Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (A) – 2014

Uncomfortable, yet unafraid

March 2, 2014

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, is also World Mission Sunday. How appropriate.

“Mission” is derived from the Latin word mittere, which means “to send.” It entered the Christian lexicon in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery and the expansion of imperialistic European power to the “New World.” However, the concept of mission – to spread the teaching of Jesus Christ – can be traced back to the first century and Paul of Tarsus. We are all familiar with Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the Damascus road. And it would be safe to say that that transfiguring encounter with God is what compelled Paul “to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love” – what compelled him to become a missionary.

Our gospel reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain where he stands in conversation with Moses and Elijah – a symbol that the ancestors recognize Jesus as the one who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And the encounter seems all well and good until the voice of God speaks from a bright cloud, at which the three disciples of Jesus fall “facedown to the ground, terrified.”

Icons of the Transfiguration story show the three disciples on their hands and knees, cowering, crawling away and covering their faces. They are high-up, isolated and vulnerable. And although by this point in Matthew’s gospel at least one of them, Peter, acknowledged that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” he and his friends quickly forgot about Jesus’ divinity upon realizing that they had no control in the presence of God penetrating their human realm.

They were being changed, and that change frightened them. Yet, ever so gently, Jesus looked upon his friends and said, “Do not be afraid.” And then carried them down the mountain into the midst of human squalor and need. They had seen that God was real, and could now go tell the story to people who needed to know.

Jesus called them to be uncomfortable, and reminded them to be unafraid.

So often, church folks, much like Peter, James and John, are stubbornly adverse to change. Whether the argument is about liturgy, or pew leaflets, or the church’s race and gender politics, there is ample evidence around the Anglican Communion that suggests we have become comfortable in our silos of privilege and tradition. A lot of us do not prefer change.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the world’s pervasive evils as racism, militarism and materialism, and to this we can add sexism, heterosexism and ableism, which is the discrimination against people with disabilities. These evils convince some of us that we cannot be too sure of God’s presence. We are persuaded, then, to control our environments as to not become overwhelmed or vulnerable. The limitations of our eyes and ears sometimes make the comprehensibility of God’s goodness impossible. So, routine becomes our god.

Routine, comprehensible and comfortable, becomes a means of protection from a constantly changing life. We erect structures of narcissistic might where we employ rituals to remind God to protect us and show us favor against a common enemy – it helps if the enemy looks different or loves differently, has less or knows less. Sometimes those structures and rituals are cultural, humble externalizations of how we communicate with God. Too often those structures and rituals are seemingly immovable symbols to keep out the “other,” whom we fear will steal our things, or praise God too loudly, or whose stories will force us to face our own brokenness, or remind us of our complicity in oppression.

Yet, Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the very nature of the universe of which we are a part, and of which God is at the center. And it contradicts who and what we hope to become as followers of a metaphysically and physically transitory Christ.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, to go and  “make disciples of all nations.”

Unwillingness to change is ultimately unchristian, because it is a selfish relinquishing of our responsibility as bearers of the Good News, which requires us to get up and get out.

However, in our gospel reading today, Jesus calls us to transgress our comfort zones and be transfigured, to be changed into the very likeness of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

The Episcopal Church has 25 young adults who have answered Jesus’ call to us to be uncomfortable and unafraid. The Young Adult Service Corps, a part of the Global Missions Office of the Episcopal Church, has young adult missionaries in 14 countries – South Africa, the Philippines, China, Italy, Haiti, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, South Korea, Cuba, El Salvador, Japan, Honduras and Brazil. These young adult missionaries give anywhere from a year to two years of their lives to the work of God. Many of these young people have never been to the countries where they now live and work. And many of them have little proficiency in the local languages and no experience with the local cultures and social mores. It is the perfect recipe to be uncomfortable, and thus the perfect place to be transfigured.

In partnership with organizations associated with the Anglican Church in those various countries, some of the work of these Young Adult Service Corps missionaries includes helping victims of domestic violence, teaching children who have been the victims of sexual violence, working in economic relief and development, working as student ministers to university students, and working as spiritual companions to seafarers who spend a majority of their year away from home, at sea.

And while many people think that missionary work is about going to some dark place and Christianizing a desperate people, the missionary often finds that she is the one who is being converted, changed, transfigured.

The missionary finds that she is called to do as God instructed Peter, James and John: to “listen.” And in her listening she learns to become one with the people, to get to the heart of things, to lose herself in love of and in service to the people she now calls her family and friends. And in that very coming together as one, she becomes a witness to the transforming and transfiguring presence of God.

The Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church is giving a generation of young people the opportunity to fling open the doors to their silos of privilege in order to build bridges and partnerships with God’s church all over the world – to do their small part in joining together the disjointed places of the family of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Once we have been to the Mount of Transfiguration and blessed with the knowledge that we are one with the entire universe – at one with each other, nature and God – then we can’t help but to tell the story, walking as one constantly being transfigured. Indeed, the transfigured one dedicates her life to bringing about God’s peace on earth.

A Franciscan prayer asks God to bless us “with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships … with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people … with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war.”

Whether abroad or at home, once we’ve broken open the doors to our silos of privilege and tradition to encounter God’s transfiguring presence, it must become our mission, with God’s help, to descend the mountain and enter into uncomfortable places, to be a transfiguring presence in the lives of others.

Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian and mystic said it best:

“There must be a matured and maturing sense of Presence … on the social, naturalistic and cosmic levels. … Modern [humans] must know that [they are children] of God and that the God of life in all its parts and the God of the human heart are one and the same. … Thus, we shall look out upon life with quiet eyes and work on our tasks with the conviction and detachment of Eternity.”

 

— Paul Daniels, II is a Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) volunteer serving as the Student and Young Adult Minister at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown, South Africa. He is from the Diocese of North Carolina

7 Epiphany (A) – 2014

Stone soup

February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-401 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.

A villager saw this, became curious, and asked what they were cooking. They explained that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup that they would be happy to share with the village. They just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful. The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes, and so on and so forth until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.

This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.

In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, our foundation is Jesus Christ, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading, and we must choose with care how we build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ; we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: all our hurt, all our joy, all our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too, whether we like it or not.

This should matter to us. This should change us.  It should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but perfection in the Hebrew sense of the word “tamim,” which mean “wholeness.” To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly and to be single-minded in our devotion to God. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.

If we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today. Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?

Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we would know what love is, and because of our love of God, we are able to love ourselves and love others.

Jesus constantly challenges us with this. He said:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.

Jesus continued: “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?” The gentiles were considered unclean and unbelievers in Jewish culture, and to be compared to them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples – us – to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you know only one or two people? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life – Jesus calls us to discipleship, and that means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversations. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.

Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we, believe it or not, are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.

Look around you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God. This may be difficult, especially if you feel someone is your enemy, but as Frederick Buechner wrote in his book “Whistling in the Dark”:

“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. … You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction.”

How would it feel to be beheld like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?

Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a community that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the rector of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota.

Epiphany 6 (A) – 2014

Intensifying the Law

February 16, 2014

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

In the moral life, we can think of commandments in at least a couple of ways. One way to think of a commandment is as a rule by which we can evaluate the rightness or wrongness of a given action. We might think of a commandment like, “thou shalt not bear false witness” as a rule against the deliberate telling of untruths. The moral task then will be to decide whether telling our spouses that “we love” their new neon green and brown plaid blazer breaks the rule against lying or not.

A second way to think of a commandment sees it as a guide and exhortation in the formation of our moral character. Taken this way, the command against bearing false witness is not just about following the rule, but it is also about the formation of an honest character. The rule is followed not just for the sake of following it, but because by repeated attempts to follow the rule in our ever-changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to act honestly.

Jesus thinks of commandments in the second way. Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Antitheses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus is doing is intensifying the particular law’s claims and thereby clarifying its true meaning.

In the so-called “Antitheses,” Jesus is showing what he meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and to teach a greater righteousness: “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments are not just rules to be followed, they are given so that by following them we might become formed in a greater righteousness.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to kill is the formation of our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater righteousness is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. The lustful glance, the undressing with the eye, treats others as objects and takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we would become honest people.

L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become grace-filled people through the daily and disciplined practice of Christian obligations. He writes:

“Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about a ballet dancer, or, if you prefer, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.”

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to the higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a description of the character of disciples fit for the Kingdom:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

We become these types of people not by forsaking the law; rather, we become these types of people by following the law with true intention. God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character, so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

5 Epiphany (A) – 2014

A loving Law

February 9, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

One of the hardest problems we face in hearing or reading the Bible, is that of time. We don’t have time machines, and even if we did, we’d journey back in time with the ideas formed in us by our nationality, the communities in which we grew up, our family traditions, and the things we take for granted. If we tried to get back to the people for whom Matthew is writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, we’d land in a strange land, among unfamiliar people. No doubt they’d think us pretty odd, too.

The gospel today underscores the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St. Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee,” like the word “righteousness,” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners.

The Pharisees, or Pious Ones, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Jesus’ time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.

As the church grew, opened itself to non-Jews and developed its own teachings, a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St. Matthew, a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.

Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?

This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfill” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbor; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”

So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St. Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.

Some of the most tragic stories that emerge from wars involve prisoners or refugees, walking along roads, herded by brutal guards. The heroes of these stories are those who in the midst of their own miseries, despite the dangers, share their meager rations, water supplies, even clothing, to help those who have fallen by the side of the road, who might well be shot by the guards because they can’t keep up.

