An Act of Love, Proper 22(C)

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10 

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” This is according to G.K. Chesterton, who found Christians, including himself, did not put their faith into action. But even the curmudgeon Chesterton would agree there was a notable exception.

Francis of Assisi, the saint who launched a million birdbaths, hundreds of thousands of statues, and the occasional service of Blessing of the Animals was, for Chesterton, the one Christian who actually lived the Gospel.

Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant and as such part of the new Italian middle class that was coming into its own. His father’s wealth and Francis’ own natural charisma made the young man a leader of the youth of his town. Francis gained a rock-star like following by the early 1200’s. He remains famous today not because of his own words and actions so much as because his words and actions conformed so closely to those of Jesus.

As a boy Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle. He got his chance at an early age when he enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against a neighboring city-state. Assisi lost the battle and Francis was imprisoned for a time. Defeat in battle and serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of glory on the battlefield.

Francis’ path toward God took a series of turns closer and closer to God, rather than an all at once conversion. However, the course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s Church. The Holy Spirit moved Francesco to trade places with the beggar. Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core.

Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper. Like trading places with the beggar in Rome, hugging a leper left a deep mark on Francis. Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, he had a strong identification with the poor. Francis cut himself off from the opulent lifestyle of his father and sought out a radically simple life.

By the time of his death, the love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding the church. He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and simplicity of life. Yet, Francis of Assisi was simply a man transformed by the love of God and the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for us.

Francis approach to his life of Christian service fits with Jesus words to us in today’s Gospel reading when tells those who follow him that they are to serve with no thought to reward. Jesus said, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink?” Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

So when you come in from doing something for God, don’t expect a reward, only more work. It’s a wonder the crowds followed Jesus at all. But what exactly is the work of God? In what way are we to serve him? We have the example of Francis, to add to that of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Yet, how can we in our own time and place attempt to live more fully into the Gospel?

First, there is no getting around the fact that the Bible knows nothing of professional clergy serving a congregation. The Bible teaches that all Christians are ministers of the Bible by virtue of their baptism. Then as ministers, each of us has a wide variety of jobs to do in the kingdom of God based on the gifts God has given us. While congregations benefit from the ministry of priests and deacons, the real work of the church happens when the people in the pews live out their faith in their day to day lives. This includes many thankless tasks, showing love and mercy in even small ways and even if no one notices.

You know how thankless these tasks are because you have the same issue at home. Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes? Or cut the grass? Or wash the laundry? Or make your bed? Or do your homework? Probably not. But permit time to pass without doing the dishes, cutting the grassing, washing the laundry, making your bed or doing your homework and you are sure to hear about it. These are thankless tasks and you take them on with no thought to getting praise for doing them.

Notice that in this Gospel reading, Jesus tells of the servant who does what he or she is supposed to do in response to the disciples asking for more faith. First he tells them the parable of the mustard seed and how the tiniest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things for God. Then he goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God his Father. It is in serving God that we find our faith strengthened.

We are not to serve others for the thanks we get. We are to serve others as serving Jesus, because that is the life God calls us to, knowing that we will benefit more than the people we help. We will benefit in increased faith and increased love. Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a leper, though he was terribly afraid. In the process, he found the faith to work among lepers. And so, again and again, his steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God more. It is the same for us. Each step of faith strengthens our trust in God to follow even more boldly.

To come back around to G.K. Chesterton, he advised, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” That was Francis, living out a love affair with God. When it is me and you living into the love of God, then Christianity will have been tried and not found wanting, nor will it be a series of thankless tasks.

Walking the life of faith then is not done in search of thanks or praise, but is simply an act of love. Then you and I can join Francis in saying that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do. We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do, we do for love, for the one who knows us fully and loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

Frank Logue is the Canon to the ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. He serves on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Proper 22(C).

