The power of God, Pentecost 21, Proper 24 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34 or Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 119:97-104 or 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” — Genesis 32:26

We often hear Jacob’s name in church. He is third in that list of three patriarchs whose names identify the God we are worshipping: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and sometimes we add “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I like this specificity; it reminds me that no matter how often I mutter, “Oh, God!” in everyday life, addressing nobody in particular, this is the God of our life, faith, and worship. And of the three patriarchs, Jacob is the one whose story reminds me why our ancestors remembered him so often and so vividly that they named themselves in him and for him: Israel, “one who strives with God.”

The Genesis stories about these root ancestors portray them as God’s friends, and like all good friends Abraham and Jacob, particularly, speak boldly and argue with God, not letting God get away with anything. When God and Abraham are looking at the wickedness of the inhabitants of Sodom, Abraham nudges his friend and says, “You are surely not going to destroy the righteous with the wicked, are you?” Persistently, insistently, hopefully, the patriarch will not let God go until God has agreed to change his mind about destroying the city. And here is Jacob, wounded, panting, exhausted after a long night’s wrestling with the mysterious one he is sure is God; persistently, insistently, hopefully he hangs on and cries out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

It seems our ancestors were so impressed by the daring confrontations these patriarchs had with this God, that when they came to polish up the all-important foundational memories and traditions of Moses the Lawgiver, they drew Moses’ character in the same fashion. Not a deferential character, this Moses; he repeatedly, insistently, persistently, hopefully confronted God with the burdens of leading the people of God through the wilderness. Just like Abraham and God surveying the city of Sodom, Moses and God surveyed the sons and daughters of Jacob worshipping a golden calf and Moses insistently, persistently, hopefully refused to let God wipe them off the face of the earth.

These are surprising scenes for us as we look at our own relationships with God, our habits of worship, our attitudes to prayer. We look at the widow in today’s gospel, insistently and hopefully banging on the judge’s door, and we realize she was a pain in the neck and we do not want to be like that. We look at Jacob’s story with even more horror: the man was a liar and a cheat, his life-long modus operandi was to manipulate and make deals, with his brother Esau, his father-in-law Laban, and even here at the ford of the river wrestling with God himself. We surely do not want to appear in the presence of God like that.

Years ago, in a little book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard – herself, at that time, an Episcopalian – mused:

“Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? … On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church: we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life-preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews.”
Ms. Dillard was making a different point, but it seems relevant to the discourse of insistent, persistent, loud-mouthed, courageous confrontation with God, full of hope and even certainty. The widow in Luke’s Gospel is like the patriarchs and like Moses: she is very sensible of the conditions she lives in, and of the conditions of God’s power and might. God can be moved to listen, to respond, to care, to act with justice. When we bring our own situations into the voice of prayer – honestly, insistently, persistently, courageously, hopefully – then the conversation with God moves in life-changing ways. So Abram became Abraham, and Jacob became Israel: new names for newness of life. And the woman yelling and knocking at the judge’s door received justice: the transformative gift of salvation for her.

Some parishes are going through something of a crisis at the moment. Vestry members gather in quiet prayer together. They are reasonably well dressed for the most part, though without velvet hats. They recite prayers in soft urgency, and they discuss the issues courteously. But perhaps they should wear crash helmets and yell honestly, insistently, courageously, hopefully – even with certainty – that the power of God to move in life-changing ways might hurt us as it hurt Jacob. For only in such wrestling, sensible of such conditions, can our lives together be preserved. Send up the signal flares!

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York. E-mail: aa659@mindspring.com.

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

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

What do you think heaven is?

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

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

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

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

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

“Fifteen,” said his father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving (C) – 2013

Giving thanks for a faithful God

November 28, 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

O God, take my lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

“Gratitude” becomes a buzzword every year around mid November. We see it on jewelry commercials, see it on grocery-store billboards, and hear it on radio advertisements. There is almost no way to avoid a word so inextricably bound to our cultural vocabulary. As with most widely used words in the American vocabulary, “gratitude” runs the risk of losing its revolutionary nature.

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we heard how the people of Israel were given specific instructions about how and when to present their first fruits before God. Deuteronomy’s vision for a sacrifice of gratitude is both simple and complex. The offering is given to the priest, and then the worshiper responds with a retelling of the Abraham and Exodus stories.

This seems a bit odd to our modern ears. Why go through the trouble of retelling a story that’s been heard thousands of time before? Why recount the mighty deeds of God in the history of Israel? Why contextualize the land of the fruits being offered to God? Those are all valuable questions, but one even more pertinent may be: Why not? Why not recall God’s track record of grace in the life of Israel?

It is easy to assume that the people of Israel were just as inclined as we are to forget the divine origin of their numerous gifts as the people of God. They were inclined, like we are, to imagine themselves as the source and end of all they had.

They had to be reminded of the ways in which God fulfilled God’s promises to their ancestors. They had to be reminded of God’s faithfulness.

At the center of God’s personality is a profound generosity. When it comes to blessing and loving the human family, God holds nothing back. Everything we have is a gift from God, because everything we have belongs to God.

