All Saints’ Day (A) – 2014

The saints beside you

November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“Glory to God and praise and love / be now and ever given / by saints below and saints above, / the Church in earth and heaven.”

So concludes Charles Wesley’s venerable hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing.” The hallowed vision of saints robed in white, genuflecting and joining together in a chorus of praise around a resplendent heavenly throne is as powerful as it is alluring.

Although many, if not most Christians shy away from reading and studying Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of the enigmatic John of Patmos helps develop our vision of what that “glorious company of the Saints in light” might look like. We’re told that angels are gathered around the throne with four living creatures, falling on their faces worshipping God day and night, singing a song of praise. We’re told that they hunger and thirst no more, and that sun and heat will not strike them because the Lamb is their shepherd, guiding them to the springs of the water of life, as God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

And yet, as idyllic and unspoiled as this image is, it’s incomplete.

John’s description doesn’t stop there. He goes on to write that the “great multitude” gathered around the throne are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Although literal readings of Revelation that condone violence are theologically problematic at best and downright dangerous at worst, we cannot deny that those who enjoy the place of honor in John’s apocalyptic vision have undergone suffering, and given the tone of apocalyptic literature in general and Revelation in particular, we can surmise that some have even endured physical violence.

What might this mean for a church that commits itself to striving for justice, freedom and peace? Or perhaps a more pressing question as we celebrate All Saints’ Day is, what might it mean for John’s “great multitude,” complete with their blood-stained robes, to be identified in the storied history of the church as saints?

The quick, albeit half-hearted answer is to do as countless others have done, and re-shelve Revelation as an indecipherable apocalyptic dream sequence written by an unknown disciple of the fledgling first-century Jesus movement.

But as wars rage on with ever-increasing frequency, as diseases and disasters continue to strike with indiscriminate and unrelenting cruelty, and as the unreliability of the global economy continues to provoke fear and anxiety, we may know more than we think about these “great ordeals” and blood-stained robes that John identifies so provocatively. And on this day in particular, perhaps the Spirit is calling the church to reconsider John’s apocalyptic witness – complete with all its harshness and unanswered questions.

In the midst of the violent imagery and occluded visions lays this powerful word of hope: After all is said and done, after the plagues of war and famine and disaster have done their worst, salvation belongs, not to the generals and the dictators and the power mongers of this world, but to God alone!

This is the great and enduring truth of the gospel, and it comes alive on this All Saints’ Day, reminding the faithful that the powers and principalities of this world will not have the last word. In fact, not only is this Good News, we hear from the lips of Jesus himself that it is a blessing.

In a dramatic reversal of the customs of this world, Jesus foretells the truth of the Kingdom of God:

Unsure of your direction in life? You’re blessed.

Caught under the weight of grief and loss? Joy comes in the morning.

Undervalued and not heard by those around you? God hears you.

Groaning with hunger pangs and longing for a moment of respite? The comforter has come.

Sojourning for peace and righteousness, only to be trampled down by war and revilement, and those spreading lies to discredit you? God is travailing right alongside you.

The saints, Jesus reminds us, aren’t simply those who seem to have it all figured out, whose prayer life is perfect, whose service to church and community alike are irreproachable, and who have left a legacy that the rest of us will spend a lifetime aspiring to realize for ourselves.

On the contrary: The saints, Jesus tells us and John reminds us, are those who have suffered greatly – and some who suffer still, even in our midst – and yet praise God all the more. The saints are those who have known the pain of grief and the sting of death, and still manage to find a way to sing, “Alleluia!” The saints are those who have been excluded and ignored by every corner of society and yet still find ways to seek and serve Christ, loving their neighbor as themselves.

And so when we celebrate all saints, we commemorate those worshipping in our pews who are suffering silently. We work to include those in our community who love God and neighbor, and yet find themselves on the margins. And we remember those whose worship of God is unceasing, even now that they have passed into light perpetual.

Our worship on this day, then, bears both the potential for difficult news that is hard to hear as well as the great and powerful news of a gospel that continually confounds even our best efforts to contain it. For if we approach this day, looking to the saints as nothing more than long-gone exemplars of moral and theological perfection, the witness of Jesus in the Matthew’s gospel and of John’s Revelation falls flat and bears little possibility for transformation.

But if we allow the Spirit to move in our midst, then we might be surprised by what we see when we look across the aisle of the church or down the street or into the parts of town that have a checkered reputation. We might be surprised to find saints there who, even in the most unimaginable circumstances, find ways to lift up their hearts in prayer and praise to God.

And when we hear those soft, but faithful notes of “Alleluia!” emanating from deep within the souls of the saints among us, we will know that salvation does indeed belong to our God, who is seated upon the throne, now and for evermore.

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

20 Pentecost, Proper 25 (A) – 2014

The Benedictine tradition of community

October 26, 2014

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1); 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Thus begins the last of Jesus’ interrogations by the religious authorities in Matthew’s Holy Week narrative.