To hear and obey, 20 Pentecost, Proper 22 (C) – 2013

October 6, 2013

Lamentations 1:1-6 and Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 (or Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Psalm 37:1-10); 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Obedience, a highly prized virtue in the biblical narratives, is rather despised today. Pause for a moment to remember being obedient as a child. Was it required of you? Did you resent it? Do your children resent being obedient to you? Every child resents having to obey parents and teachers, but we all know that a child’s safety and survival depend on obedience. Necessary as obedience is in our childhood, we hear almost nothing about this virtue as adults.

In western cultures, marriage vows no longer include the word “obey” for many reasons, mostly because women’s status has changed in the last few decades; the word “obey” was eliminated from vows and from the culture because of a new understanding of inequality and even injustice. This seems to be the crucial word: “injustice.” When a command is just, most people have no trouble obeying it. But when it is unjust, they have every right to reject it, for we know that unjust demands and commands caused untold harm through the ages.

Women and children were delegated to less than full humanity even as late as the 19th century. Women could not even vote and children had no rights. In order to survive, both women and children had to obey men. Is it any wonder then that the virtue of obedience came to be resented? The institution of slavery to which Jesus refers in this passage was accepted as a given in the world of the first century, and to our great shame it continued to be accepted as the natural order of things in the United States. In some parts of the world, this terrible situation continues. No, this kind of obedience is not attractive to us.

Then, why is it that so much emphasis is placed on obedience throughout the Bible?

From the very beginning we are told the value of obedience and the consequences of disobedience: Adam and Eve disobey and are ordered out of the garden. Abraham obeys and is promised great things for his descendants. Moses obeys and becomes a liberator.

We need to pause here and consider the meaning of the word “obedience” both in the Old Testament and the New. In both Hebrew and Greek the word is based on the verb “to hear.” In Hebrew, the same word means both “to hear” and “to obey.” In the Greek, the root word is “to hear” with the prefix hypo, which means “under” or “beneath.” So one who hears and obeys is one who is in a lower position than the one speaking. God speaks; human beings hear and obey. Whenever God speaks through the prophets, the word “hear” is repeated. Before the proclamations of the prophets, we read the words, “Hear, O Israel.” Jesus says to the crowds that follow him, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Hearing in the biblical context is much more than allowing sound to pass through the ears to be understood by the brain. It means hearing with the understanding that the word comes from God and must be obeyed. This kind of hearing implies also the conviction, the trust, that God is good and deserving of obedience. Jesus calls it faith.

In today’s rather strange New Testament passage, so difficult for us to understand because its context is different from ours, Jesus is asked by the disciples to increase their faith. With his usual figurative language, he gives examples that seem greatly exaggerated: faith as tiny as a mustard seed, a mulberry tree that is uprooted on its own and plants itself in the sea. This language shows us how ridiculously small our trust in God really is. Jesus, with his words and acts, has already shown the disciples that he has been able to perform healing miracles through his total obedience to his Father. This obedience to the Father is a recurring theme in Jesus’ ministry. Again and again he feels the need to withdraw, to hear the words of his Father, in order “to do the will of him who sent me,” as he repeatedly reminds his disciples.

Jesus obeyed God because he was convinced that God is good. The great prophets obeyed the Word of God because they were convinced that God is just and that God wants only what is good for God’s people.

Hearing the word of God while trusting that God is acting already for our good seems to be the essence of obedience. God expects obedience because God is good and acts on our behalf. This is what we learn from the prophets and this is what Jesus showed us in his life. In this manner, to hear and obey means to be changed. St. Paul was changed radically when, on his way to Damascus, he recognized the voice calling him as the voice of the one he was persecuting. From then on he lived a life of obedience that changed the world. His words to Timothy, in the epistle read today, reveal that Timothy also heard, obeyed, and lived a life of faith. This faith must be rekindled, Paul reminds him, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

We need obedience in God, in the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ, in order to live with courage and not cowardice – and how desperately we need courage in this confusing world of ours. Power and love and self-discipline do not come without hearing the Word and doing it.

This then is the meaning of obedience: to trust that God is good, to hear his Word knowing that it is already at work within us, and to know that through grace even faith as tiny as a mustard seed can perform the miracles of love.