This reality of profound generosity stands at the center of today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is attempting to escape a crowd of listeners when they suddenly appear at his side. They ask him when he arrived on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and he says, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted.”

That statement alone is proof that Jesus needs new public relations!

After another exchange of questions, the crowd asks, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

It is obvious that this crowd was familiar with the Exodus story. What they weren’t familiar with, though, is the starring role Jesus had played in sustaining the people of Israel on their trek toward the Promised Land.

“It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. … I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In an instant, Jesus inserts himself into Israel’s collective history, as the life-sustaining Presence who guided them through desolation to liberation. In an instant, Jesus connects himself to the God who brought Israel “out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” the God who showers down manna from heaven and leads Israel into a land filled with good things, even milk and honey.

Gratitude is tricky. It can easily become a cumbersome process of making a mental list of things one is thankful for or another source of feelings of spiritual inadequacy. Gratitude, in the vision of Jesus and today’s Deuteronomy reading, is much deeper than a list; it is a way of life that grows out of God’s faithfulness to Israel.

While our consumer culture tells us to be grateful for the stuff of life, God invites us to share in profound gratitude for life itself. “When you offer your first fruits to the priest,” says God. “Remember the land from which the fruit comes. Remember that I gave you this land.”

This fruit-bearing, promise-keeping, wilderness-wandering, faithful God is the fountain of life, the source of all goodness. On the surface, this sounds right. But when the surface is scratched, it challenges everything American culture assumes about assets. We have things because we want things. We have things because we work hard for things. We buy things because people will like our things.

The challenge of God in Deuteronomy and in Jesus Christ is this, though: Rethink your gratitude. Are you grateful for things, or are you grateful for people? Are you grateful for the things that make life convenient, or are you grateful for life itself?

What if God had never delivered Israel from Egypt or Jesus hadn’t ever given himself as manna in the wilderness? What would the people of God had given thanks for? Each other? The dust? Breath? Life?

Maybe.

Israel’s “maybe” leads today’s people of God, assembled here, to give thanks and recall all that God has done for, with and through us, to place ourselves in the ongoing narrative of gratitude. It forces us to practice a counterintuitive, countercultural Thanksgiving, giving thanks not for our bounty and excess, but giving thanks for life’s most basic gifts: bread and wine and each other. It forces us to acknowledge Jesus’ presence at the center of it all: sustaining and nourishing us as the manna of God.

So, pilgrims on this journey of gratitude: Remember all that God has done, and give thanks.

 

Broderick Greer is a second-year Master’s of Divinity student at Virginia Theological Seminary and a postulant in the Diocese of West Tennessee.

What does ‘king’ mean to you?, Christ the King (C) – 2013

November 24, 2013

Jeremiah 23:1-6;  Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1 68-79) or Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

The King.

Christ: the King.

The feast of: Christ the King.

This is what we mark and celebrate today, but what does it mean?

Back around the time our current Prayer Book was approved, it wasn’t uncommon to hear clergy say, even lament, that confirmation was a sacrament needing a theology. Our understanding of baptism has changed, and with it, the understanding of confirmation. With baptism leading to full inclusion in the church and welcome admission to communion, the rite of confirmation is no longer the rite of passage that people have to undergo in order to be considered full members of the church and to receive the body and blood of Christ. Confirmation used to be the necessary “ticket,” but with the change in theological understanding of baptism, confirmation is of more questionable need.

In similar fashion, the Feast of Christ the King is a celebration in need of a reason. We mark it on our calendars and in our liturgical celebrations every year on the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost. Some people celebrate it as a sort of “New Year’s Eve,” marking the last Sunday of the church year before we roll over into Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year. For some, it is observed in a fashion similar to the Feast of Pentecost, when people sing “Happy Birthday” to the church, marking the beginning of the church, when the disciples were visited for the first time by the Holy Spirit.

So what is this feast we mark today? What can we say about the Feast of Christ the King?

Not much, if we look to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, which has been a standard reference of seminarians and clergy for decades. This respected tome has barely a paragraph detailing the history and describing the Feast.

“The Feast of Christ the King”: What does that mean?

What do you think of when you hear the word “king”?

Baby George, son of Duchess Catherine and William of Wales, newest prince of the realm, has been recently hailed as third in line for the English throne. King!

It’s fine for the British to hail baby George as their future king, but here in America, our experience doesn’t include kings – at least not of the political sort.

“The King.” Say that to Americans, and who doesn’t think of Elvis, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll? Or what about Michael Jackson, crowned the King of Pop?

We have the King of Wall Street in Donald Trump, the Los Angeles Kings in hockey, the Sacramento Kings in basketball, king snakes, kingfishers, king crab, chicken a la king, king of the mountain, the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Is it starting to become clear?

The Kings of Leon for rock and roll fans, and B.B. King for fans of blues, Stephen King, and Burger King.

King Arthur flour, Carole King, king salmon, the Lion King, Steve Martin singing “King Tut” and the King James Bible.

Has the notion of “king” taken on a different meaning for us?

