, as great as Isaiah and Elijah? Is Jesus bringing the ancient Israelite prophet’s words into that first-century assembly? Or, is Jesus announcing that the kingdom of God has come very near? Well, perhaps all three. And even more.

By choosing to read from the prophet, rather than the law, Jesus has already aligned himself with a particular party within Judaism. We know, over time, he will continue to distance himself from the lawgivers: the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, to be more precise. And he has also chosen to align himself with a particular wing of the prophetic party — for he has not chosen to lament, with Jonah, or to chide, with Jeremiah. He has chosen to proclaim hope for a better tomorrow. He has chosen to find the good and praise it. He has chosen to live eucharistically. And he does so using an ancient text. He does not need to be inspired by the Spirit to create it; he needs not compose the words; he is simply the living, breathing mechanism for proclaiming God’s word. He finds the words on the page and reads them aloud:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And in this act, he breathes new life into that text. You can almost imagine the bated breath, the hair standing up on the back of someone’s neck, the racing heartbeat—as if to say, “Wow, that’s part of our scripture? Our tradition says that?”

So, Jesus reads these words, proclaiming himself as a prophet, as great as Isaiah and Elijah, bringing the ancient Israelite prophet’s words into that first-century assembly, and announcing that the kingdom of God has come very near. With these words Jesus is calling us to be prophets ourselves. To live eucharistically, a life of gratitude and thanksgiving. To breathe new life into the ancient words of Scripture. To “find the good and praise it.”

Download the sermon for Epiphany 4C.

Written By The Rev. J. Barrington Bates, Ph.D.

The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Essex Fells, New Jersey. He is also Church Review Editor for the journal “Anglican and Episcopal History.”

 


[1] http://www.alexhaley.com

Parts of the whole, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21; Psalm 19

In many dioceses, this month marks an important time for annual meetings in congregations. At these times, we necessarily focus on “the Church” – how things have been going for the last year and what we plan for the next year. But at such meetings, we also often pause to remind ourselves about what the Church is and what it is not.

A usual starting point is to declare that the place where we worship is not the Church. Rather, this building is a structure in which the Church gathers for solace and pardon and strength and renewal and for inspiration to become more fully what the Church is – the body of Christ.

In today’s Epistle, we received a reminder from St. Paul that all together we, the Church, are, in fact, “the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

We remember, too, that the clergy and the vestry are not the Church. Sunday School teachers are not the Church. Outreach ministers are not the Church. The altar guild, acolytes, and lay readers are not the Church. No one person, no one group, and no one activity can become the Church for us. The Church IS the body of Christ.

The Church is NOT something to belong to. Nevertheless, sometimes people talk about joining the Church like they do about joining the Rotary Club or the PTA or the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. Those who do affiliate with such organizations pay dues to them, attend meetings when they feel like it, and turn in their membership cards when they grow tired of the organization’s activities or become angry at what it does or the changes it makes. The Church, committed to God, is very different, of course. It is – we are – the body of Christ.

Neither is the Church something to watch on television as interested spectators. For us, the Church is participatory. We are necessarily partakers and contributors. We are not like the audience at a concert, but we are like members of the orchestra making the music – God’s music to which we dance in our daily lives, following our Christian values.

We are the body of Christ, and each of us individually is a member of it. But we are not individuals WITHOUT the body – only WITHIN it. In a way, our faith and tradition create a certain conflict with the rugged and independent-minded individualism that has formed so much of the American culture. We are not Christians alone; we are not separate actors choosing our own views without reference to the faith. Always, we are together – parts of the whole. And our congregations, the Church, are part of the body of Christ.

St. Paul drives home this point as he expands his view of the body of Christ by using the image of a human body. He enlightens us with telling examples of its parts – hand, ear, eye, nose, feet, and head. Each has its special function. As we consider what we are as the Church, we do well to remember this. As different parts of a human body make their contributions, each of us finds a particular contribution to the Church, finding a ministry that suits us and complements the others.

And, we expand these ministries beyond the confines of the congregation as we all apply our ministries in making the work of Christ effective in our daily lives for the sake of all around us.

But, we dare not forget to balance these individual roles following another aspect of St. Paul’s analogy. It takes all parts of a human body working together to produce the functioning of a healthy one. We must work together, recognizing the equal importance of all ministries and all members and all people. St. Paul illustrates this in language we can never forget. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Each, he insists, is equally indispensable. All of us, doing our parts, are indispensable.

And, we must also expand this view beyond the confines of the Church. In the broken and fearful and often desperate world in which we live, conflict and contention and extremism and lack of civility on many sides seem to have become the rule instead of the exception. Far too often, people in all sections of our country and of the world choose sides, ascribe to an “us versus them” mentality, and draw lines in the sand. How can we take Paul’s wisdom that no one can say “I have no need of you” and extend it to all people and all places to make this sense of Christ-like unity understood and accepted?

As the body of Christ, we are the activity and the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. We become the Resurrection. The Church is the means by which Christ remains involved in the world. So, we, his body, are Christ’s representatives on earth.

We, the Church, are Christ for others – at work, at home, at school, in the community, and in the life of our congregations.