Jesus’ response was both typical and not. He begins his response in a rather predictable way: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” Here, Jesus is quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Jesus then goes on to say there is a second commandment – to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Here, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus 19: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Jesus then tells the Pharisees that all the “law and the prophets,” the two major bodies of text that make up the Hebrew Scriptures, are dependent upon these two commandments.

Jesus’ juxtaposition of Leviticus 19 and the Shema is profound. The Pharisees who heard the Leviticus portion in that moment would have known the entire passage, not just the portion Jesus quoted. In the Episcopal Church, our Rite 1 liturgy includes the Summary of the Law, yet most of us fail to realize what precedes “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which is, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Jesus’ teaching on prayer echoes this: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century,” she offers a daily reading of the Rule of St. Benedict and her commentary on it. Benedict of Nursia lived in the late 5th century in Italy and set down a rule for living in community in the last days of the Roman Empire. We Anglicans have a close connection with Benedict, as monastic communities of Benedictines were very influential in pre-Reformation England. Benedict was very clear that our spiritual life was to be lived out in community – we were not to flee to the desert or hole up somewhere. We are to live in community and to worship God through communal prayer, scripture recitation (most people could not read back then) and the sacramental life.

Part of Benedict’s rule was the idea that the monastery you entered would be the monastery in which you died, and to always keep death before you as a solemn reminder of the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Benedict knew that living in community is hard – disagreements are bound to happen, other people will annoy you and you will annoy other people. Benedict, in his wisdom, knew that if you had a disagreement with another monk or nun, our human tendency is to “cut and run” – to leave the community or relationship and find another one. Benedict, with no modern knowledge of family systems or psychology, knew that if you left the monastery without having resolved your issues with your fellow monks or nuns, invariably you would go to another monastery and – lo and behold! – have another disagreement with a monk or nun there, usually over similar issues that drove you from the prior monastery.

When this happens, history repeats itself, behavior replicates itself and there is no reconciliation or opportunity for spiritual growth. This does not produce spiritual depth – it keeps you spiritually stunted and immature. We can act pious and holy all we want, but unless we do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation, then our faith is a sham. As Sister Joan writes: “It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.”

Living in community with other people is hard. Recall Leviticus 19: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Neither the author of Leviticus, Jesus nor Benedict said this would be easy – simple perhaps, but not easy.

It’s easy to say we love our neighbors in the abstract – it is much harder to put it into practice. In fact, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is often easier. We tend to push enemies away and keep them out of our lives. It’s easy to love in the abstract, at arm’s length. It is much harder to love up close where things get messy: loving our next-door neighbor, whose dog barks incessantly and who won’t do anything about it; or members of our congregation who don’t see things our way or just bug us; or community leaders who don’t listen to our concerns; or the priest who just doesn’t get it. Well, it’s hard, isn’t it?

In each case, what makes it hard is the pride of our own petty egos that seek the self rather than the good of the other. Letting go of the ego is the way of the cross.

As Episcopalians, we inherit this Anglican/Benedictine way of being in community. Being in community means loving God and neighbor – which, by extension, means letting go of the need for fighting, vengeance and holding grudges. It is a way of spiritual transformation that calls us into becoming more Christ-like – into becoming spiritual adults.

As Sister Joan writes:

“Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.”

This is the transforming power of God – and it comes to us through our neighbors who are up close and in our face.

But are there neighbors with whom being in a relationship is not possible? What about those who threaten or abuse us? What about those who threaten the community?

Well, neither Jesus nor Benedict would have condoned that behavior for the sake of loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not the same as indulging your neighbor. There are behaviors people inflict on us as individuals and the community that go beyond annoyances and simple grievances. Abuse, violence and threats are behaviors that cannot be tolerated for the sake of maintaining relationship. While we can reject specific behaviors and call those who threaten and abuse to repentance, they may not respond to that call. This does not mean we cannot love them – but we may need to do so from a safe distance unless and until they can do the hard work of amending their lives and actively seeking reconciliation with us.

Yes, life in community is hard work. Holding and bearing grudges prevents us from being the loving people God has shaped us to be. We cannot love God and harbor hatred for the people God loves. We cannot presume that our dislike or even hatred of another person is how God feels about that person. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength only comes with the spiritual gift of humility to love the very people God loves too. Remember, while there are people you know who seem unlovable, there are people who feel the same way about you. None of us is lovable all the time.

It is into this reality that grace enters. When we are at our worst and most unlovable, God comes to us. That radical, undeserved, unmerited love has the power to move our hearts to love our neighbors – even the ones hardest to love. This isn’t easy work – Jesus knew that, Benedict knew that and you know it too. But we undertake it, quite imperfectly to be sure, because in doing so we experience grace, mercy and healing in action, not abstraction.

Laying down our egos, our long-nurtured grudges and resentments, and seeking the way of love is the way of the cross through which we find fullness of life in Christ.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A) – 2014

Render unto God what is God’s

October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 [or Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus have become a sort of proverb, and those who know little of scripture may still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” Yet, digging beneath the surface of this short encounter helps uncover some of the deeper currents in the exchange.

First, the combination of people approaching Jesus is intriguing. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma.

Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This reference is obviously to Jewish Law, also called the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.