It seems that “king” is no longer the most effective, most evocative, of titles. We could say, instead, “Christ the Messiah,” but isn’t that redundant? And lately “messiah” has become weakened, perhaps even trivialized, by its popularity as a name.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” recently reported that the name Messiah now ranks 387th in popularity as a baby name in the United States. According to the news show: “If you count yourself among those Americans who believe there is only one true Messiah, you may want to speak with the parents of the 811 children who were given the increasingly popular name last year.”

Prince and Princess are both becoming popular names as well, but the popularity of King as a baby name has risen faster than all other “royal” names: It is now the 256th most popular baby name in this country – more popular even than Jonathan.

Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist and author of the book “Narcissism Epidemic,” told “Good Morning America” that the rising popularity of these royal-sounding baby names “mirrors a current national preoccupation with money, power and fame.”

That’s today. And remember: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back in the 1920’s, to counter a sense of growing secularism, Pope Pius XI declared that there should be a celebration of the reign of Christ marked by a special occasion set aside proclaiming Christ as King. Anglicans followed suit, declaring that the last Sunday of ordinary time, the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost and of the liturgical year, would be celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King.

Other churches have done similar things in marking and keeping this observance, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden perhaps being most honest about the lessons appointed to be read. They refer to it as the Sunday of Doom. Here we are, in between the turkey and football of our Thanksgiving feast and the twinkling lights of Christmas, reading a gospel lesson about the crucifixion of Jesus. Doesn’t “Sunday of Doom” sound about right?

So what does all this tell us about ourselves, or about the Christ we celebrate as King on this day?

Once upon a time, Christ might have been hailed as king in the midst of a people who understood kingship, and particularly Christ’s kingship over them. But we no longer understand kings, as evidenced by the naming of our children with this title. We need a corrective to our consumer culture that puts us at the center of the universe, whatever our name. And today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Colossians offers a balance:

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”

That’s the point of the Feast of Christ the King in this time: to remind us that we are not the center of the universe; Christ is. To challenge us to gird ourselves for whatever will come, whether the Day of Doom or Christ’s return in glory. To give praise and thanks and glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Again, from today’s reading from Colossians:

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

We talk a lot about kings, name many things with this title, but in the end, there is only one who matters for our life together in this world and the next: Christ the King

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Live today, wonder about tomorrow, 26 Pentecost, Proper 28 (C) – 2013

November 17, 2013

Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

The bright sun stunned the disciples as they strolled out from the majestic temple onto the bleached limestone. Hand-chiseled, these giant stone blocks measured eight feet on a side. A grown woman could walk two or three paces per stone, and watch hundreds of people milling in the courtyards and patios outside the temple. Rising far above the streets, these massive boulders were hewn from limestone cliffs.

They. Were. Big.

The stones were here to stay, and the delicate, gorgeous temple made you gasp. As this was the holiest place in all Israel, the disciples were surely in a state of awe. Someone said, “Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” Everyone marveled at the grandeur.

So you can imagine the disciple’s dismay when Jesus asked, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

All will be thrown down? Really? Who invited Apocalyptic Jesus?

All will be thrown down? What happened to “Come to me, you who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”?

Well, buckle your seat belts, good people of God, because Advent is around the corner, and Apocalyptic Jesus is at the wheel.

Who does he think he is, talking about the temple’s demise when he’s at the temple?

Can we relate to the disciples’ frustration? We love our houses, cars and clothes, our health, our wealth. We like the occasional shiny building, the thriving city, the world’s most powerful military. They make us feel safe, these things.

We’d rather not hear that moths destroy and rust consumes, that our possessions are short-lived, temporary like mist. We don’t want to lose our material status. This economic system works – for some – and we move mountains to prevent its crumble. We have a dark fear: Eventually we will die, and we’ll go back to God with nothing. Everything we’ve built on earth will stay here, and we’ll be gone.

Mortality is a scary thing, and talk of the end makes most people fidget. But the bulk of the gospels come from messianic and apocalyptic Jews who spent their days waiting for the end.

That’s why the upcoming Advent readings are full of end-times prognostication. Our spiritual ancestors expected the end within months, and they were anxious to know when all of this would go down.

For example, the Essene community that followed John’s gospel and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls moved as far away from civilization as possible. They were camped in desert caves by the Dead Sea, literally training for a cosmic battle. And like it or not, these people are part of our spiritual story. They asked with pained anxiety: How do we live in the present when we do not know the future?

As Jesus forecasts the temple’s destruction, the disciples also wonder: How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow?

The gospel writers must have agreed on the temple story’s importance because Luke tells it in today’s gospel, Mark tells a similar tale in Chapter 13 of his gospel, Matthew in Chapter 24, and John alludes to the temple destruction in Chapter 2.

As Matthew and Mark tell the tale, the disciples must have been nervous. They catch Jesus at the lunch break. Sitting at the Mount of Olives, they stare across the valley at the temple. They’re probably munching on bread and olives. Peter, Andrew, James and John ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Jesus’ response is less than helpful. He tells them, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place.”

Thanks, Jesus. We ask you when, and you tell us bad stuff will happen. How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow?