It might help today to remind ourselves of a teaching from the Outline of Faith, the Catechism, on page 555 of the Prayer Book:

“What is the mission of the Church,” we ask. And we learn that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

When we ask, “How does the Church pursue its mission?” We learn that, “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships and proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.”

And finally, we ask, “Through who does the Church carry out its mission?” And we are reminded that, “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.”

The various ministries that we employ as part of the Church allow us to engage in the great mission of the body of Christ, following the challenges that Jesus lays before us. They represent how we actively serve as Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

What our world needs is for us to be the body of Christ. And how we begin to do that might well be found in today’s Gospel. The very first thing Jesus did as he began his ministry was to go into the midst of the community in which he had lived his entire life and declare what the world needed. He did so by reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

How do we, as the continuing body of Christ, in our time and our places do what Jesus read about? How, in word and in action, do we “bring good news to the poor?” How do we, in word and in action, “proclaim relief to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind?” How do we, in word and in action, “let the oppressed go free?”

How do we, in the expression of the catechism, “proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace and love?”

A fearful and anxious world, filled with far too many people who are hungry and oppressed, wounded and hopeless, await an answer from the Church – from us – the body of Christ.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3C.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus

The Rev. Ken Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines: Granite on Fire.

Come and Dine, Epiphany 2(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. How many weddings have you been to in your life? Can you remember what all those brides wore, the music that was played, the songs you danced to at the reception? Whether you enjoy weddings or dread them, they make an impression. You can recall details of a wedding many years after they happen. How the light caught her eyes. How the champagne tasted. Who caught the bouquet. It’s not just any day. It’s a day that strives for goodwill, for abundance and joy. Despite the fact that every wedding is a cliché — how could it be otherwise? — and despite the army of wedding professionals waiting to capitalize on your special day, a wedding remains the basic metaphor we have for things turning out right in the end.

Which is exactly why this wedding, with its water-to-wine miracle, marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of John. John is setting the scene for everything that comes after, and telling us what he thinks life as a follower of Jesus is really about. As Marcus Borg writes in his book titled simply Jesus, “The story of Jesus is about a wedding. And more: it is a wedding at which the wine never runs out. More: it is a wedding at which the best wine is saved for last.”

John is an odd duck. He clearly thinks this is a very important story for understanding who Jesus is, and yet this is a story that occurs only in his Gospel. The other Gospels make no mention of Jesus turning water into wine. Our lectionary runs in a 3-year cycle — one year each for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John doesn’t get a year to himself: instead we get little bits and pieces of John in each of the three years. Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell variations of the same basic story about Jesus, John goes off in his own direction. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more narrative, sticking to the facts of Jesus’ life and inserting Jesus’ teaching as it was preserved in early manuscripts. John is different: more interpretive and intellectual.  John wants to show us not just what Jesus says and does, but what Jesus means. And what Jesus means is life, joy, abundance, and peace. John is convinced that the Christian life is meant to be a comedy, not a tragedy. Despite how dark things might seem out there in the world, despite the fact that the path to life will lead Jesus — and us — through death, despite all of this: things will turn out right in the end. God is in control, leading us to light and life in Jesus.

John drops a hint about the meaning of Jesus in the way he begins the Cana story: “On the third day.” Important things happen in the Bible on the third day — most notably Jesus’ resurrection. In the same way that the first line of the first chapter of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” calls to mind the beginning of everything in the book of Genesis, “on the third day” points to the climax and resolution of Jesus’ story. On the third day is life, and that is where we are called to live.

Then John goes on to tell us about a wedding. Marriage as a metaphor for the union of God and humankind runs throughout the Bible.  In the passage from Isaiah that we heard today, God is the bridegroom joined in union to God’s people Israel:

“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

A wedding in the ancient world was an unparalleled feast. Celebrations continued for days on end. For the poor people Jesus grew up among, a wedding meant a pause from seemingly endless labor and a chance to eat and drink abundant food and wine, in stark contrast to the meager rations that made up their typical daily fare.  The life that God intends for us is a life where there is enough: an abundance that springs from God’s own abundance.

But God intends more for us than mere sustenance. There should be enough wine, and it should be good wine, the finest wine. The marriage supper God invites us to is meant to bring us pleasure and joy. The life God intends for us is one filled with beauty and contentment and all good things. It is a lie to think of pleasure as immoral. As we see at this wedding feast where Jesus reveals himself, the day of banquet and feasting is also the day of reconciliation, joy, and peace. Only when there is enough to go around, plenty to be shared freely, can old resentments be washed away and new companionship begin to grow.

Despite John’s tendency to show us the otherworldly, mysterious and ethereal side of Jesus, this miracle makes a strong case that the Christian life is grounded in simple, daily pleasures like good food and wine: following Jesus is more about earth than heaven. God became incarnate not to pull us out of our bodies and into heaven, but rather to bring heaven down to us, to bring the peace and abundance that is God’s intention for all people and places into every corner of human life.  We are blessed with this feast at the Eucharistic table week-by-week and day-by-day, blessed with enough and more left over to share. And in our joy we are called to go out into God’s world and share God’s invitation: the table is set for all! Come and dine.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2C.