On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation.

Of course the strength to live for God and for others doesn’t come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength, that grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters, but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Presentation (A,B,C) – 2014

Waiting, watching and discovering the glory of God

February 2, 2014

[NOTE: Because the Feast of the Presentation falls on a Sunday this year, its lectionary readings take precedence over the usual readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany in Year A.]

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Today we celebrate one of the principal feasts of the church – and, no, we are not talking about the Super Bowl!

The strange thing is that many will never have heard of it. The Feast of the Presentation occurs each year on February 2nd – exactly 40 days after Christmas. Most years the feast slips by us on a weekday, with perhaps a celebration scattered here and there.

This year, however, February 2nd falls on a Sunday, and this great feast takes precedence over what would otherwise be the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany.

The full name of today’s feast is the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It’s a celebration of one of Jesus’ major life events; that’s what makes it a principal feast.

You may also have heard of it as “Candlemas” or “the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

“Candlemas” because this is the feast when candles are traditionally blessed.

In some places, today marks the end of the Christmas season, which is not observed as 12 days of Christmas, but 40 days of the Incarnation.

And “Purification of Mary” because the law of Moses required that she – like the infant Jesus – participate in a rite of purification 40 days after childbirth.

That’s the why of the event: Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing along with them a pair of turtledoves to offer as a sacrifice.

But what happens at the Temple is nothing short of miraculous.

Two prophets encounter Jesus and understand there is something special about him.

First, there’s Simeon.

Simeon, we are told, was righteous and devout. And he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah.

You can imagine his plight. The older he got, the more he likely asked, “Is this the one?” of every person he encountered. “Is today the day?” And the answer must have been “No, not today”  a thousand times over.

But on this day, he takes the infant Jesus into his arms and sings:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

It is, of course, a text well known to Anglicans as one of the usual two canticles at Evensong.

And it is also a prophecy. Simeon says, basically: Today I have seen my salvation, my Lord, my Savior. And this God has made this revelation for the glory of his people.

We are told that Mary and Joseph were amazed. Jesus was not yet 6 weeks old. They had survived encounters with angels, shepherds praising God, wise ones from the east bearing gifts, and dreams that caused them to escape into Egypt.

And yet they must’ve wondered. Could they have said to themselves, “Do they really mean our child?” or even “Do these people really mean any child can be the savior of humankind?”

And then there’s another prophet, Anna.

We are told she had lived 84 years – no easy feat in first-century Palestine, especially for a woman! She prayed and fasted in the Temple night and day.

But on this day, she noticed that something was different. She finds Mary and Joseph and the baby and begins to tell about him. “Praise be to God,” she may have said, “for this truly is the redeemer of the world.”

So we have a story about waiting, a story about watching, and a story about discovery.

Waiting for the day to come, for the savior to appear, for all things to be put right.

Watching to see that the day has come, that this child is destined for the falling and rising of many.

And the discovery that God has revealed all this to us: this light that lightens all the world, this child who redeems all people, this savior who is Christ the Lord.

Like the prophet Simeon, we yearn for the coming of the Messiah, for all in this world to be put right: for the hungry to be fed, for prisoners to be set free, for the sick to be healed.

Like the prophet Anna, we hope that our prayer and sacrifice and faithfulness will be fulfilled: that equality will come for all God’s people, that peace will prevail over the whole earth, that justice will conquer all oppression.

And so, we believe.

We believe because we are tired of waiting.

We believe because we are weary of watching.

And we believe because we have discovered the truth.

The hard truth of Christmas, of Candlemas, of the Purification, of the Presentation: the hard truth of the Incarnation is, in the words of Howard Thurman, simply this:

“After the prophets have spoken,
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

Let us work, pray and give to make it so.

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. John’s Church, Montclair, N.J. He welcomes comments and chat to revdocbates@gmail.com and invites you to follow his blog of inspirational quotes, recommended reading and occasional spiritual musings.

3 Epiphany (A) – 2014

Fly fishing for Christ

January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Sometimes landlubbers venture onto water in a boat with a “do-everything” professional guide. Country folk might view this as people “calling themselves ‘fishing.’” This kind of fishing includes little, if any, challenge. It is possible for a guide not only to provide the boat, rods and reels; but also to furnish bait and hooks, set lines at a proper depth, locate the fish (from experience or using sonar), and alert the customers when there is a hit. The “fisherman” simply reels in the catch. Then the guide also takes the fish off the hook, throws them into a cooler, and, once back on land, cleans the catch and places them in plastic bags for the trip back home.