It would seem that they have presented Jesus with no way out. He can’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.

Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. This is Jesus’ own trap, for it proves at least one among the questioners to be a hypocrite. For the coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified peace. The coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images.

You will recall the incident when Jesus chased moneychangers from the outer courts of the Temple. These moneychangers had a business because one was required to exchange pagan currency for Temple coins before going to do business in the Temple. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But note that when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly located and handed to Jesus.

Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without a coin in hand. In our reading for this morning, we used the New Revised Standard Version, which said, “Whose head is this and whose title?” That translation misses the point of his argument. The word they translate as “head” is “icon,” a Greek word better translated as “image.” The word “title” is better translated as “likeness.” When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and likeness are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Again, the translation covers something better revealed. It could also be translated as “give back” rather than “give” or “render.” Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?

Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “icon” or “image” and the word “likeness.”

Jesus’ answer came from Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we were made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s. Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. Jesus implies that, though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.

This text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you give to the church. But this is no passage on the tithe. For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall well more than 90 percent shy of the mark. Jesus says that everything you have and everything you are is God’s already.

While this would certainly apply to the money you make, the formula is not that you give 100 percent of your income to God, for God knows you need the money for the necessities of life. The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.

What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator. Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.

You begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming your life to be more like Jesus’ life. Giving back to God through the church does matter, but merely giving money to the government, to this church or anywhere else is only part of the picture.

To live more fully into that image and likeness of God that is in you, give back your heart to God – for it is God’s anyway. When the time comes for communion in just a little while, I would encourage everyone, no matter what your denominational background, to come forward to receive the bread and wine of communion. And if you have not yet been baptized, then come forward for a blessing. For at this altar, we can meet Jesus anew every time we worship. For in answer to the question, “What are the things that are God’s which we are to give back to God?” the answer is, “You.”

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

18 Pentecost, Proper 23 (A) – 2014

Dress codes or radical welcome?

October 12, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 (or Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23); Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Today’s gospel passage probably requires a bit of translation. There’s a big difference between the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine and 21st-century America. Not only about marriage, of course – but marriage is what today’s gospel highlights.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a marriage feast given by a slave-owning king. Now, slave-owning kings were quite common back then. Fortunately, neither human bondage nor absolute monarchy is part of our day-to-day experience now. This isn’t to say we have wiped out oppression or tyranny on the face of the earth – far from it. But at least in this nation, we call it a crime when one person claims to own another, and we do not permit anyone to have absolute power. They weren’t quite ready for “checks and balances” in Jesus’ time.

So – in and of itself – the progress of 2,000 years will require us to make a kind of adjustment in order to hear and understanding this parable.

So, too, will the whole idea of marriage. There are those who insist that our modern-day, state-sanctioned unions are a sacred institution, implying that this phenomenon is of ancient provenance. One president even called marriage “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.” Of course, that is not the case.

Now, marriage is a fine thing. But what do we really know about the history of marriage? What are the facts?

Scholar Kenneth Stevenson, who was Bishop of Portsmouth, in England, summarized marriage in the patriarchal tradition of ancient Judaism in his book “To Join Together”: first, negotiation of contract, then betrothal, followed by consummation.

What may be hard for us to imagine is that the contract negotiated was no Philadelphia lawyer’s prenup agreement; it was a financial contract between two men, the bride’s father and the groom. In the time of Jesus, women were exchanged like plots of land and herds of cattle – just so much property. The men owned them.

The period of betrothal, then, was not so much a time in which two persons got to know each other better and grew closer in love – but a kind of “grace period” in which the groom could cancel the contract – for some justifiable cause, but without penalty.

Remember that Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, chose not to exercise his option to wiggle out of his marriage contract. He could have, because she was pregnant, but he didn’t. And it’s a good thing, too. Had he done so, none of us Christians would exist.

And in the first century, before anything so technological as birth control, women were like human childbirth machines. They would marry at age 11 or 12 or 13, and immediately begin to have children. Typically, a child every year or so for maybe 10 years. Lots of these children died in infancy. And most of these women died by the age of 30.

So the men would remarry – another teenage bride – again and again. It was not at all uncommon for a man of 40 or 50 or even 60 to marry again: each time a child bride, bought from her father.

This, of course, is not a fundamental, enduring institution of our civilization, is it? It’s more of an oppressive mess and a muddle, out of which we humans have managed to climb. And thanks be to God for that!

Now, what of the actual church liturgy for marriage? Although there is mention of marriage celebrations here and there in ancient texts, the formal, standard, official liturgy of the church dates only to about the 12th century.

What appears to have happened is that the tradition of holding a marriage feast was appropriated into the church’s liturgy. The cultural observance became, over time, a religious one.

To say that more clearly: there is no evidence of an official religious rite for marriage in Jesus’ time. Marriage was entirely a domestic and civil affair. If you were very wealthy, you might invite a rabbi or Pharisee or even High Priest of the Temple to attend, maybe even lead some prayers – but this was unusual, not the standard. This is why there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles at wedding feasts, but no record of him preaching a wedding homily. There was no such thing.