Come on, Jesus, we really want to know. We’ve got plans to make! How do we live in the present when we do not know the future?

This is a disturbing reading, and perhaps it’s unwise to release the tension. That’s not what church is for, by the way. Easy answers make for good bumper stickers, but real life is more complex.

In place of an easy answer, consider what Jesus offers all of us: the profound truth that God is still in charge. God calls us to love with radical abandon. This is less of a dream, more of a concrete movement.

We don’t know what comes tomorrow, but we know God calls us to love neighbor as self and to work indefatigably toward just society and loving community.

How do we live in the present when we don’t know the future? We partner with God, giving all that we have.

God has work for us to do! And Sunday morning is just the start.

Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the last are first, the proud get scattered, the lowly are lifted up. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the sick get healed, the poor are blessed, and we are all beloved children of God.

Jesus tried to start a revolution. But it depends, in part, on us. Are we in?

When we read today’s story in the context of Luke’s full gospel, Jesus drops the temple bomb right before setting his face toward Jerusalem. “All will be thrown down,” he says, perhaps referencing his own death.

And it was so. The Roman army would plunder Jerusalem in the year 70. Soldiers would pillage the temple, murder women and children, and destroy everything Israel held dear.

Yet death never gets the last word. Jerusalem rises from the Roman ashes. Jesus dies a brutal death at the hands of the military state, but that’s just Friday. Sunday rolls around and takes the stone with it. Resurrection strolls out of the empty tomb, and God is still in charge.

Remember though, that Jesus doesn’t promise easy living. Jesus does not say that the temple remains, that we avoid death, or that pain goes away.

But Jesus does promise that God is with us to the end of the age, God is still in charge, and we can trust in God when we can no longer trust anything else.

What do we do today when we don’t know tomorrow? We try to figure out what God is up to in the world and we seek, humbly, to get on board with that project.

That’s not a simple answer, but it’s a posture we can strive to adopt. Martin Luther adopted this posture when asked what to do if he thought the end was coming tomorrow. His advice? “Plant a tree.” In other words: Invest hopefully in the future.

Have you ever prayed in a time of uncertainty, in a time of waiting? Consider mothers waiting to give birth, with a baby growing inside. When will she deliver? What will happen to the child?

Consider parents waiting to hear back from a job application. How will he pay the mortgage? When will she know?

Consider the teen applying for college. Where will she spend the next four years of her life? Where will her friends go? How will her family cope with her empty chair?

Consider the cancer patient, dying from the inside out. When will he die? Will it hurt? What will he say to his kids on the last day?

Have you ever prayed in a time of uncertainty, in a time of waiting?

Consider the poetic beauty of today’s reading from Isaiah. To the people who knew exactly what it meant to lose a temple, God says, “See, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. So be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”

How do we live today when we don’t know tomorrow? We draw strength from God, who invites our participation and endures long after the cities and buildings and stones have crumbled. We adopt a posture that asks not what God can do for us, but calls us to bring the Kingdom of God just a bit closer. We love neighbor as self and we strive for just societies and a stable planet- new heavens and a new earth. We pray without ceasing, and we trust in a mighty God from whom all blessings flow.

This is the revolutionary Good News of Jesus Christ. Are we in?

 

— The Rev. Andrew K. Barnett directs music and teaches science at Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., serving as pastoral associate at Zion Lutheran Church, Pittsfield Mass. As pianist and founder of Theodicy Jazz Collective, he has facilitated worship at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Trinity Wall Street; Canterbury, Sheffield and Cleveland Cathedrals; Yale, Cambridge, Drew, and Oxford Universities; Oberlin Conservatory; All Saints’, Beverly Hills; and faith communities across New England.

The way of truth, hope and love, 25 Pentecost, Proper 27 (C) – 2013

November 10, 2013

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21 (or Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 17:1-9); 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17; Luke 20:27-38

As is fairly typical, in today’s gospel story Jesus replies to a conundrum with a conundrum. He’s given a sort of riddle about a woman who marries seven times – and just not seven times, but seven brothers, in succession. Each brother dies, leaving her a widow. After all, marriage vows are only valid while both partners are alive, right? “Until death us do part,” as we used to say, or “until we are parted by death.”

And the Sadducees, who are among Jesus’ critics, want to know: “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”

They don’t believe in the resurrection, you see, and so they are trying to mock him, to show how silly and unworkable an idea eternal life is. They are trying to demonstrate that the things we hold dear in this life, including the bond and covenant of marriage, will make no sense in the next life. And they are trying to depict Jesus as a kind of oddball faith healer and snake handler, whose fundamental claims just don’t make any sense.

And, of course, they are right.

Jesus is very easy to mock. Eternal life is a silly and unworkable idea. And the fundamental claims of Christianity really do not make any sense – especially when compared with the values of the secular world. This was true in Jesus’ time, and it is still very true in our day.

Let’s start with the most striking of the implicit assertions made by the Sadducees: The fundamental claims of Christianity just do not make any sense.