Such a heavily facilitated form of sport is a far cry from the beautiful and artistic class of fishing portrayed in Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It.” This story, rooted in the life of a fly-fishing family in rural Montana, portrays an activity that gives substance to nearly every scene in the book.

It begins with these words:

“In our family there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Western Montana and our father was a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry fly fisherman.”

The author of this novel was, of course, not the first person to bid others join him in an activity that served as an extended metaphor for life, nor the first to compare fishing with religion. In today’s gospel reading, we encounter Jesus saying to the Galileans, Andrew and Peter and James and John, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

“Follow me,” Jesus demanded. “Follow me in helping people become God’s disciples.”

This simple, yet profound, command began a remarkable transformation in the Western World. Like cells dividing, Jesus, the human form of God, became the four fishermen and then the 12 apostles. The 12 became 500, the 500 became thousands, and thousands became millions.

Serving as a Jesus-kind of fisherman is evangelism: sharing the Good News by helping others find and live by the power of God’s love. It is helping them learn further to share with more people what they have found in our joyous and meaningful faith. This is easy to say; but how do we do it? How do we fish well for people?

Following the example of fly fishing might well provide a useful analogy for the ministry to which Jesus calls us, as he called the first disciples.

It is a necessarily hard task, but quite realistic and honest. Throughout his novel, Maclean reveals the intricacies of fly fishing as a way of helping the reader better understand the call to bring others to experience the joy and wonders of creation.

Maclean’s fly fishermen didn’t use boats or guides or sonar, but learned for themselves a lot about each particular species of fish they wished to catch. They had to think like the fish and know its habits, learn what it likes to eat, discover the depth of water in which it feeds, and figure out what it prefers at particular places and certain times of the day and seasons of the year.

The successful fly fisherman purchases the right rod, does everything imaginable to tie the exactly correct fly for each specific situation, practices casting, perfects timing and works hard to attract, hook and finally land the much-desired fish.

Like fish, people exist in many varieties. So, to become successful fishers of people, we can do well by copying good fly fishing. First we develop a desire to find what we seek because we want to share the love we have come to know in the Lord. We recognize and take into account individual differences, preferences, perspectives and cultures. We also remember that those of varying ages and generations were formed in distinctive historical eras and consequently often respond differently and have separate characteristic needs. Those we seek must be approached with the kind of respect and care that honors both their dignity and their particularities.

Following the example of conscientious anglers, we share with others the value we have found in following Christ, become conscious of where the needs of others lie, use appropriate methods, take care about proper timing and seek repeatedly to learn how other people think and communicate.

As the fly fisherman cannot force a trout to be caught, we also try to draw others into the Christian circle, not by coercion, but by loving attraction. We constantly study and practice and experiment, as we strive to present the gospel so it can become clear, understandable and meaningful to them. We find the best method to feed them spiritually so they can grow within the faith. In their own ways, they can continue the process Jesus began with Peter and Andrew and James and John as the newest in the spiritual chain of cell division, reaching out to others and expanding the great body of Christian disciples.

Maybe for us, the best example of fly fishing comes from the “catch and release method,” following the principle that a fish is more valuable in the water than on the angler’s dinner table. Let us imagine ourselves as Christians engaging others in the faith, keeping them alive, caring for them and teaching them to know the Divine One who loves us all. Then, imagine respecting them, regardless of how they choose to respond to our help in bringing them to a deeper knowledge of God, regardless of how they live out the faith we share.

Is this an appropriate way to engage today’s gospel? Does it seem like what Jesus means for us to do? Is it what he intended for Peter and Andrew and James and John?

Certainly, he did not want his disciples to use anyone we “catch,” but to embrace and serve them. The church’s task – as fishers of people – is to find the best ways to invite others to Christ, offering them what we have and letting them prosper if they choose to remain in our environment. We can follow Jesus’ call by meeting them where they are and fostering ministries and activities that are suitable for their needs. Eventually, we can offer them the opportunity to serve God and others as they deem best.

We Episcopalians do this because we understand that Jesus calls us into the most precious ministry there is: fulfilling the mission of the church, which we say is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

As fly-fishermen for Christ, we can gain strength in this task by remembering first the needs of others and praying ever and again the words of today’s Collect:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

2 Epiphany (A) – 2014

A call to relationship

January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

This doesn’t happen very often with our new lectionary, but today there’s one theme that can be found in all four of our readings from scripture. It’s the notion of being called.

The readings from Isaiah and from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians both begin with words about being called, about being set apart by God. This fits right in with today’s section of John’s gospel, in which we hear his account of what is usually called “The Call of the First Disciples.” John the Baptist points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the Baptist’s disciples hear this, decide to check out this Jesus guy, and end up abandoning John and going off with Jesus instead. It’s this call, the call of these first two disciples, that is the one we need to pay special attention to if we want to understand what it’s usually like to be called by God.