Obedience to a good God is still a virtue to be prized. Let us recapture it. Who knows what surprising results we will see in our lives? It’s worth a try.

 

— Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Louisville, Ky. She is an author, speaker and retreat leader. She can be reached at katsarkakk@gmail.com.

Engage wholeheartedly, Pentecost 19, Proper 22 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Even listening attentively to Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we are probably not going to want to go the distance with Paul when he invites Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel … relying on the power of God.”

It’s really easy to hear “Join with me in suffering” and then just zone out. “Suffering” is an unappealing sound bite, even for those of us who listen without Bible Attention Deficit Disorder. We do not want to suffer any more than we already do; indeed, have we not come to church precisely because we need to get away from suffering, or at least hand it over to Jesus, who can do something about it?

Perhaps this is why we do not ordinarily find the Book of Lamentations in Hebrew scripture very useful, either in church or at home. The book is a series of five lengthy poems of inexpressible sadness, raw pain, and deep sorrow. The poets put into words our ancestors’ experience of living through enormous public and personal suffering as their home city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C. For our ancestors, that city was the focus of dreams and hopes, the sign of God’s presence, the promise of God’s fidelity to them; its hills, its Temple, its walls and gates all spoke to travelers and residents alike of what they treasured. And now the place was gone, and they wept. They wept for being invaded, for their national identity and security damaged; they wept for abandonment by their kings; they wept for old ones killed and unburied; they wept for children dead in the streets. They wept for all the questions shouted, sighed, and whispered to God that the heavens did not answer.

We can, each of us, relate to that; but we would much rather not.

Yet it is there, in the five long poems of lament, there for us in the Bible, the living word of God. And the lamentations are there because the loss, the weeping, the suffering, and the pain goes on.

As it says in the opening verses of Lamentations:

“How lonely sits the city that was once so full of people!
How like a widow she has become
she weeps bitterly in the night,
her cheeks wet with tears
and she has no one to comfort her.”

The ancient poet imagined the city as a lonely, abused woman, grieving. At best, we apply the scenes of Lamentations to Good Friday, Jesus on the Cross. We transpose the lament from Hebrew scriptures to the women who stayed with Jesus to the end, and grieved at the foot of the cross as they watched their friend and Lord dying.

But when Paul invited Timothy – and by extension, us – to join him “in suffering for the gospel,” Paul was not asking Timothy or us to be observers. Paul knows what we also know: that Jesus repeatedly told his followers to take up their cross and follow him, not to sit somewhere watching his cross and weeping for him. For the sake of the gospel, for witness to the good news, we have somehow to engage the suffering, enter the lament.

“Join me in suffering for the gospel … relying upon the power of God.”

Like our ancestors who watched their beloved Jerusalem invaded, ravaged, desecrated, and devastated, we have been watching so much of our world and our planet suffer before our eyes. The power of God seems a bit ambiguous and even flimsy when we see the arctic ice mass retreating or that in Africa there is almost no snow left atop Kilimanjaro. The landscapes and languages of all our cities have been invaded by “others.” Un-finish-able wars are being waged with new weapons and even newer peacekeeping goals, yet men and women still suffer and die for a cause, a name, or a flag. These are losses as surely as Babylon invading Jerusalem was a loss, and pogroms and holocausts are loss. Yet the suffering has brought forth into the public arena not the poetic cadences of lamentation, but uncharted depths of anxiety and resentment, rage and fear.

“Join me in suffering for the gospel … relying upon the power of God.”

We are the ones who share bread and wine at a common table of thanks-giving. We are the ones covenanted to honor God in worship, study and prayer. We are the ones who promise to repent of indifference, brutality and greed, and return to the God of engagement, compassion, and generosity. We hold in our hearts and in our minds’ eyes the raw and bleak edges of violence, and at the same time the glorious vision of God at work in the world about us. Where certain talk shows, tabloids, tweets, and blogs daily degrade the realities of poverty, injustice, and oppression by manipulating the media bites, we are the ones who notice and resist such manipulations. We resist because we are called to live, notice, pray, act, and share in a context where, in Christ, our lives are made one with those who suffer such realities and the consequences of such manipulation. In our time and place, this is what it means to be the ones called to “rely upon the power of God.”