Let’s see – love God and love your neighbor. That’s fundamental, right? But most of our world is obsessed with power, prestige, wealth and control. If we but admit to the existence of God, then we have to acknowledge that the things we have are simply lent to us. We are stewards of our possessions, including our earthly bodies. All that we have is a gift from God, and only of value while we are alive on this earth.

But the culture we live in says this is my home, my money, my whatever. And I can do with it whatever I want.

But when we acknowledge the existence of God, we also acknowledge that we are not in control, not the ultimate judge, not the great power of the universe – or even the family.

But the world says otherwise. Our society is full of people who insist on their own way, on their own individual authority. It happens at the simplest levels of human interaction, and it happens at the highest levels of government and industry.

And those two points – not owning things and not being in ultimate control – they are just the first two steps toward acknowledging that God exists. It’s still a long, long way before one can love God.

And what about loving our neighbor? Our society doesn’t always uphold this, does it?

So, loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself – these two great commandments to those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians: They are not the values of our country, of our society or of our world.

Then there’s the idea of eternal life – a silly and unworkable idea. The Sadducees have shown us that. When we think of eternity like this, we are failing to use our imagination.

The problem is that they – and we – have failed to imagine it as something we will actually like. And yet we are promised ineffable joys, never-failing care, the strength of God’s presence, rejoicing in eternal glory, being received into the arms of mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and being reunited with those who have gone before in the paradise of God.

When you talk about those things, on that kind of scale, then wasting a lot of energy on whether we will live forever, or to whom we may be married, or whatever – well, it seems a whole lot more like another manifestation of that power and control thing, doesn’t it? “I demand to know, and I can afford to pay for the knowledge” or  something like that.

Yet, the fullness of God’s love and truth is not known to any of us – not yet. And that’s exactly why Jesus is so easy to mock.

We don’t know everything. As St. Paul says it, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.” Remember, that in the first century, a mirror was not likely to be one of today’s manufactured, perfectly smooth and clear glasses. Looking into a mirror was like looking into a brook or stream, or into a highly polished rock.

Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but when the end comes, “we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

The Christian dispensation acknowledges that we do not know, we do not have control, we are not in charge.

So, how is it we have come to believe?

Here’s a story, about two friends. Alice is a priest, and more than a dozen years ago, a seminarian called Bill spent a summer assisting in her parish. It’s a wonderful and special place. The first time he served Communion to Alice, she looked him right in the eye and said, “I believe!”

He was stunned. First of all, he was taught never to look anyone in the eye at Communion. He still isn’t sure why that was, but it used to be a kind of unspoken rule. And second, the Prayer Book clearly states that the appropriate response to “The Body of Christ” is a polite and reverent “Amen,” not an ebullient and loud declaration like “I believe!”

Over the course of the summer, Bill adjusted to Alice’s ways, and became accustomed to hearing “I believe” week after week. And his last week there, Alice invited him to dinner.

It was one of those late-summer evenings that are just perfect for sitting on the porch, rocking. He remembers they had corn on the cob, steaks on the grill, and tonic with their gin.

He mustered up his courage and asked her, “Why, Mother Alice, do you say ‘I believe’ when you receive Communion?”

“I started that a long time ago,” she told him. “It was a time of questioning and doubt for me. I couldn’t be sure there even was a God. And I wanted to know. I wanted to be certain, to be in control. And I figured the only way to get there was to ‘fake it till you make it.’ So one day, I just said, ‘I believe.’ What I really meant was, ‘I’d like to believe,’ or, even better, ‘I think I’m considering believing.’

It was all very tentative. And it was an invitation to God, at least as she intended it. As she explained, it was almost as if she were saying “Show me how to believe,” or “Improve my belief,” or even “Help my unbelief.”

“It was many, many years later,” she continued, “that I realized, O my God, I believe. I really do. Oh, I have questions, sure. And I have doubts from time to time. And a whole lot of this just doesn’t make any sense. But I believe, and that’s all that matters.”

Alice’s witness is a powerful one. It shows us how we can stand up to the powers that be in this society of ours, how we can continue to show another way to the world.

The way of truth, the way of hope, the way of love.

The journey of faith is not a life lived without doubt or questions, the life of a Christian is not one without trial or travail, and the earthly pilgrimage is not about control and power.

It’s about truth, hope, and above all, love.

And all of this begins not with “I insist” or “I own” or “I want” – but with the simple, elegant and hopeful proclamation, “I believe.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates is a priest of the Diocese of Newark. 

Doing faith, 24 Pentecost, Proper 26 (C) – 2013

November 3, 2013

Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

“It is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.” This phrase in the opening collect today is a major theme in today’s readings.

In the passage from Isaiah we hear God’s angry tirade against what the people think is true and laudable service: incense, offerings and sacrifice. But God is not interested in these things, and despises their context and content. “I cannot endure your solemn assemblies with iniquity.”

So, where does that leave those of us who worship regularly? It leaves us with the mandate to worship and act in faith.

Faith is not a noun as much as it is a verb, a word of action. Faith is about doing things that please God, because of what God has put into our hearts. Faith is about exercising our values, stretching them, strengthening them, and bringing justice to others.