So, a man works out a deal with a woman’s father, and she is ordered to go and live with that man – someone she may not even have met. After a period of a year or more, the man decides that this is working out, and he and his contractual partner (not his bride, her father) lays on a feast.

Remember, this was long before clocks and calendars were common household items. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail, or an e-vite to your fellow bloggers. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today.

And pretty much everyone would come. In those days, ordinary people owned two changes of clothing: your regular, everyday work clothes; and a festive garment, a wedding robe – something usually white, that you kept clean and unwrinkled. And most people did not own much more. When the messengers came to invite you to a marriage, or you heard that bell ring – you would just pen up your sheep, drop your weaving, whatever; run home and put on your wedding garment; and go to the party.

And what feasts these were! Not the luxurious, self-indulgent and obscenely expensive extravaganzas we know today, but festive gatherings nonetheless, frequently lasting for days on end.

Same kind of thing, for instance, as when the Prodigal Son returned: roasted fatted calf, music and merriment, giving of gifts, and lots of wine. No evidence of cake, or throwing garters or rice, or making toasts, or even an exchange of vows. And no mortgaging of the homestead to borrow money; the party simply lasted until you slaughtered your last calf and drank the last of the wine.

Much has changed in the sacred institution of marriage, and thanks be to God for that! And much will continue to change. Thanks be to God for that, too.

So, what relevance does this gospel passage hold for us, if marriage is so radically different in our culture and in our church?

This, too, may be hard for us to grasp, as we no longer live in a culture with a lot of clear implicit expectations.

This may have been true in the United States of the 1950s, and it certainly was true in the Palestine of Jesus’ time: Everybody just sort of understood what the standards were – at least with regard to the wedding garment.

If you live in Galilee or Bethlehem, you knew that to come to a wedding feast was to wear a wedding garment.

So this parable, which seems harsh – after all, someone is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes. But perhaps this parable is about participation, or the lack of doing it fully.

There is the first group, who simply decline the invitation. And then there is the guy without the wedding robe, who refused to participate completely.

If you were you the king, you would feel snubbed and insulted by these people, right? If you had the power, you might send those folks who offended you to the outer darkness, right? Or at least, you’d be tempted to. Come on, admit it. When someone offends you, you are tempted to retaliate. We all are.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is a parable, remember. An analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven, a story of the way God acts in the world.

God has invited us to be partners in the building up of that kingdom, on earth as in heaven. We are invited to the greatest feast ever imagined. And how many of us fully participate all of the time? Precious few.

And this omnipotent God, who could reign down fire from heaven and smite us where we sit – this God does not act like the king in today’s story, although he could. God does not enforce the dress code or punish us for not participating fully.

Instead, our God invites us again and again, over and over. We are called to that feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The feast at which the disgrace of the people will be taken away from the earth, when God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

You, me and every person on this planet are welcome at this table.

When God is the host, everyone is invited. Sadly, as in today’s parable, not everyone comes – but everyone is invited.

When God is the host, the food is rich beyond our imagination or understanding. Sometimes it appears to be quite simple – like bread and wine – yet we can be profoundly moved and transformed by this feast. When God is the host, we are nourished not just for the morning, but for the journey. For most of us, this sustenance lasts as long as week, for others it lasts a lifetime. And when God is the host, everyone gets the same gift: the amazingly abundant, undeserved, and inexhaustible gift of love.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates is serving in interim ministry in the metropolitan New York area and as editor of church reviews for the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.

17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A) – 2014

Tenants in God's Kingdom

October 5, 2014

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80: 7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Any halfway decent real-estate agent or commercial property manager could probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of business law devoted to them and their all-too-numerous disputes.

In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. At harvest time, the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance.

What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?

At the very least, the landowner in question, we might be tempted to think, ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who end up murdering his slaves and son. Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not. Word got around, after all, even before the Internet.

And then the obvious question arises. Why did they do it? The tenants had to have been fairly bright guys. Or they would not have gone into agribusiness in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with it – get away with murder? Well, apparently they did. Their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.

The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well. We are even now just exiting one of the worse financial crises in our history – by fairly common consensus the result in large measure of rampant materialism and greed. And millions of people have suffered the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. The world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.

We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose mortgage is still upside-down or under water and is likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.

The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees at least deserve begrudging credit, if not for their actions then for their insight into their own motivations. They want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralize his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and what we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.

No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom. Nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been lent to us. Everything is borrowed for a time. As the old saying has it, we are living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this narrative, we too might wish the world were different, that tenants were owners and servants, masters. But it is not so.

“They will respect my son,” the landowner erroneously concludes as he decides to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. To paraphrase Doctor Phil, television’s favorite pop psychologist, “What was he thinking?” If only the landowner had gone to his parish priest, he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” he would have been told in no uncertain terms. “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”

All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less dollars and cents. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, finally, that is the only way tenants become landlords.