After all, this business of being called is a tricky and an important thing. It’s easy to get confused about it, especially the way we use it these days. We tend to equate being called in terms of the language and context in 1 Corinthians and Isaiah. That is, with being told by God to do some specific thing, usually a pretty major thing. We talk of being called to be ordained, or being called to a special – usually a full-time and professional – form of service, almost always in the church.

And that’s about all we do with being called, and it’s really handy. You see, by looking at things this way, most of us can listen to the story of the call of these disciples and neatly separate what happened to them from what’s going on with us. “After all, they were called – we’re just ordinary folks.” So we’re safe from all that call business. It’s about someone else.

An interesting perspective on this can be gained by serving on one of the diocesan Commissions on Ministry. One of the things a Commission on Ministry does is interview people who want to be ordained; and those folks really struggle with this idea of call.

A few of the people interviewed will have had powerful experiences of the presence of God, and they think that this means they have to do something new and different – for Episcopalians, alas, that usually means to run off and get ordained.

But the vast majority of people interviewed have come to where they are through pretty ambiguous, complicated and circuitous paths – paths that have led them to suspect that it might be a good idea to get ordained. At the same time, they aren’t sure if they are “called,” whatever that might mean. So they all just dread talking to the commission because they know they’re going to be asked about it, and they all think they ought to have a better answer than they do.

But the fact is, this whole way of looking at, and at looking for a call from God as a call to a specific job or a task really misses the main point. Sure, there may well be such a thing as a special call to a specific ministry or type of service, although that is both rare and very easily misunderstood. But that’s not usually what the Bible is talking about when it talks about being called; it’s not what’s really going on in the gospel we just heard; and it’s not what is usually going on with us as God calls us.

Being ordained, or being a missionary or a monk or something like that, is quite secondary to the real, the central call we all have from God. Those two followers of John the Baptist who Jesus asked to “come and see” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples – just as we are called to be disciples. They were called to be disciples in their place and in their time, for the sake of their generation.

One of the things this means is that we don’t have to imitate Andrew’s, or John’s, or Peter’s actions in order to see, with some clarity, how their call is like the call of Christ to each of us, and to all of us.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not first, or primarily, call them to do a particular task or to fill a particular role. Indeed, he didn’t ask them to do anything. Our call as Christians is not initially for us – as it was not, initially, for his first disciples – a call to tasks.

It is, instead, an invitation to relationship. Jesus does not say, “Do this”; he says, “Come and see.” Only later does he give specific content and direction to where that might lead. There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an invitation to relationship.

To respond to a call for relationship, for intimacy, is a very different thing from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way that falling in love is very different from getting hired. To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it’s negotiable, it has its limits, you know what it looks like when the job is over, and so on. To be called into relationship – to be called in love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out, blindly, into uncharted waters.

When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is calling us first to himself – to a personal intimacy and a shared life. That’s what matters, that’s what is primary. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.

Now, if we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what’s left behind, it’s a call to repent. But if we see that same call from the perspective of what comes next, then it’s a call to seek him first, to know him better and to move toward making that relationship the central focus of our lives.

When we are called, and we are called, each and every one of us – just look again at our Baptismal Covenant – this is primarily a call to be held by Jesus for a while, and not to go anywhere, not to do anything. It’s a call to find out where Jesus lives, and to spend some time living there. By and by, this will lead us somewhere. But we won’t know where for a while, maybe not for a long while.

This is why a sense of call – something that wanders through our lives from time to time – can often be both frightening and frustrating. We might know something, perhaps something very important, is going on; something that has to do with all of our life and much more. Then, grabbing on to the wrong notion of a call from God, we start looking for what we are called to do. After all, we live in a society that insists that for something to be important it has to produce.

Instead of that, we are, especially at the beginning, simply asked to get to know God and Jesus a little better. It’s a call to listen, and to wait. It’s a time to imitate the psalmist, a time to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.” We need that first. We need that most.

This is what happened to those first disciples – they stayed close to Jesus for a while. They learned what they could and came to know him a little. Then, admittedly long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them things to do. For some, these tasks were dramatic, for others they were quiet and invisible. The call to Jesus will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. But the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding and sustaining ministry without relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.

We are called to be disciples. Each of us. That call comes with our baptism, and that call to relationship and ministry will haunt us, and track us down; it will trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back. Because finally, it’s our Lord calling us to himself. It’s his call to life, to joy and to true peace. It’s a call to all of us.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

1 Epiphany (A) – 2014

Baptism of Our Lord

January 12, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Having a baptism today gives us something to celebrate. Whether the person to be baptized is a child or an adult, a baptism done on this day is more than special, it is triumphant.