Look what happens when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, the whimsical tax collector sitting in a tree. There is a dialogue, of which we only have a small piece. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus and Zacchaeus bond. You can see it: The Lord, an itinerant preacher wandering around the town, and the obviously curious and friendly Zachhaeus meet and are mutually attracted by their unique ways of viewing the world.

Zacchaeus doesn’t just hop down from his perch, he leaps into a new way of life. By the time he hosts Jesus at his house, he has come to a new understanding of his latent love for God, and he announces it through his generosity: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Taxpayers were allowed to extort additional fees for their living besides collecting the tax, which is one reason they were despised.

Jesus tells him quite simply, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus has found faith in a man outside the circle of the faithful. He has found a person who is prepared to share first.

A man recently died who had lived modestly in a van in a small town in the Ozarks. He had no close family, but a number of friends came to a memorial service for him held in the garden at a local church. “Al” was not a member of that church, but he often came to their Sunday night suppers during the cold winter months. He was also a regular recipient at the local food bank.

Before the memorial service, the minister invited people to share stories about Al. Many of the stories shared were of acts of kindness: how Al had fixed their tire or replaced a fan belt, how he had seen to it that a person had money to get new glasses, how he had helped another person with transportation, even though his own income was a small Social Security check each month.

By the time the service began, it was obvious to all that Al had been a faithful steward, using his simple gifts to serve others. His many friends rejoiced in his life, his kindness and his response to their needs.

This life, celebrated in a church garden, ended with the blessing of a new plant in Al’s honor. The giver of the plant said she wanted it to grow and remind everyone of Al’s unselfish care for others.

Al and Zacchaeus are two heroes who share their faith by doing for others what God wants them to do. They were not interested in large ceremonies or big public events; they wanted instead to serve others with what they had, and their lives are celebrated because of that.

Often when we see people who are generous and kind, we remark on how strong their faith must be. That is because faith is something given us by God to be used. Its expression is that of a steward doing his or her duty. Its sign is service, and its character is simplicity. We see in these generous lives the joyful and unbounded love for God expressed through service to others. It is what God commands, and it is what God defines as justice.

But what about our lives?

Are we faithful stewards who take what we are given and share it with those less fortunate? Are we people who think that faith is a noun or a verb? Do we see our church communities as gathered for worship and then sent forth to “do” our faith?

These are the values Jesus celebrates. These are the behaviors that God calls for. These are the behaviors that result in true and laudable service.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is part of a ministry team at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island. 

The blessings of the saints, All Saints’ Day (C) – 2013

November 1, 2013

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Since the earliest days of Christendom, the faithful have gathered to give thanks for the life and ministry of the saints – women and men whose witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been a blessing in every generation.

The witness of many of these blessed women and men – such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Theresa of Avila or Saint Augustine of Hippo – are well known. Many of their writings have become popular, their deeds inspire us to name hospitals and schools and churches for them, and their service to the Church is taught to the faithful in every generation. Yet, for others – such as Saint Simon or Saint Jude – little is known beyond their names.

But regardless of how much or how little we know about these faithful witnesses, one thing is certain: Their life and ministry has richly blessed the church. And as we gather to celebrate the Feast of All Saints, we are called to give thanks to God for the blessings that the saints have bestowed upon the church, as well as the many blessings God has bestowed upon us.

Of course, by worldly standards, it would appear that the saints didn’t know very much about blessings. Most of them didn’t know the first thing about wealth, and many lived all or part of their lives in poverty. Status and the power that comes with it was a foreign concept, as many of the saints never knew high-paying or revered jobs, choosing instead to work for little or no money at all, serving the poor and the helpless. And far from inspiring fear or subordination, many of the saints were hated and met their untimely death precisely because of the faith they so boldly proclaimed.

But worldly standards weren’t how the saints patterned their lives. They lived by Jesus’ standards. And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus’ standard for what constituted a blessing is radically different from the standards that the rest of the world is accustomed to:

“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

Poverty, hunger, mourning, hatred, exclusion, revilement and defamation – these things certainly don’t seem like blessings!

But Jesus is convinced that they are. And most shocking of all, Jesus says that these are the sorts of people to whom the Kingdom of God is entrusted.

Of course, some will raise their hands in objection and say, “We can’t possibly entrust the Kingdom of God to a bunch of poor folks. They don’t know the first thing about business or what it takes to run a kingdom.”

Others may say, “The Kingdom of God is just a fancy term tossed around by theologians. It isn’t possible on Earth. There’s just too much violence and oppression and chaos.”

Or worst of all, some will hear the words of Jesus and say, “See there? Jesus will take care of the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated in heaven. Who am I to get in the way of God’s will?”

Yet, with piercing clarity, Jesus looks the opponents of the Kingdom of the God in the eye and pronounces a stern warning: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation!”

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry!”
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep!”
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

In other words, woe to you who don’t know what poverty looks like, or what hunger feels like. Woe to you who have never known an occasion for mourning. And woe to you who manage to tell everyone what they want to hear instead of the truth they so desperately need to hear.