 

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

16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A) – 2014

Walking the walk

September 28, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Imagine you are watching television and a commercial comes on. The camera pans out over a tranquil beach scene where a family is enjoying the sun and the water. One parent is helping a smiling child build a sandcastle, while the other child runs in the surf, throwing a stick for a bounding, energetic golden retriever. The other parent is sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with a picnic basket and a drink, waving to the rest of the family. Finally, at the end, the product is advertised. But that’s not all, right? What was really advertised was not just a drink or an item of clothing or sunscreen or life insurance – the marketers were cleverer than that. They were advertising salvation – buy our product and it will save you from your harried, over-scheduled existence and lead you to this “perfect” life.

Sometimes, we are so harried, we are so tired, we are so over-scheduled, and perhaps are so short-sighted and feel so self-centered in our every day existence that we buy into this false salvation. We grumble at our church leaders, “Is the Lord among us or not? We aren’t getting what we want. God’s not leading us to salvation as we imagined it, so maybe we need to look elsewhere.”

Like the Israelites in Exodus, we are wandering through the wilderness of Sin – both a geographical place and a play on words that reminds us of our imperfection and unfaithfulness.

Yet, God remains faithful. God is still at work in our lives, no matter what we believe, no matter what we do as we move through the wilderness. We made promises to God during our Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Always, the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot separate our belief in God from the action it demands. We cannot immerse ourselves in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” without being stirred to embodying this knowledge and love of God through our actions in the world. Together, they create faith. We can do a whole lot of prayer or a whole lot of serving in a soup kitchen, but an imbalance of one or the other does not exemplify what Jesus is asking. God is faithful in word and deed, and that is the faith that we are called to.

Take this modern parable for example:

There once was a man who came to know Jesus and wanted to be baptized. The whole community supported him and he was baptized along with several others on a Sunday morning. Things seemed to be going smoothly with his newly minted faith. Prayer flowed easily from his lips and heart, he never went by the homeless person who was on the corner of the street where he worked without speaking to him and giving change when he could. He came to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and went to adult formation classes.

After a while, things started to feel, well, like a suit that was becoming too small, too tight. What he once did with joy was now starting to feel like an obligation. He didn’t know what to do. When someone asked him to pray for them, he said, “Of course!” with enthusiasm and then forgot to. He began to avoid the homeless person by his work by going through another entrance. He attended church and church events less frequently. He considered his life outside of church as separate from his faith, and it was getting busy. He got a promotion at work, started dating someone seriously, and was getting involved in some philanthropic activities through his workplace. He still believed in God and felt love for God, but didn’t know how to integrate these pieces into the rest of his life. It all seemed like it was too hard, too much. Eventually, his church community who witnessed his baptism and vowed to do all in their power to support him in his life in Christ never saw him again.

How many of us have told someone we would pray for him or her and then got distracted and didn’t? How many of us have thought or talked a lot about helping the marginalized in our neighborhood, but haven’t? How many of us have been puzzled when people who were once zealous about their faith faded away, and we intended to contact them but never have?

We all have good intentions. But as Jesus teaches us in our gospel reading today, our intentions don’t really matter. It’s our actions that are grounded in and flow from our relationship with God that count – individually and as a community.

The man in the parable was not the only one who fell short of his promises – the community did, too. All these everyday actions are outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual grace. These are all acts of love – love that God has for us and that we have for God. They are sacraments with a small “s.”

Jesus preached and taught and touched and healed people. Jesus was doing all this non-stop for a few years and then was crucified, died and was resurrected. But it doesn’t stop there. Over and over again, God’s actions prove God’s love for us. We were given an advocate, the Holy Spirit to come and assist us in continuing God’s work in the world. We get to become part of God’s action.

If we take an honest examination of how God has touched each of our lives, we can be surprised by joy. Think back on your life, the ways that the tapestry of threads have been woven to get you to where you are today. Those times where just the right thing happened, those unexpected moments that changed your life, and the spaces in between, all where God was caring for you. How do we respond to this?

Jesus gives a telling example of response to God’s love in his parable today about the two sons being asked to work in the vineyard. The first son tells his father outright that he won’t do it, but then has a change of heart and goes and does it anyway. Whereas the second son tells his father he will and then never does. It’s a pretty extreme example, but it gets the point across. Jesus tells this to the chief priests and elders – who rejected John the Baptist and were rejecting Jesus – in order for them to be caught in their own web of deceit. Jesus asks them, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” and they know they are trapped because the answer, of course, is the first son. He ended up living his life faithfully; he didn’t just talk about it or say things to appease his father.

We often do similar things in our own lives. We say we are Christians, but how do we know? How do others know? God has given us the gift of our lives and we are called to respond. We are to be good stewards of our lives, spreading the love of God that we have received, to others.

We aren’t perfect, but we are definitely called to be different. As political comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

If we choose not to walk the walk, then we are just as bad as the chief priests and elders Jesus encountered.

But there is hope for us! We can be like the first son and have a change of heart. We can choose to be obedient to God and live in a wide, loving margin of grace.

As we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus and each other, may there by clarity and fire in God’s call to us, and may we receive the courage to do something about it.

 

– The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, and is completing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Adler Graduate School.