Written by The Rev. Jason Cox

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row

Bible Study, Epiphany 4(C), January 31, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Jeremiah lived in a time of widespread fear, confusion, dread, and denial. The people of Judea were caught in the middle of three encroaching foreign powers – Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. Most of the northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered, and the territory around Jerusalem was under occupation. Jeremiah saw his beloved Temple and city destroyed, and its people marched away in captivity. Who would welcome God’s call to be a prophet in a time and place like that? In the pattern we can read in the call of other prophets, Jeremiah first responds by protesting that he can’t do the job. And in the pattern we have learned to expect from God, the Lord replies, in effect, “Nonsense. I will give you everything you need. Here are your instructions.” God does indeed ask us to do difficult or frightening things sometimes. God appoints Jeremiah “to pluck up…pull down…destroy…overthrow” but also “to build and to plant.” We may be tempted to forget in anxious times that God never leaves us to cope with our disasters alone, but leads us eventually into comfort, restoration, and new growth.

  • What things are you feeling prophetic about?
  • Can you see the promise of new things as well as the dangers that threaten?
Psalm 71:1-6

This psalm continues the theme of a threatening danger, in the words of a fervent prayer for protection and deliverance. The wicked, the evildoer, and the oppressor named in verse 4 may be political overlords, but they may also be personal adversaries. In either case, we are hearing the plea of someone who feels cornered and outnumbered. The psalmist goes beyond crying out for help, though. Even in this short excerpt (the psalm in its entirety is twenty-four verses long), the speaker turns to professions of confidence and praise. We are reminded that the Israelites had a familial sense of intimacy with the Lord. They sought God’s comfort and protection, they sang and danced and shouted their praise and worship. And when they felt it necessary, they shouted angrily or wailed their laments to the God who led and sustained them. Psalm 71 expresses some of that intimacy – “from my mother’s womb you have been my strength” – and later, in verse 18, “And now that I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me.”

  • What are the deepest longings of your heart?
  • Can you pour them out to God?
  • What about your disappointments and resentments?
  • Can you trust God with those, too?
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Many people may have heard this passage read at weddings and reached the understandable conclusion that Paul’s words apply to individuals in a committed relationship. “Love is patient; love is kind…It does not insist on its own way…” Yes, these statements could certainly apply to the ideal relationship between partners in marriage. We need to read Chapter 13 in its wider context, though, to understand Paul’s message fully. Leading up to this chapter, Paul has pointed out that the members of the church in Corinth are not acting very charitably toward one another, and are in fact continuing to live according to the social class system of their secular surroundings. Rather than approaching the Lord’s Supper in a spirit of unity and love, they have fallen into factions of “haves” and “have-nots.” (1 Cor 11:20-22) Rather than using their spiritual gifts for the growth and benefit of all, they appear to have created a hierarchy of “bragging rights” according to who can exercise which gift. (1 Cor 12) Paul’s purpose in Chapter 13 is to remind them that they are no longer to act as individuals, thinking of themselves first, but to recognize that they are now part of the body of Christ. In the unity of that body, all are to be treated with equal respect and the gifts of all are to be received in love and gratitude.

  • Re-read verses 4-7, applying the words to a modern congregation rather than to an individual couple. What lessons for our mutual life do you find there?
  • How many ways could you apply Paul’s comparison between childish and adult understanding? It is bad or wrong to be “childish,” or simply a form of behavior that should be “put away” as we grow more mature as disciples?
Luke 4:21-30

Luke’s telling of this episode differs significantly from Mark’s (6:1-6) and Matthew’s (13:54-58) versions. And Luke has shifted the focus. In this longer narrative, Jesus elaborates on the theme of the prophet being without honor in his own country, or hometown. In this story, the people of Nazareth do not react angrily to Jesus’s saying “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Yes, they are astonished to hear the carpenter’s son sounding so authoritative and wise, but their first reaction is very favorable. They only become angry after Jesus reminds them of the times when Israel has rejected her prophets, prompting God to send them to Gentiles instead. What is Luke’s purpose in choosing this narrative? Overall, the Gospel of Luke has a distinct tone of justice for the oppressed and the outcast; perhaps this episode can teach us something from that angle. The people of Nazareth are feeling pretty smug over having such an impressive “hometown boy.” They don’t even seem to mind that he has just claimed to be the Messiah. But the outrage is that he suggests that he is not their exclusive property! That they might not even be given any special favors in the kingdom of heaven because they “knew him when!”

  • Are we inclined to think we have a special claim to Jesus?
  • Do we secretly resent or disdain the expressions of Christianity that come from other cultures?

Download the Epiphany 4C Bible Study.

Written by Jennifer Shadle

Jennifer Shadle is a transitional Deacon and a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Colorado. Before recognizing the call to ordained ministry, Jennifer taught vocal music and music history at the secondary and collegiate levels, most recently at Colorado State University-Pueblo. As a seminarian, she takes delight in the liturgy and worship of the Church, theology, and pastoral ministry. She is completing a Concentration in Hispanic Church Studies, and hopes to serve in a multicultural parish setting or to develop a missional ministry among immigrant populations.