And so, we gather here on this Feast of All Saints with words of blessing and words of woe ringing in our ears, amidst beautiful trappings and festive liturgies and memorial celebrations. But let us not lose sight of the fact that today, God is calling us to action – God is calling us to bear witness to the Kingdom of God!

And the Kingdom of God witnessed by Jesus in Luke’s gospel is not some abstract theological term about a time and place the world has never known. In fact, the Kingdom of God can be a place that all of us can come to know.

The Kingdom of God breaks through when we love our enemies. It takes hold when we do good to those who hate us. It comes alive when we bless those who curse us. It shines brightly when we pray for those who abuse or mistreat us. It shows up when we honor the request of beggars.

And when we live our lives by the principle of “do to others as you would have them do to you,” we become citizens of the Kingdom.

Of course, the work of building the Kingdom is not easy. But then again, as Jesus reminds us here in Luke’s gospel, life with God isn’t easy, either. Life with God means that we will know what it is to be poor, hungry, sorrowful and cursed.

Life with God means that we will know what it is to be unpopular – to be discounted and overlooked.

And life with God means that we will know what it is to be hated.

But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is built – brick by brick, stone by stone – by people such as these: people who know what poverty and hunger and sorrow and being cursed looks like. People who know how it feels to be overlooked and discounted. People who know what being hated feels like.

So today, on this Feast of All Saints, let us begin to live by a different set of standards. Instead of worldly standards, let us begin to live by the standards of the Kingdom.

It starts today. It starts by loving our enemies. It starts by showing kindness to people who don’t deserve it. It grows into the ability to bless those who curse us; to pray for those who mistreat and take advantage of us. It manifests itself in the ability to listen and show honor to those who are forced to beg.

It is lived out, not in the comfort of our homes or our churches or our offices, but among the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated; because, after all, the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

And when we do that – when we exchange our worldly standards for Kingdom standards – the blessed communion of saints cries out, “Alleluia! Alleluia!”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Kentucky (Diocese of Lexington). He holds a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Are we like the Righteous Man?, 23 Pentecost, Proper 25 (C) – 2013

October 27, 2013

Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65 (or Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-6); 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In the gospel we have just heard, Jesus tells a shocking story. Perhaps you didn’t experience the shock? Part of the problem is that many of us have heard the parables so often since we were children that we know what’s coming: It’s like watching a movie for the tenth time.

Another part of the problem is that we only vaguely get the shocking bits. Indeed, they often go straight over our heads. Yes, we know, or think we know, that the Pharisee was probably like one of those people we may know, who are so proud of their own rectitude and morality that they have no compassion for anyone who doesn’t live up to their standards. It’s easy to be completely lacking in sympathy for this Righteous person. After all, we are tolerant, accepting, open people. We hope our parishes are welcoming places, open to all who join us or want to join us. We can feel secure in disliking this person who lists the sins of others, is sure he’s God’s particular friend and has God’s approval, a person of good values.

We can also approve of the penitence of the Publican, who bewails his faults, dares not even to assume the customary attitude of prayer, standing with arms extended, but who crouches on the ground and begs God for mercy. Our approval comes easily because we don’t know what a “low life” the Publican is. To understand just what a crook the Publican is, we have to remember who the tax gatherers were in Jesus’ day.

Tax collectors worked for the hated Romans, who were not only unclean gentiles, but oppressors, those who had conquered the Jewish state and ruled it with sometimes savage enthusiasm. Jewish tax collectors were the equivalent of those who collaborated with the Nazis, or the Soviets in occupied Europe during World War II, or Christians in Rwanda who stood by or participated in the massacre of their fellow citizens.

A tax gatherer was given an area and told to raise a certain sum of money. How he did this wasn’t an issue; how much he pocketed for himself didn’t matter as long as the Romans got the money they wanted. Probably no one was hated as much as a tax gatherer, not even a self-righteous Pharisee who looked down on those who didn’t meet his standards.

So when Jesus approves of the Publican, the tax-gatherer, one can imagine the shock that went through his hearers. It would be as if he’d singled out someone who has ruined people with a Ponzi scheme, and now enters our church and professes repentance in the company of those defrauded. If we are to be polled, we’ll vote to approve of a self-righteous but upright person over a swindler and a crook.

To tell the truth, we, too, can sound like the Righteous Man who thanks God that he is not like other people. How often do we blame the poor, saying that they are feckless, irresponsible and culpable in their own poverty because they haven’t bettered themselves or taken advantage of the American Dream? We don’t want to be taxed to pay for their health care, housing, feeding. Why should we share that which we’ve worked hard for with those we regard to be lazy and unworthy? To justify our lack of “faith, hope and charity,” we trot out examples of people who really want to live off others, and blame all poor people for the indolence of a few.

Worse still, we feel that God owes us his attention to our needs, that we deserve his love and grace because we are better than others and keep, or think we keep, God’s laws. We trot out “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” quite easily.

“Forgive us our debts,” that which we owe God and owe others implies that there is something to forgive, that we do fall short. Of course we do.

