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

Putting God’s expectations above our own, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2013

February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Lottery winners. Have you ever met one? It is quite an exciting thing when a lottery winner is from your hometown, bought his ticket from your favorite corner store, or is a member of your family. It’s as if you get to share in their good fortune just by being near them. Of course they would want to give away some of their substantial blessing to you because you went to high school together or opened the door of a restaurant for them once or are their cousin. You are proud of this person until you find out that they aren’t planning on sharing anything with you. Or maybe they are sharing a little bit, but are giving more to another person or charity. Then what?

A March 30, 2012 online article from the publication International Business Times provides two cautionary tales about people who struck it rich: Jack Whittaker of West Virginia won the lottery and then had two relatives and his daughter’s boyfriend die. He also had a number of lawsuits filed against him and blames it all on the win. Another winner, Jeffrey Dampier, was 26 years old when he won the Illinois lottery. He was then kidnapped and murdered by his sister-in-law and her boyfriend in hopes that they would receive the winnings after his death.

One person’s fortune can turn another into a jealous, scheming, sometimes tortured mess. This doesn’t just go for lottery winners, but also for any kind of joy that another has. Your co-worker gets the promotion you’ve been striving for. The couple next door has no trouble getting pregnant while you and your spouse have been trying for years. Your friend gets on the varsity team that you desperately wanted to be on to and you didn’t. We can’t help but berate the other person in our minds and close our hearts off to shared joy or a widened vision of blessing. It’s human nature and it is difficult to combat.

When Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth and began to teach, the local Jewish community was quite proud of him. After all, they had heard of the things that he had done at Capernaum and were convinced that he was some sort of prophet from God. They believed that Jesus had just won the lottery, so to speak, and was about to shower them with God’s favor because, after all, he was one of them, so of course that is what he would do. Besides, they agreed with what he was saying – at least at first. But as long as they were pleased, they were proud and they wanted to preen in the light of special favor from God.

Then Jesus starts talking about the blessing going not to those in his midst, but further abroad, to gentiles. He uses stories of Elijah and Elisha where God healed and included people that were not part of the usual fold. He teaches that God’s liberation is more inclusive and abundant than the exclusive covenant that the people in the synagogue believed God had with them. With this, everything changes.

It is interesting how the mind can turn quickly when we do not agree with someone. We may feel that a priest, a CEO, a political leader, a teacher or a friend is wonderful until they say or do something that isn’t exactly what we believe. Then we are shocked or angry. After all, we like to congregate with like-minded people because it feels good to be part of a group that we understand and that we think understands us as well. When someone who we feel belongs to us says something contrary or challenges the current status, we are often quick to turn on him or her. It is one thing for an outsider to say or do something divergent, but a whole other game when it is one of our own.

This is where we find Jesus in our gospel story today. When the unheard-of inclusiveness of Jesus’ message became clear to those in his home congregation, their commitment to their own community and the boundaries they erected overtook the joy that they initially had in receiving a prophet of God in their midst. They were blinded by indignation and did not want to believe that God’s grace is not subject to our lists of who is in and who is out. It cannot be tamed by our human desire to be special. Often, this very grace scandalizes us so much that we are simply unable to receive it for ourselves. Thus begins a vicious cycle: if we are unable to receive such grace, how, then, can we share it with others? We cannot.

This is the cautionary tale that we receive from those at Jesus’ hometown synagogue. They were so focused on what they believed God’s blessing should look like – just for them – that they missed the opportunity of grace that Jesus was bearing. The gospel says that they “were filled with rage” and “drove him out of town.” How dare Jesus tell them who should be included? How dare Jesus tell us?

Part of becoming a maturing Christian is learning how to put our boundaries and expectations aside in order to listen to what God’s are. This is difficult work and it is lifelong. In our epistle reading today, the Apostle Paul is encouraging the churches in Corinth to love in the radical way that Jesus teaches. They are enmeshed in conflict around what spiritual gifts are the greatest. To help them understand, Paul writes to them of love and spiritual maturity. He likens the growth of our hearts to the growth in our life cycle, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” We know that when we are children, we have a narrow view of the world. It is always about us and what is in our immediate vicinity. As we grow into adulthood and experience more of life, we understand how big the world is. As we mature as Christians, we understand more fully what grace is, and it continues to widen our hearts through love.