In a world that celebrates life achievements mostly for celebrities, the church rejoices at the baptism of a person into the church as well as into their own unique relationship with Jesus, as they are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.

But even if there is no baptism in this congregation today, it’s a good opportunity to renew our Baptismal Covenant, the promises we made, or if we were infants, that others made for us. This is a day to renew our commitment to Christ and each other.

The readings today particularly stress the nature of Jesus’ baptism and our own. The passage from Isaiah gets right to the heart of the matter: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

Recently a congregation was present for the baptism of a 55-year-old man who had just started coming to church. His first question was “What do I have to do to be baptized?”

On the day of his baptism, with the bishop present, he stood at the small font, a tall, athletic man, and bowed his head as the priest poured water on him and the bishop sealed him with chrism, marking him as Christ’s own forever.

Afterward, he shared how moving the experience had been for him. He told how something had always been missing in his life. He had been a counselor until retirement, and he now realized the wholeness given to him, just as he had often tried to help others find it in their lives.

He is now a servant, volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas Day he offered to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. He spent Christmas weekend with his family, but the day itself was marked by his servanthood.

The second reading today is Peter’s dramatic speech about life in the Spirit, and how he now realizes that God shows no partiality. In our baptismal vows, we take that realization seriously as we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” We also promise to respect the dignity of every human being. The reality of refugees and migrants among us brings this issue right to the front of our minds and hearts. We approach all persons, especially the alien, the stranger, as gifts from God to us, and we extend our hospitality to them because “anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

In the gospel reading we are shown our Lord’s own humility because, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness has to do with the way God intends things to be, and God obviously intends us to submit to one another in service and sacrifice.

Recently, a woman found herself being prodded to do something about the lack of housing for the poor and homeless in her community. Among them were people who were undocumented, people who were out of work, single mothers with children, and several who were simply alone.

She tried to get the attention of her church about their plight. A committee was formed, but nothing happened. Then she decided to take matters into her own hands and began meeting with the people themselves. They organized a housing co-operative and before long they found a small vacant motel they could buy. Having no funds, they began to search for resources, and through a process of diligent work and generosity, put together a financial package to buy the motel. They found a man willing to be their residential manager, and now on cold winter nights and in the heat of summer several dozen people have housing. Her church has now become an integral part of the enterprise as well.

This is what baptism can lead to: a strong sense of servanthood, and mission that fulfills what it means to be righteous. While the baptism of a child is precious, an event that leaves us all smiling and joyful, we cannot know what God has in mind for this person if they are nurtured in the love of the Lord. Often we don’t get to see “the rest of the story”; but if we, did we would be amazed. There are countless stories of people who go on to a servant’s vocation, backed by their vows of baptism and their bond to Christ and his church.

Take a moment now and reflect on where your baptismal journey has brought you.

What have you done as a result of your life in Christ? How has Jesus led you to use your talents and gifts for righteous actions? What has been joyful for you on this journey?

Then look around at your sisters and brothers, and give thanks that together you can celebrate your life in Christ and look forward to further adventures.

 

— Ben Helmer is a priest in the Diocese of Arkansas. He lives with his wife in Holiday Island and is currently vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs.

Epiphany (A) – 2014

Were the Magi real?

January 6, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14Ephesians 3:1-12Matthew 2:1-12

Were the Magi real? Did they actually make their way from a distant land in the East some 2,000 years ago, following a mysterious star all the way to Bethlehem? And did they really bring the Child Jesus those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Good questions.

Every year around this time of course, astronomers, both amateur and professional, offer some innovative scientific – skeptics might say “pseudo-scientific” – explanation for the appearance of the star. An unusual conjunction of planets, they most often explain. And reputable historians will be happy to tell you that soothsayers and traveling shamans were undoubtedly a colorful and important element of the ancient world. Then as now, people wanted to understand the deeper meanings of life.

So it all could have been just as related to us in the Gospel of Matthew. The gifts of precious metal and aromatic resins are perhaps a bit more problematical – not exactly what you might think to get a little boy for his birthday these days. Evidence perhaps – as some commentators and parents puckishly suggest – that the wise men did not have children of their own.

Still, whether the Magi and their star and gifts were real or not remains anybody’s guess. Many reputable Scripture scholars, in fact, question their actual existence. They remind us that much in Scripture was never intended to be taken literally. The stories of Jesus’ birth, they go on to say – the so-called Infancy Narratives – are simply parts of an ancient midrashic, or interpretive, genre of biblical narrative, not intended as strictly factual accounts.

So, were the Magi real?