The poets of Lamentations look fearlessly at the consequences of the loss of Jerusalem. They speak terrible things, such as “The Lord has broken my teeth on gravel and ground me into the dust. My life was bereft of peace, and I forgot what happiness was.” The voice of lamentation is fierce and strong – and it is followed almost in the same breath by “But this do I call to mind, and therefore have hope: the kindness of the Lord has not ended, his mercy is not spent.”

It is only by remembering the acts of God in the past and by engaging the living word of God in the present that we can also engage wholeheartedly in both fierce lamentation and in boundless hope.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Rev. Angela V. Askew lives in Brooklyn, New York.

How much is enough?, Pentecost 19, Proper 22 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6 or Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 or 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

How much is enough?

This is a fundamental question for all of us: How much is enough? Especially at this time of year when words such as “stewardship,” “pledge,” “proportional giving,” and “tithe” are in the air.

Luke has told us in no uncertain terms that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus talks endlessly about the life of discipleship. He talks about hospitality, welcoming and helping strangers, seeking lost sheep, visiting prisoners, lost coins, prodigal sons, the rich man, and Lazarus. Then he lays it on in Chapter 17 by saying if you cause anyone to sin, may you sleep with the fishes with cement overshoes on! And you must rebuke those who sin, and forgive those who repent seven times a day.

Is it any wonder the disciples cry out, “Increase our faith”? They are being asked to assume major leadership positions in the community of Christ. And no one wants to end up in the proverbial sleep with the fishes.

For much of the gospel, Jesus has questioned the faith of the disciples. “You have such little faith,” he says often. “Where is your faith?” he asks on the stormy sea. So it is only natural that they cry out, “Give us more. … Give us more faith. … Increase it, please, so we can succeed at all of this.”

It is a familiar cry. Whenever the church is faced with challenges, we say we need more: we need more resources, we need more planning, we need for people, we need more, more, more of everything before we can possibly do what Jesus calls us to do.

We all know just how the disciples are feeling. We put off leading Bible study until we know more about the Bible. Or we put off increasing our pledge until we are making just a bit more money. Just tap into those feelings of need more before listening to Jesus’ response.

His response exemplifies what is wonderful about Jesus and his method of training us and developing our discipleship. Hear what he says. Jesus says you do not need to increase your faith; you just need the tiniest bit of faith imaginable. A grain of mustard seed’s worth of faith can empower you to do great things. Which is to say, unless you have no faith, you already have enough.

You have enough! What you have is sufficient.

As it says in our catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we are to bear witness to Christ wherever we may be, and “according to the gifts given us, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” This is the definition of lay ministry in the church. For this we were baptized.

This acknowledges that we have all been given gifts and resources. As Saint Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthians, we do not all have the same gifts, but we all have gift necessary to do the things Jesus does. And most astonishing of all, in the fourteenth chapter of John, he tells us, “and greater things than these you will do.”

Pause. Try to take this in. We are promised by Jesus that with the gifts we have been given, we will do greater things than he does. What an incredible assertion. What a promise!

Jesus goes on to say that, at the end of the day, when you have used the gifts you already have been given, you may still feel as if you have not done enough – that you do not have enough to give. You will still feel unworthy somehow. That it is only your duty to have done these things Jesus calls us to do.

This is only natural, because you are so filled with the love of God, so filled with the Spirit of God, so perfectly created in God’s own generous and giving image that you will always want to do more for God’s sake and our neighbors’ sake.

Trust what you have – what you have been given. Trust what you have to give. It is more than enough. You can uproot trees. You can move mountains. The lame will walk, the blind will see. Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed everyone. As you sow, you shall receive. As you follow Christ, you will begin to lead. If only you have faith as small as a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is at hand. We can reach out and touch it, feel its nearness, participate in its fullness. If only we have the tiniest bit of faith, God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. E-mail: kkub@aol.com.