This morning, here in the presence of God, we feel secure because we believe that God is ever loving, ever forgiving, always ready to restore us. We are right. Jesus offered himself for us, placed himself between “our sins and their reward” in an act of self-sacrificial love.

We come before God today not secure in our own righteousness, but as the old prayer puts it, “in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

God approves of the wretched tax gatherer over the Righteous Man, because the tax gatherer admits his faults. We show our own penitence not just by making our confession together, but by our willingness to forgive and love those who are in need.

Without God’s love, our love isn’t up to that task. With God’s love, we can love even those who repel us.

 

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

Patina of faith, 22 Pentecost, Proper 24 (C) – 2013

October 20, 2013

Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104 (or Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121); 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

In North America, the railroad gauge – the distance between rails – is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. A strange number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s how railroads were built in England, and English expatriates designed the American railroads.

But why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and they were using the tools and jigs that had been used to build carts and covered wagons.

OK. Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, that was the space between the ruts in the English roads, ingrained through centuries of use.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match to avoid destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for imperial Rome, their wheel spacing was standardized.

So, the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an imperial Roman war chariot, and they were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two war horses.

At one level, this story is laughable – so much for civilization’s supposed advances and innovation. But what if we looked at the story in a different way? What if we saw it as wonderful?

In a way, it’s good that the only progress we make is through building on the accomplishments and insights of others. To be sure, when NASA wheels its latest rocket boosters onto the launch pad rails, they’re the width of a horse’s backside. But what does that matter? Surely the point is that we cannot do anything without reference to what has gone before. We take the old knowledge and apply it to the new context. As Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Oddly enough, it is this same sentiment that Paul seems to be reminding Timothy of in our New Testament reading today.

Paul says, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”

Tradition is much more meaningful if we know its provenance.

You know what they say about Episcopalians? Do something once, and they hate it. Do it twice, and they don’t mind it. Do it three times, and it’s a cherished tradition.

Our rituals in church might seem arcane until we bother to take the time to trace their ancestry; then they can come alive in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, tradition seems more often to be regarded in a negative light. For example, the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” conjures up images of people who blindly and unthinkingly do the same things over and over and over again.

We are living in the midst of turbulent times in the church. The world is changing at a faster pace than any other time in human history, and we often struggle to make sense of it. We know that the Episcopal Church has to adapt to survive. We often hear suggestions that the church needs something radical to shake it up, such as radical new liturgies or some radical new thinking. We hear it in church, and we hear it in the world of business – phrases such as “radical departure.”

But what does “radical” really mean? We can easily forget that it means “getting back to our roots.” So a radical departure, in a sense, becomes a paradox. If it is to be “radical,” it’s anything but a departure from; in fact, it’s a return to.

What is it that Paul, if he were writing to us, instead of Timothy, might be saying that we need to return to?

Well, to start off, he’d probably be posting a message on our Facebook walls. Old knowledge, new context.

First, he would surely reiterate what he said to Timothy, that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And then he would add, “but notice that I said ‘inspired by God’ and not ‘the literal word of God,’ so don’t forget to make use of the intelligence and powers of reason that God gave you to apply the essence of the gospel to today’s situation.”

Second, he would reinforce what he said to Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” And then he would add: “And just look at the church now. People going to church expecting to be entertained and wanting the preacher to make them feel good about themselves, as if church was just a spa for the soul.”

Faced with manifold challenges, it is tempting for us in the church to market our services and programs as if they were consumer products or self-help accessories to complement our busy lifestyle choices. It is tempting for us not to demand too much of people, tempting for us to make church as convenient as possible, tempting for us to simply collude with a culture that flits like a butterfly from one shiny thing to another, and tempting for us to pander to the myth of instant gratification.

Today’s gospel reading, the story of the persistent widow and the pestered judge, is, at first sight, confusing. It seems as if Jesus is saying that the unjust judge is like God.

He isn’t, of course; in fact, Jesus is saying the opposite.

The widow goes to the unjust judge time and time again and only gets anywhere because the judge wants to be rid of her. With God, the widow can go time and time again and will get God’s full attention every time. Jesus isn’t saying that the widow won’t visit any the less if it’s God. He’s saying that, unlike the unjust judge, God isn’t interested only in his own comfort and getting the pestering widow out of his hair. When we go to God in prayer, no matter how persistent we are, God will always be there to listen and to give counsel. In fact, God is so unlike the unjust judge that he wants us to go back time after time to appeal to him for help. A deep and meaningful relationship with God is built over a lifetime of such meetings with Him, not just a quick fix for instant gratification.

These meetings with God augment each previous one, building up, over a lifetime, a cumulative richness in our souls that bespeaks something of God. Like a piece of treasured antique furniture that has been handed down through the generations, it will have its share of knocks and dents, but will also a have a precious, unique patina patiently gained through years of everyday, prayerful life.

 

— The Rev Nils Chittenden is missioner for Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina, and chaplain of the Episcopal Center at Duke University. After attending seminary at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1995. His ministry since then has been varied, encompassing cathedrals, campuses and community organizing as well as parishes. He moved to the U.S. in 2010. He and his wife have two cats and two beehives.