Hard to say. Maybe – just maybe – we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

What does it mean to be “real” anyway? Perhaps the Magi are as real as real gets. After all, when you stop to think about it, there are a lot of people in our contemporary world who could stand to get real. We meet them at work and at the mall, sometimes even in our own families. And most of us, if we look at our own lives, would have to admit that they are filled with the unreal and with our own fair share of improbabilities – events and happenstances that we could hardly have predicted before their occurrence. Yet, here we are – in the flesh, with our all-too-real contradictions and accumulated paradoxes.

So, perhaps a small troop of mystics or sages arriving from the East – note, by the way, that Matthew does not mention the number three – are not so odd or implausible as we might at first think. The Magi were, to be sure, outsiders in most every sense of the word – gentiles after all, surely as incongruous and out-of-place as anything or anyone could be in the heartland of the ancient Jewish world. And most likely, if we read between the lines, they were clairvoyants and prestidigitators of sorts – practitioners of the occult arts, if you will – and filthy rich. How else explain those gifts, costly in any age? For all we know, the Magi may well have been the David Copperfields of their day.

Yet for all that, their agenda was deceptively simple and straightforward: to find the King of the Jews, to worship him and to bring him their gifts. And it is this simple agenda that leads them from their own far-off land to King Herod and beyond on an unlikely journey of discovery and epiphany.

What could be more real than that?

Epiphany remains for us in our own age an astonishing sign or manifestation of the hardly believable yet very much real – God’s wisdom masquerading as human weakness and folly. For as we readily see, God’s eternal wisdom is found not at King Herod’s magnificent court, but rather in the humble village home of a small and vulnerable child and his parents. Perhaps it does take show-business-like conjurers – themselves no doubt masters of surprise and the unexpected – to recognize the real in the impossible.

There is, of course, always a fine line between the real and the impossible. All too often it is indeed the impossible that inevitably comes to pass: An obscure South American cardinal with a heart for the poor is elected pope; a former rising oil executive known for the gift of reconciliation is appointed archbishop; and a humble man at long last unites the peoples of his native land after decades of Apartheid and rigid racial segregation.

There are wise men – and women – among us still.

But if there is a fine line between the real and the impossible, there is sometimes an even finer distinction to be drawn between true wisdom and our own self-deceptions and doubts. We must admire the perspicacity and persistence of the Magi making their way methodically and sure-footedly across wilderness and desert, seeking an out-of-the-question reality they were certain had come to pass. Few of us are so sure of ourselves and our paths. Too many among us never even dare leave home.

But the Magi, their task accomplished, return home from their journey “by another road” as the gospel tells us, and have not been heard from since. For all we know, they may still be on their way. For all we know, they may be journeying among us here and now in our congregations and communities, bequeathing to us from time to time their precious gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding – gifts that remain as rare today as gold, frankincense and myrrh in any age.

Perhaps that is why the church has given us this special festival day of Epiphany, to celebrate the wondrous and amazing things in our own lives. And to give us courage to follow, in our day, the star of the Magi as it leads us – just as it did them – to Bethlehem and the Child Jesus.

If the Magi are not real, who is?

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!

Last Sunday After Epiphany/World Mission Sunday (A)

March 6, 2011

Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 22 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

[NOTE: In celebration of World Mission Sunday, the following sermon is written as a first-person account by a missionary in Tanzania, Africa.]

I am a missionary in Tanzania. When people hear this, they usually have one of three reactions: “You must be a saint”; “I didn’t know the Episcopal Church had missionaries”; or “I’d like to do something like that someday” (often followed by a list of why they can’t).

Since today is World Mission Sunday in the Episcopal Church, I would like to respond to these reactions.

To the “You must be a saint” reaction, I smile and assure them that I am; and in the next breath I assure them that by virtue of their baptism they are as well. If I can do one thing in this homily, I would like to dispel the myth that the work of missionaries that serve in a global context is any more important or noble than any other Christian’s mission. If it were not for the faithful service of the people in the churches at home, I would not be serving in Tanzania. The outward journey first requires an inward journey. While I, and probably many of you, would like to have had a mountaintop experience like Moses and the disciples, I have not. God did not reveal Himself to me in any blaze of glory. My encounter with God was through the faithful work of the church at home – in Bible study, in prayer groups, in preaching, in the sacraments, and in the lives of the disenfranchised whom my church embraced. This inward spiritual journey provided the fuel for my outward journey. It has been observed that an authentic inward spiritual journey always results in an outward journey. The outward journey is to join Christ in the mission of becoming a new community, an unrestricted community, what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community.”

To the reaction “I didn’t know the Episcopal Church had missionaries,” I admit that neither did I until I was in seminary. But indeed, at the present time there are 62 Episcopal missionaries in 25 countries around the world. Fourteen of them are in the Young Adult Service Corp and the remaining 48 are a mix of appointed missionaries and volunteers for mission. The Young Adult Service Corp is a one-year program for young men and women between the ages of 21 and 30. The Mission Personnel Office of the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with the sending dioceses, provides various amounts of support for missionaries serving in the field. My own Diocese of Atlanta helps support three long-term missionaries in Tanzania, not only with a stipend, but also with prayers and opportunities for relationships to be developed between parishes and individuals on both sides of the ocean.

To the third reaction, “I’d like to do that someday,” I take this to mean that the speaker thinks that being a missionary requires going to a different country. This is my opportunity to reiterate that all Christians are missionaries. One of my favorite seminary professors was fond of saying that God is a missionary God. God sent Jesus as mission incarnate, and Jesus sends each of us as the same. Each week we gather to worship, and just before we scatter into the world, our liturgy reminds us of our great “co-mission”: “Even as my Father has sent me, so I send you. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Jesus’ mission was being the Light of the World. He illuminated for us the way to love and to care for others, especially the hurting, the hopeless, and the hounded. Our co-mission is the same. Peter and James and John were eyewitnesses to the Light of the World, but they were not allowed to stay on the mountain with Him. Their mission was to go back down into the valleys and plains reflecting the Light of Jesus in their everyday, ordinary lives. Our mission is also to be reflectors of the Light of the World wherever we are and in whatever we are doing.

Since today is World Mission Sunday, the church is focusing on those of us who are missionaries overseas. Our present model is not to be like the missionaries from colonial eras, but to be partners in mission. We go only at the invitation of a diocesan bishop who has contacted our national mission office requesting a person with skills in a particular arena. We do not go to dispense a culture or a set of infallible orthodox doctrines. We go to be in personal relationships, using our gifts – and often modifying them – to meet the needs of those whom we are serving. We go to enlarge our understanding of the gospel by seeing how God is being revealed in other places and people.

When my husband, Martin, and I first began on this journey seven years ago, we wrote that one of the reasons we wanted to go was to hear the gospel with fresh ears and to see with new insight. What has most profoundly touched us is hearing and seeing the deep joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering. It is transforming to be enveloped by a people whose joy springs from a deep well of gratitude. Every prayer begins with “Father, thank you.” In Kiswahili this translates as “Baba, asante. Asante, Baba, for protecting me through the night. Asante for the rain. Asante for Jesus.” Asante, asante, asante.

When two North Carolina volunteers visited Msalato Theological College last year, they had a student and his wife over for afternoon tea. When the volunteers raised their cups to take a sip, the student said, “Aren’t we going to pray first?” One of the women answered that they normally only give thanks before meals. The student pastor responded, “We give thanks for everything, even for a glass of water.” Baba, asante!

Not surprisingly, water is a favorite image for God here. As I write this in early February, it is the rainy season in central Tanzania, but there has been no rain for twenty-five days. If this continues for three or four more days, there will be no crops. Since 85 percent of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers, drought means famine and cholera outbreaks, and all the other sad things that go along with it. I will never forget the words of our former school chaplain who was working at my house when the first rain of the season began to fall. He ran to the window and cried, “When we see rain, we see food! Baba, asante!

One year when my husband and I returned from the Christmas holidays, this same chaplain came running down the path to the home of our next-door neighbors, missionaries from New Zealand. We could hear him calling out, “Can you give me a ride to Mvumi village? My children are starving.” In his hands he was carrying two small bags of maize, or corn, that he was desperate to get to his family who lived 50 kilometers away. Ugali, the staple food in Tanzania, is made from maize, and the rainfall, for a second year in a row, had been insufficient for the growing of it. After this heartbreaking incident, the staff began meeting at five o’clock every evening for the specific purpose of praying for rain. The drought continued unabated. One afternoon when some of us were lamenting the fact that our prayers had not been answered, this chaplain, the father of six, said, “Our God is great. Even if we die, He is enough.” Baba, asante!

It is our job in global mission to be a bridge between our beloved communities. In relating as eyewitnesses the stories of how the gospel is being lived out in other parts of the world, it is our hope that you will be encouraged and filled with gratitude in whatever circumstances you may find yourselves. These stories of our brothers and sisters remind us not to buy into the rhetoric of a culture of scarcity. These stories remind us that we serve a Jesus of twelve baskets left over. These stories remind us that we are all enlightened when we are mission incarnate to the hungers of every tribe and nation. With Peter, we say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

Thank you, our beloved community from home, for sending us. Baba, asante!

 

— The Rev. Sandra McCann, M.D., serves along with her husband, Martin McCann, M.D., in Dodoma, Tanzania, in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika. Sandy, a retired radiologist, is the communications director for Msalato Theological College. Martin runs a busy histopathology laboratory and teaches in the diocesan Clinical Officers’ School. You can read more about their work at www.mccannmission.org.