Being a Christian isn’t easy. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever tell us that it is. It requires things of us, as it says in our Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism: “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” This is a full-time job that shapes our lives. It calls us to live, to die to ourselves and be resurrected with Jesus over and over and over again. With each time, our hearts get a little wider, we know grace that much more deeply, and we are able to follow Jesus a little bit more down the road of love.

When Jesus speaks to his hometown synagogue, he’s speaking to our hometown church, too. Paul echoes Jesus’ message, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” What does God’s love look like in your church? Open the ears of your heart to listen for it, and walk in grace to find out.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn.

Infusing our lives with agape, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 31, 2010

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

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we get some of the most beautiful language found anywhere on love. Paul writes:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

The only problem with these beautiful words is that they don’t ring true. “Love never fails.” Didn’t St. Paul have the foresight to know that this reading would become the single most popular scripture reading for a wedding ceremony? Yet in America today, some reports indicate that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. Paul writes that love never fails. Why then does it seem as if love fails about half the time?

A quick look at the Greek text of this passage shows that Paul writes using the word agape. Agape is one of the three Greek words for love used in the New Testament. There is eros or “erotic love,” and phileo or “brotherly love.” Finally there is agape, a “self-giving love,” routinely shown to be the love God has for us. It is this agape that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is this self-giving agape love of God that never fails.

Paul calls agape love a “still more excellent way.” To set love in an extreme example, Paul writes that if he understands all mysteries and has faith so as to move mountains, but has not love, he is nothing. If he were to give away everything he owns and hands over even his very life, but has not agape love, then he is nothing.

So what is the difference between this godly love that never fails and the kind of love that results in half of all marriages ending in divorce? The difference is that love that starts with us and goes out to another person is usually conditional. “I love you as I think you are.” Or “I love you as you are now.” Or worse yet, “I love you as I wish you were and hope to change you to be like the ideal of you that I love.”

All of these are examples of love that start with “me.” Yet, if I change and you change, this feeling of love will likely go away. I’ll wake up and realize that the feeling I had has gone away and may never return. At that point, I can either give up on love and stick with a loveless marriage, or I can give up on you and seek love elsewhere. Neither of these options are suggested by scripture.

Paul tells us of a still more excellent way. We can infuse our lives with agape, the love that is God’s love for us. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not conditional. God’s love for your spouse is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your children does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than we are, even on our best days.

At this point a detour is needed to clear up one possible point of confusion. This is not to say that someone who is suffering abuse needs to stay in the abusive situation. The Trinity’s love for creation is not an excuse for tolerating an abusive relationship. Staying in a home where you never know if tonight will be a good night or one of the nights when your spouse hits you or the kids is not love. In physically and emotionally abusive situations, true love for a spouse will mean you remove yourself from harm. Love your spouse enough not to allow the situation to continue.

Real love can mean not becoming co-dependent and supporting someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs, legal or illegal. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love that is more concerned for the other can be lived into in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is a part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours – and that loves continues, even though we are fallen and not deserving of it.

This love that was in the very life of God before creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had when he was dying on the cross and looked out at those who were killing him, as they mocked him, and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. When God became flesh in the person of Jesus and lived among us, it was possible that no one would return that love. The incarnation – God’s becoming human – is when God risked everything for love. With real love, there is no force or coercion. There is always the possibility in love that the love will not be returned.

God came and lived among us in Jesus, and when the cost of that love was a brutal death, Jesus still did not give up on that love. Jesus could have come, lived among us, died for that love, and no one could have noticed or cared. This precarious act of loving, even though it may well not be returned, is part of the agape love of God.

God’s love is being more concerned about the other than about your own self, but it is not about self-loathing or being abused. Agape love is more than a feeling. Agape love is a decision, an act of will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love.

Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with. Seeing another person as God sees them is not always easy, but when we get it right, this love will never fail. This agape love is a gift from God, which is the still more excellent way.

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia. He is the vicar of King of Peace, Kingsland, which is on track to become a parish in February 2010.

On his way, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2007

January 28, 2007

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

“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30)

Most Episcopalians know that when a rector leaves a parish to accept another call or perhaps to retire, the parish itself, with the assistance of the bishop, must find a new rector. Most folks also know that this can be a long and sometimes arduous process for the parish community. Because of this, the bishop will often send a seasoned priest to serve as interim rector or pastor during the transition, providing reassurance and continuity, and preparing the parish for new pastoral leadership and the changes that it will inevitably bring.