15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A) – 2014

An undeserved gift

September 21, 2014

Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 (or Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8); Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

How long have you been a member of this church? Or are you a first-timer? Look around. How long do you think those sitting near you have been members of this church? Somewhere in the crowd is someone who has been here the longest. And somewhere is someone who has been a member for the shortest amount of time. Those of you in small churches know these people almost instinctively.

Do you think those who have been members longer should have more benefits? More access to pastoral care? More influence with the vestry? Be first in line for pot-luck suppers?

Of course these are absurd questions. But what if they were not? Wouldn’t that cause us to understand better the sense of outrage expressed by the longer-serving laborers in today’s gospel story who saw their treatment as a matter of unfairness?

Can we fail to feel sympathy for those who worked the longest? These hired hands labored harder and longer and got the same pay. How can we not feel a painful sense of injustice?

Living in community, we inevitably have experiences that allow us to identify with the workers in today’s gospel story, even if the situations were not as serious as economic and social injustice. We may well remember parents who gave up a great deal of time and energy coaching youth sports leagues or teaching Sunday School or leading scout troops, helping children of other able parents who did not volunteer to do their fair share.

How many of us with siblings recall growing up feelings we had to do more than others in the family? How many first-borns eventually complain that their parents let younger brothers and sisters have more liberty than they had at the same age? Isn’t it true that one of the first things we learn in life is to develop a view of what seems fair and what does not?

But as mature Christians, one of the first things we learn from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus didn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. He was not concerned about the ethics of business or labor management relations or who got to what place first. Through the story in today’s gospel, Jesus turns our normal views upside down, shaking them out, so we can more clearly see the truth of God’s values. He challenges our religious assumptions, affirming a radical understanding of God and our relationship with God that upsets our conventional theological views and the tenets of popular psychology.

Jesus succeeds in shocking us out of our common misunderstandings of God, by affirming a deeper insight into the character and purposes of God. He wants to shake us out of our usual self-understanding by opening us to a deeper awareness of ourselves, and to transform us more into the image of God.

Jesus wants us to experience this parable as a way to learn what lies beyond viewing the events as simply unfair or fair and to catch a glimpse of the utter limitless generosity of God. He wants us to understand that the worth of human beings is not measured by how much we earn in pay or how well we perform or by any of our usual measures – status, popularity, social achievement, productivity, wealth, physical appearance.

Jesus wants us to know that our worth as human beings is absolutely affirmed by God, who guarantees our value as human beings – not because of anything we have done or can do – but because of God’s creative and life-affirming love for us. Jesus wants us to know that in the face of our limited, worldly understanding of what is fair and what is unfair, God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by different standards.

God gives us chances to realize our potential – each in our unique way, restricted, of course, by our own limitations, but empowered by our individual talents and gifts.

Jesus wants us to know the overwhelming reality of God’s love in this world. Jesus especially wants us to recognize the power and presence of God in the life of each and every one of us. Jesus wants us to know that God calls us to respond positively to what he has given us. He wants us to work in his vineyard with happy hearts and willing bodies.

Jesus wants us to know that working and serving in God’s world is a great privilege and opportunity. The reward for our service is the joy of knowing that we are part of a great adventure that gives meaning to our lives. The reward for serving others is found in knowing that we are part of a Christian process of laboring to leave the world a little better than when we entered it.

In telling this parable of the laborers in the vineyard – the ones who worked different amounts for the same pay – Jesus wants us to know that God would have us concentrate on our own spiritual condition, not spending time and energy considering everybody else’s spiritual condition, and to accept our ultimate worth and our ultimate purpose without comparing our contributions to those of others.

Today we have heard Jesus turn one of our normal, worldly views upside down. In so doing, according to our faith, he actually places those values right-side up. Today’s parable teaches that life is from God’s point of view, not a matter of fairness or unfairness. It is not a matter of deserving or undeserving.

Through today’s parable, Jesus reminds us that whatever we have is, after all, a gift from God. Whatever we have is more than we deserve. God is overwhelmingly generous. It is enough that we have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard.

 

— 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.

14 Pentecost, Proper 19 (A) – 2014

Forgiving 70 times seven

September 14, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 [or Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 and Psalm 114]; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Five Amish schoolgirls killed, 11 wounded, by a shooter in Pennsylvania, the headlines cried in 2006. The Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, they forgave him. The Amish were reviled by many in the press because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.

In 1948, Pastor Yang-Won Sohn’s two teenage boys were shot for being Christians by a rioter in Korea. Sohn not only forgave the shooter, but arranged his release from prison and adopted him.

Were these people crazy? How can people forgive such heinous crimes against innocents? It messes with our minds. Yes, Jesus said forgive, but there must be a limit, and these crazy people crossed it.

We want killers punished. But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven. OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” You must always forgive.

And then Jesus told a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. “Good,” we may say. He surely deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he didn’t forgive. Jesus is very serious about this forgiveness thing.

Paul reminds the Romans about another side of forgiveness. His take on it was about how we treat each other because of our differences. Some eat anything, others are vegetarians; they must not despise each other. Well, that’s easy enough. We can do that.

Some may worship God on one day, some on another; do not despise one or the other. Another easy one – we can do that!

