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.

Christ the King (C) – 2013

What does 'king' mean to you?

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.

26 Pentecost, Proper 28 (C) – 2013

Live today, wonder about tomorrow

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.

25 Pentecost, Proper 27 (C) – 2013

The way of truth, hope and love

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. 

24 Pentecost, Proper 26 (C) – 2013

Doing faith

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. 

All Saints’ Day (C) – 2013

The blessings of the saints

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.

23 Pentecost, Proper 25 (C) – 2013

Are we like the Righteous Man?

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.

22 Pentecost, Proper 24 (C) – 2013

Patina of faith

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.

21 Pentecost, Proper 23 (C) – 2013

Made whole by faith

October 13, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-11 (or 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111); 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Throughout the chapters of the Gospel of Luke previous to today’s reading, the Evangelist again and again and again presents the Good News through telling stories. He illustrates a series of personal encounters between Jesus and others – sometimes with his followers, sometimes his opponents, sometimes strangers. There were crowds of the curious and hopeful and various individuals – a tax collector, a centurion, a grieving mother, a sinful woman, a man inflicted with demons. As Luke relates these stories, he shows Jesus responding with love and grace and using the occasions to teach the values of God, while challenging the contrasting and distorted ways of the world.

Now, having reached Chapter 17 in the liturgical calendar, we find Luke recalling an episode in which Jesus was engaged by 10 lepers begging for mercy. These unfortunates suffered from what we now call Hanson’s disease. This malady, known among humans for thousands of years, went untreated in biblical times and caused permanent damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, compromised the immune system, and hastened death. Though it is now known to be only mildly infectious, the ancients considered it highly contagious and forced lepers to stay away from others, identifying their condition by announcing, “Unclean. Unclean,” when approached.

As a result, they were excluded from the general society and forced to make their own communities, not unlike leper colonies that still exist in some parts of the world. They became dead men walking – at the mercy of others, ostracized, alienated from the richness of family life and the comfort of communal religious practices.

Like others, the lepers in today’s gospel were outcasts who bound themselves to one another out of necessity and because no one else would touch them. All that mattered was their disease, as evidenced by the inclusion among them of a Samaritan who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in mainline Jewish society.

This band of 10 had nothing to offer others; nothing to offer Jesus when they saw him coming. But they recognized him, perhaps by his reputation as a holy man, and approached within shouting distance the one they knew by name. They cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Possessing enough inspiration, or maybe just a sense of desperation, they reached out to Jesus with an appeal for healing that went beyond all conventional expectations.

Jesus did not hesitate in his response. He did not back off or require the lepers to confess faith in God. He did not inquire about whether they were worthy. He did not ask anything of them. Jesus saw them and said simply, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

According to Jewish law, a cured leper had to appear before the priests, who would conduct a series of elaborate ritual actions in order to declare them cleansed. The lepers, who had hoped in Jesus, now displayed enough faith to obey him. They immediately left his presence to go to the priests as required and to begin the new lives Jesus made possible.

What Jesus did for them, of course, bore remarkable significance. Not only were they cured of a horrendous, disabling disease, but the cleansing also enabled them to overcome what was perhaps the greater affliction. Now they could return to the community, to become a part of the body that had cast them out. Now they could participate in life fully, restored physically and socially, and surely, experiencing the beginnings of emotional healing.

Yet, we might ask, did they gain everything Jesus hoped for? Did they achieve spiritual healing, as well? We will never know about all of them, but we have assurance that one did – the Samaritan who returned to give thanks. If we wonder what led to his distinguishing himself by praising God and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude, we might speculate that it was easier for him – as a double outcast – to see clearly the remarkable nature of what had happened. More likely, however, it was due to his greater maturity and deeper strength of character.

Whatever the reason, Jesus was saddened that he was the only one who turned back, and he used the one and the nine to teach his disciples another lesson about the values of God. He was clearly disappointed by the behavior of the nine, and in earshot of his followers, he said to the now-cleansed Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.”

In place of the word “well,” some translations use “made whole” or “saved.” There is ambiguity about the Greek meaning, but its use by Jesus surely implies more than simply being cured from a disease. “Your faith has made you whole,” seems closer to the way Jesus used this episode to provide a new teaching. The Samaritan was not simply cured like the others, but experienced something more important.

His response to being cleansed demonstrated that his view of God was closer to what Jesus came to reveal. He acted not out of selfishness to gain certification of his cure, not rushing to the priests without reflection, but paused to put his cleansing in a wider perspective, seeing God as the center of the personal miracle he was experiencing. Before anything else, the Samaritan gave thanks for the chance to renew his life. This was the beginning of his transformation, and it provided a fitting model for Jesus to honor. He was not only cured physically, but he also gained spiritual wholeness.

For the worshiper, there are several “take aways” from today’s gospel – community, inclusivity and wholeness in the life of the world and in Christianity. Think about the Eucharist this morning – or the powerful fellowship of the Holy Spirit if you are in a congregation without a priest, using Morning Prayer. The moment we experience among our fellow worshipers today, in prayer and at the altar rail, is unity in its purest form. Receiving the sacrament of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, all else is shut out but the holy context. We are at one with God and one another, in a sublime moment of grace.

In this moment we are made whole. Even if we lose this reality as we go out the door or back to our pews, we know it as a deep truth on which to draw on our journeys of faith. In that moment, we know that everyone is like the Samaritan, freed from alienation and separation from others in a realm of God that includes a circle of universal inclusion.

Luke’s story of this encounter between Jesus and the lepers allows him to teach us about the disappointment Jesus felt because the nine failed to give thanks and the joy he experienced in discovering that the Samaritan recognized the deeper truths of God. When Jesus reflects on the difference, he speaks no less to us than the disciples of old. Today we are reminded of the sadness of our Lord when we, like the nine, fail to follow him, but we also are led to emulate the Samaritan. We can take joy in committing ourselves anew to respond in love and gratitude to the grace, forgiveness and wholeness of God that we all can have simply by accepting this freely offered gift.

 

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

20 Pentecost, Proper 22 (C) – 2013

To hear and obey

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.