The church has come to recognize the value of interim ministry as well as the difficulty and challenge faced by clergy who engage in it. After all, the interim rector does not stay in one place long enough to form the kinds of lifelong relationships most people cherish in their churches and communities. In interim ministry, no one church is home for long. Sometimes jokingly referred to as faster pastors, interim clergy are seemingly always on the move. Pastoral relationships are telescoped in time, and priests and people are constantly aware of the fleeting nature of their work and task. But in that, they are also reminded of the transitory nature of life itself.

A skilled interim rector can help parishes achieve things they might never accomplish on their own. An honest look at the parish’s history, for example, can reveal its strengths over the decades as well as its vulnerabilities. Likewise, opportunities for mission and ministry may be discovered in places long overlooked or never before explored. Pastoral transitions also provide an excellent opportunity to challenge old ways of thinking that may no longer work and to reaffirm the parish’s commitment to the ministry of the wider Church beyond its own parish boundaries.

Of course, some people resist change no matter how sorely needed. They feel threatened by innovations and new ideas, while tradition and long-standing custom provide them comfort in a world of constant flux and instability. Newcomers and strangers – including interim rectors – may end up disrupting decades of routine in a particularly close-knit and enmeshed community.

Today’s account from the Gospel of Luke continues last Sunday’s story of Jesus’ sermon preached in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus starts out just fine. “All spoke well of him,” we are told, “and were amazed at his gracious words.” But it is not long before he gets himself into trouble. His references to the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners and gentiles, serve to infuriate Jesus’ townsfolk. For these episodes imply to them the need for a change of attitude and an acceptance of those who are different. And the people of Nazareth are emphatically not ready for that. We read that they “drove him out of the town.” Jesus barely escapes with his life and sums up, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Rebuffed at Nazareth, Jesus hits the road, traversing ancient Palestine and preaching a Gospel of repentance and forgiveness to anyone who will listen. Some settled pastors and rectors might well identify with Jesus’ frustration as they minister year after year to people who have perhaps become inured or even oblivious to the Gospel message of mission and proclamation. The temptation might be to move on. After all, Jesus himself seems happier in itinerant ministry than in the settled life of a long-term pastor.

Following Jesus requires changes in accustomed ways of thinking about the world and about home. It requires a readiness for transformation and a new Spirit that embraces the exile and the outcast as cherished members of the family. Jesus himself was homeless — exiled from his own land. As he says in another Gospel passage, “Foxes have holes, and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Home is an elusive concept, of course. After all, it is hard to think of the people of Jesus’ village as the sort one would really want to be at home with in the first place. Their self-serving expediency is not a family value anyone would cherish, then or now. No wonder Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Most of us readily identify with the sentiment expressed in proverbs and sayings such as “there’s no place like home,” and “home, sweet home.” But amid an epidemic of violence at home and in the streets of our towns and cities, we also recognize that for many people nowadays there is nothing at all sweet about that place called home. Even poets and writers of our own age are ambivalent on the subject. “Home is the place,” Robert Frost tells us with a note of irony, “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Thomas Wolfe, the great American novelist of the last century, says simply, “You can’t go home again.”

The old expression, “home is where the heart is,” perhaps best expresses a Gospel outlook, for it recognizes that our true home is not a house or a town or a dot on the map, but a dwelling and abode found only in our hearts. No matter our connections to our place of origin or current physical surroundings, it is only the geography of the human heart that matters. As Jesus reminds us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Ultimately for followers of Christ, anyplace and everyplace can be home. The early Christians sensed this as they referred to their newly embraced faith not as home or shelter or even castle but as the way or the path. As Christians, we are all spiritual nomads, bathed in baptism at the Jordan, making our way out across the desert of the soul, and seeking acceptance and welcome at the nearest oasis or village. We offer in return the Gospel message of life and freedom.

Presiding bishops, rectors, interims, and priests-in-charge come and go. But as our children grow up and move out, as jobs and other commitments take loved ones far away, and as our friends depart from us, we remember where home really is. We remember that we are still people of the way. Even if we never leave home, we are all interim lay people, wayfarers who have come together for a while in the Lord’s presence to be nourished for our journey.

And because we are all guests, we must learn, in turn, to welcome others as we ourselves would wish to be welcomed. Together, let us now strike camp and set out yet again on our journey, seeking our true home with the God and Father of us all.
— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California.