But then Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” meaning, why do we pass judgment on all others? Perhaps because we so often see immense hurt and evil in our world and we want to see justice done. We cannot imagine why people maim and kill innocent people. We cannot understand the sickness of domestic abuse, trafficking of young men and women and children, the horror of genocide. These evils need to be dealt with. They need to be eradicated from the earth and humanity deserves to live in peace and safety. Forgiveness? No! Maybe Jesus in his humanity couldn’t imagine the kind of evil that infects our world today. Maybe his “70 times seven” would have been tempered a bit.

But we must remember the heinous things that happened in Jesus’ time. They were actually not that much different from today – slavery, war, murder, genocide, abuse. It almost seems hopeless, as we have not learned a whole lot from Jesus’ time until now. But Jesus makes it very plain that we must forgive or we, too, will suffer punishment.

So, how do we start? We might look once again at the Amish. Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s prayer. They believe it when they say, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain that to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead little girls could forgive. What we may tend to forget, however, which the Amish people also made quite clear, is that forgiveness did not take away the burning pain of loss, the near despair of losing children. There is the crux of the matter. This is where we might find the ability to begin learning to forgive. That old cliché “forgive and forget” just doesn’t work.

Forgiveness doesn’t numb our minds and hearts to the pain we feel. Forgiveness doesn’t mean justice does not need to be carried out. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that perpetrators must not be stopped just because our hearts have gotten all warm and fuzzy with our forgiveness of them. Sadly, our world is not yet the fullness of the Kingdom. The wars going on in the Middle East, the genocide taking place in the name of God, the evils done to men, women and children because of lust – all need to be eradicated, the perpetrators punished. The victims will be forever changed, and that breaks the heart of God. The perpetrators may not even want our forgiveness. And many of these issues may not have touched us here. We might pray for conversion of the evil ones. We might pray that they are found and brought to justice. We might begin our practice of forgiveness here. We might offer the difficulty of our forgiveness to God. Pray that we might be able to hold the hurt of others in our hearts while we place those we need to forgive into God’s.

Then we might look at forgiveness closer to home. This, perhaps, might be harder. When we are the ones who have been hurt, we may find forgiveness even of family members difficult. How many stories have we heard about brothers and sisters not speaking to each other for years, or churches being divided over small incidents? Hurt goes deep.

Being the first to seek reconciliation is hard, but that’s what Jesus means when he says, “70 times seven.” The good news in all this is that we are not alone when we are called to forgive or to seek reconciliation. In it all, God is with us. God has shown us the ultimate image of forgiveness when Jesus died on the cross for us all, taking our sins upon himself and promising us resurrection. Forgiveness is only possible if we remember God is within and God is our strength. That promise upholds us even when our willingness to reconcile with another or forgive is rejected. God knows our heart – God is our heart. God has even promised that when words fail us, the Spirit will give us words.

Later, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, take the words “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” into your hearts. Only then, can we begin to understand what forgiveness is all about.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

13 Pentecost, Proper 18 (A) – 2014

The power to bind or loose

September 7, 2014

Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40); Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Church conflict is nothing new. Sometimes people think there should be no conflict in church, as though by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover over all disagreements with niceness. Jesus in his teaching in our gospel lesson today seems to proceed on the baseline assumption that conflict in Christian community is normal and natural, and should be dealt with honestly and with compassion.

As we all know, honesty and compassion are all too rarely the watchwords of our church conflicts. Many times anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or openly hostile entrenched positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church permanently. The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside, or an openly dismembered and bleeding Body of Christ hemorrhaging members and vitality. There must be another way.

Jesus provides us another way in our gospel lesson today. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back. Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation at coffee hour. We are to take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.

If that conversation does not yield fruit, we create a small group of all parties involved to discern and pray together. If no progress is made, then we let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation.

Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we’ve checked all the boxes for responsible church conflict and still have gotten nowhere, we can shun and push aside these troublemakers. Hooray!

But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can then apply to our fellow church members?

When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee’s showboating pride and self-satisfaction versus the tax collector’s pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin. To treat a fellow church member like a tax collector would then be to realize that beneath the outer façade of combativeness, that person might be hiding a great deal of pain and regret over his or her own actions in the conflict. Jesus says this tax collector went home justified or forgiven. Could we not look for the hidden self of the person with whom we are in conflict and have our compassion awakened? Could we not realize that we ourselves might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?

Zaccheus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector and filthy rich. But he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zaccheus down and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ home. How then can we treat a fellow church member crosswise with us like Jesus treats Zaccheus? We can invite this member to share her gifts with the church in some way, just as Jesus did with Zaccheus. And most importantly, we can share table fellowship together, in the parish hall, at the altar, in one another’s homes.

That is how Jesus treats tax collectors – with mercy, with invitation, with curiosity and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.

What about gentiles? If we are to treat church members with whom we disagree as gentiles, how does Jesus teach us by example to behave toward them?

One of Jesus’ most famous encounters with a gentile was the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. He initially refuses, saying that the food for the children of Israel cannot be given to the dogs. Her clever and persistent response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” convinces him to change his mind. If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften and gentle and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.

We see Jesus’ relationship with gentiles in another story: the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion seeks Jesus out, admits that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof, and says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. Notice that Jesus heals the servant not in person, but over a distance. For the church conflicts in our past, the ones that drove us or our neighbors to leave the church, this story proves that healing can occur over distance, a geographical distance or the distance of time. All it takes is, like Jesus, recognizing the faith of the gentile. And so it is worth revisiting old broken relationships with our brothers and sisters and spending time in prayer for our faith and the faith of those from who we are estranged. It might be a path to healing we never expected.

And so we see that this gospel lesson, in fact, does not give us license to get rid of people we don’t like, to ostracize troublemakers and let silence and distance be the arbiters of church conflict. Jesus’ instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most far gone and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us a whole array of creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation, toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential.

All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict. It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast this question of the theology of sexuality or that knock-down drag-out over the carpet color in the nave. We have the power to bind and to loose.

With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.

Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. We can loose our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind.,  in the Diocese of Indianapolis. She blogs at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

12 Pentecost, Proper 17 (A) – 2014

The paradox of faith

August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

[NOTE TO READER: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is pronounced “EH-hyah ah-SHARE EH-hyah”]

“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

These words from today’s reading from Matthew are Peter’s impulsive response to the devastating news that Jesus – his friend, healer and teacher, beloved and more than beloved, his divine Lord and savior – would suffer. Must suffer, be killed and be raised.

Peter, like most of us, reacts to the fact of suffering with fear and denial.

Jesus famously replies: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter has reacted out of fear of suffering and loss in the short term, in a human reckoning of time. He has focused on the fact that Jesus must suffer and be killed. Jesus continues:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“It” refers to eternal life. A great and glorious future. Jesus instructs Peter to focus on divine things, the promise that his Lord will be raised and in the last day, we shall all be raised.

In fact, Peter knows this. Just prior to the conversation in today’s passage, in Matthew 16:16, in answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. Jesus has complimented him on his great faith and offered him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter has just demonstrated one of the paradoxes of being a faithful and human Christian. We believe that suffering will be vanquished for all time, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”

At the same time, we live in the world and are committed to alleviating suffering where and as we can. Indeed, Jesus is our model in the work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, blessing the dying, loving God and our neighbor. It seems that we are to set our minds on both human and divine matters. Jesus is, after all, in his incarnation the point where the reality of God enters the reality of this world. Where human and divine purpose are united.

In today’s reading from Exodus we have another moment where Holy Mystery meets the reality of this world. God declares, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks, going about his daily business. The reality of the world, suffering and hard work, is in the forefront.

By appearing in a bush that blazes but is not consumed, God reminds Moses of the Holy Mystery of the divine. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” he commands Moses. The first response of the human to the divine encounter must be reverence. As God makes clear in this passage, reverence is to be followed by action. Moses’ given task is to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage.

In the passage from Exodus there is a magnificent linguistic device that juxtaposes the imperative of the now, Moses’ task of leading his people away from suffering, with the great mystery of eternity. Moses asks God for a name, so that he can tell the Israelites who sent him. “I am who I am,” says God. The Hebrew Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is an impressively God-like answer, for in Hebrew grammar there is no verb tense. Rather the placement of the personal preposition indicates whether the action has concluded or not. Ehyeh asher Ehyeh can be interpreted as both “I am who I am” and “I shall be who I shall be.” God is now and God is eternal. By calling on God’s great name, we acknowledge that we live simultaneously in the moment and for all eternity.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. In today’s passage, Paul gives instructions to the community in Rome for living a faithful life. When Paul speaks of rejoicing in hope, he is speaking of a truly biblical hope for the awaited day when the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of God and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Be patient in suffering because on that day suffering will cease. Persevere in prayer because this is the reverent response to the divine. Prayer that leads always to action: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Serve the Lord with vigor, ardor and zeal. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

And do it now. Jesus reminds us that we do not have much time.

“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

In the early Christian communities to whom Matthew and Paul wrote, there was a strong sense that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. The familiar blessing paraphrased from the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Frédéric Amiel synthesizes Jesus’ admonition and Paul’s advice: Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this journey with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind.

Jesus, in revealing that the messianic era is imminent, also explains how the disciples are to live in the intervening time: They are to live with the paradox of faith. One of the great paradoxes of Christianity is that the Messiah must suffer and die before he is raised to eternal life. This paradox makes a concrete statement of the Christological idea that Jesus is the embodiment of both the reality of the divine and the reality of this world. Jesus even issues his instructions to the disciples in the form of a paradox: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

We are to live the way of the great “I Am” and the glorious “I shall be.” We are to live a life of reverent prayer and a life of faithful action. We are to live as if we have not much time and as if we have all the time in the world.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, as he faced suffering with great faith:

“What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future.”

This is the divine way. It is also the human way. This is the mystery and the paradox of faith.

 

— Susan Butterworth is a candidate for a Master of Divinity degree at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where she is working on a special competency in Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies.