Waiting Without Expectation

Waiting Without Expectations

The Rev. Amy Spagna

December 11, 2016 - Advent 3A

Matthew 11:2-11

 

Have you noticed how impatient people are these days? We hate waiting for anything, whether it’s for the mail, or for food to be cooked, or for Christmas to hurry up and come. When we want something, we want it yesterday, and sometimes will stop at nothing, including going into large amounts of debt and/or hurting other people, in order to get it.  I confess to disliking sitting around and twiddling my thumbs, while just waiting for something to happen, as much as anyone else does. I don’t know what’s worse, the nervous going through all the possible things that could go wrong, or the jittery, rocking-back-and-forth-and-then-pacing-a-hole-in-the-carpet excitement over expecting something big and wonderful to happen. And if whatever – or whoever – it is turns out not to be what I was expecting when or if it finally arrives, well, it’s disappointing. And I don’t always deal with it well. Sometimes I rationalize it away: “Oh, that’s okay, I didn’t really want it that badly anyway.” And sometimes, in criticizing both the outcome and myself for wanting too much, I act like one of the kids from A Charlie Brown Christmas. They only grudgingly give Charlie Brown a chance to prove he’s able to do something right when they send him out to get a tree for the Christmas play. So when he comes back to rehearsal with a poor little pine tree, instead of the shiny aluminum one they wanted, they spare him no grief: “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown. Can’t you tell a good tree from a bad one?”[1]

We hear the same brand of disillusionment in the words of John the Baptist’s followers this morning. A lot has happened since we last saw John, baptizing and preaching to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan River. John is cooling his heels in jail, for what Luke’s Gospel tells us is the crime of speaking out against King Herod’s marriage to his half-brother’s ex-wife. Jesus has also been busy. He’s gone off into the wilderness for 40 days, been tempted by the devil, fed 5000 people, preached a lot of sermons, healed the sick, and sent out the disciples on mission trips. All of this all fine and good, but none of it is in line with John’s warning about someone who is coming to separate out and destroy those who refuse to change their sinful ways.  That prediction and Jesus’ actions do not appear to be more different, so it’s little wonder that John seems to be so upset. At the heart of his disappointment is a need to know that Jesus is the real deal, and thus worth the price he is paying for proclaiming his arrival. His visitors haven’t been able to tell him otherwise. However, instead of calling Jesus a blockhead as Lucy would’ve called Charlie Brown, at the first chance he gets, he sends some of his friends to give Jesus the what-for: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Clearly Jesus is not the guy about whom John thought he was preaching. Sure, Jesus has had a lot to say about what the Kingdom of God is like in the early stages of his public ministry. But instead of visiting fiery judgment on those whom John deemed unworthy, Jesus has been doing something else to show the world who he is. The blind have received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, the poor have had good news brought to them. Jesus’ works ARE his words, as St. Augustine put it.[2] By them, anyone who happens to be watching will know that Jesus is in fact who he says he is.

Even if he’s able to take Jesus at his word, John’s skepticism is warranted. He has paid dearly for his willingness to tell people to repent because God’s anointed One has arrived. And yet, his experience of Jesus has not, so far, measured up to his expectations. He seems to have hoped Jesus’ very presence would drastically change the world in an instant. Yet things are still the same as ever. To put it another way, what John saw in Jesus was the embodiment of all of God’s promises to Israel. And now, sitting alone in a dank prison cell and with only a handful of his closest friends to tell him what’s going on in the outside world, he is still waiting for that promise to be kept.[3]

John’s disappointment is readily apparent in the message he has for Jesus. Instead of the one who was to destroy anyone who didn’t bear fruit worthy of repentance, what he’s got is a nonviolent champion of the down and out. John does not understand just how badly he has gone wrong, and so he goes straight to the source to demand an explanation. Like Charlie Brown, his frustration has reached a boiling point. And so he’s left with little else to do besides yell into a nearly empty school auditorium, “Can ANYONE tell me what this is all about!?”  

It is probably safe to assume that John was more than a little shocked when Jesus didn’t measure up to his expectations. It’s turned John’s ideas about his own place in the world, and about God, upside-down, to the point where John feels threatened by more than just the rats lurking in the shadows of his cell. The disruption to his sense of who he is, is something with which we also can identify – and, like John, we don’t like it one bit. It is not fun to discover that we’re suddenly vulnerable and can’t do it all ourselves, or that what we have come to expect from life in general is not the case any longer. Acknowledging it publicly makes us seem weak in a culture where that kind of vulnerability is not valued at all. Regardless of whether we do so publicly or not, having our proverbial apple carts upset leaves us to ask if what we took as THE thing to put all our stock into is really “it” after all. If we’re lucky, we’ll have someone like Jesus who can reassure us that things will turn out OK. If we’re not, we run the very real risk of descending into a state of despair and self-loathing, and doing harm to ourselves or others in the process of trying to find the way out of it.   

The good news is, we can avoid falling down that particular rabbit hole. We can ask the hard questions, like John’s messengers do. We can also take the answer Jesus gives us – that he is the one we’ve been waiting for - at face value. That’s where faith comes into play, as does our willingness to own those questions in the first place. Those questions don’t make us weak and vulnerable – far from it. In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, researcher Brené Brown reminds her readers that, “[Vulnerability] is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves… is a measure of our own fear and disconnection.”[4]

Landing in prison has transformed John the Baptist from a fired-up, self-assured prophet into a man who acts from a place of fear and disconnection. By reminding him of all the good he has already done, Jesus is trying to tell him that it does not have to be this way. What’s more, Jesus tells his hearers that John does possess an incredibly deep sense of courage and clarity of conviction. He’s put his own neck on the line to make the path straight for the one even greater than he. He would not have done so if he was not absolutely convinced that Jesus is everything John says he is. Matthew does not tell us how John reacted to his friends’ delivering this message to him. It’s not hard to imagine that their words would have given him a great deal to think about. And maybe, just maybe, they were enough to remind John not only of his own strength, but also to re-light the fire which had landed him in prison in the first place. This Jesus may not be the political avenger-type of messiah so many people had hoped and prayed for. What he has done is to reconnect us with the hungry, the poor, the blind, the lame, and anyone else for whom God’s justice in this world is lacking. And blessed are those who take no offense at him.

 

[1] A Charlie Brown Christmas. 2009. Blu-Ray Disc. Burbank, California: Warner Home Video.

[2] St. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount; Harmony of the Gospels; Homilies on the Gospels: Sermon XVI. http://www.ccel.org/schaff/npnf106.vii.xviii.html [accessed December 5, 2016].

[3] David Lose, “Disappointed with God at Christmastime.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911 [accessed December 5, 2016].

[4] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery Books, 2012), 2.

We're Still Here

The Rev. Amy Spagna

Pentecost 26C – November 13, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25

 

Well… we survived.

I have to admit, at times in this awful political season it’s felt like we were collectively shoved back into elementary school. Instead of the “normal” campaign process which involves respectful listening and debate, the name of the game this year was finger-pointing and name-calling. It only served to throw fuel on the fires of fear and anger, to the point where they short-circuit our brains’ ability to process them rationally. No matter which side you happened to be on, the sentiment is the same: I’m afraid of what I might lose in terms of social status, or income, or privilege if the other side wins. The difficulty presented by overcoming those fears makes living into our Baptismal vows just that much harder. We only have to pull up our favorite news app to see reports of swastikas and “Sieg Heil!” spray painted on buildings in downtown Philadelphia, or of white students yelling racially-charged insults at their Black and Latino brothers and sisters, or of frustrated and angry protesters destroying property. NONE OF THESE THINGS IS OK, not by any stretch of the imagination. Fear is getting the upper hand where they’re happening, and if we are not careful, it will damage the delicate fabric of our society for generations to come. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our former Presiding Bishop, noted in a sermon last weekend that, “We’ve all died a little – our hope for this nation has dimmed, we’ve lost trust in our fellow citizens, we’ve raised our guard against other opinions and those people because we don’t think we can take any more… The tragedy is that the level of fear is preventing thoughtful dialogue. We pin on labels that say ‘enemy’ and think that settles the matter.”[1]

Despite this grim assessment, however, we’re not dead yet. Not by a long shot. I’ve had so many conversations to that effect in the past several days.  Their sum total reminded me of one of the early scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A mortician is wheeling his cart through town, crying out, “Bring out your dead!” A customer approaches him with an old man slung over his shoulder. He offers the mortician 9 pence to take the old man off his hands – despite the old man’s protests of, “I’m not dead!” Now, I’ve always wondered what the customer’s motivation was. Maybe the old man was a relative who’s overstayed his welcome. Maybe he was genuinely ill and the customer simply wanted to take advantage of the incredible convenience of having a mortician right outside his door. Or maybe the customer is afraid that the old man is somehow going to get in the way of his grand plans for world domination. Regardless, the customer does the only logical thing: he flings the oldster over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and takes him to the mortician… who promptly whacks the old man over the head with a club and adds him to the growing pile of bodies in his cart.  “See you on Thursday!” he says when he’s finished – as if it’s nothing but business as usual.[2]

The “business as usual” approach is part of what makes the scene so funny. However, being able to laugh about something which frightens most of us is helpful only to a point. Like its close cousins anxiety and depression, fear about what MIGHT happen has a tendency to take away our ability to envision a much more positive scenario than what either the facts or our imaginations tell us is in store. I’ve heard quite a bit of that expressed in the last five days. So many people are wondering how we can go on, when we’re afraid that some of the things we take for granted are about to be completely dismantled. On the other side of that coin, what’s become clear is, that question was already being asked, and roundly ignored, until it wound up tipping the balance of the Electoral College in an unexpected way. What I learned from it is this: if there is one place this nation can truly claim to be united, it’s in the fear and uncertainty which result from contemplating a future that, no matter which candidate received your vote, is not what we thought we were promised.

Being in this place is nothing new in the scope of human history. The ancient Israelites were right there with us after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of the people. We can hear their fear and anguish in the words of the Psalmist: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion… how shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?” (Ps 137:1, 4; BCP)

And yet, their faith in the very God who had allowed this to happen prevented them from losing hope altogether. A generation or two later, things were looking much better. The Persians had replaced the Babylonians as the dominant power in that part of the world. Jerusalem itself was still a pile of rubble, but people had begun to return home and to think about rebuilding. It’s against this backdrop that the last ten chapters of Isaiah were recorded. In them, we hear the comforting reassurance that everything will turn out in line with God’s expansive plans for the world.  In the beginning of Chapter 65, it seems God’s stance toward the people’s wrongdoing has softened a bit. Verse 8 gives the first hint of this: “Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all” (Isa 65:8, NRSV) The vision expands from there, as God promises to transform Jerusalem into a place where natural predators and prey will be found eating at the same table. It is unapologetically optimistic. Its intent is to reassure a people who have been forced to defend themselves from one threat after another that God has not, and will not, abandon them.[3]

It gets better: God’s peace in this newly created world will no longer include the need for alpha predators like lions and wolves to destroy gentler lambs and oxen.  What’s more, the serpent, whom God cursed when humanity was cast out of the Garden of Eden, will still be cursed. By providing that linkage back to a time before we were hobbled by things like fear and shame and hostility toward one another, Isaiah has made clear that the blessings God is offering can never be threatened again.[4]

This sounds an awful lot like what we’ve come to call “the American Dream,” doesn’t it? The ideal that everyone is on equal footing regardless of where we’ve come from, and the expectation that we will live long and prosper, are what form the backbone of this nation. And just as it was with our ancestors in the faith, our fears, which are at least partly grounded in the reality of the world around us, are trying once more to get the upper hand. Instead of giving in to them, let’s try something else. Let’s try holding onto the hope contained within the ideal of the peaceable kingdom which Isaiah outlines. And, let’s try putting our faith in God’s proven ability to bring this vision into existence. These two things, hope and faith, must be what guide our words and actions in the days to come. In his letter to the diocese this week, Bishop Knisely reminded us, “We must remember our baptismal covenant in which we promise to uphold the dignity of every person. We are each made in the image of God – and each one of us is infinitely precious simply by virtue of that fact. We can help others to see their neighbors as the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see one another.”[5]

Getting to a place where we’ll be able to do so will not be easy. For many right now, it is very hard to have any hope at all that things will ever get better. For others, it’s a whole new day, with entirely new opportunities to help shape this country for future generations. And still others are caught in the middle, wondering not only what will come next, but also desperately trying to be heard. Reconciling all of these things begins with listening to each other. Our response must not be one of judgment, but instead one of prayer. Once we have listened and prayed, then we will act. We have been presented with an incredible chance to show the world that the Gospel we proclaim is still relevant. We can, and we MUST, make this our primary task, because God needs us to be agents of God’s justice and love in the world, now more than ever. May God who has given us the will to do these things grant us the power to perform them.

 

 

[1] The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, “Bridging the Political Chasm.” http://www.saintjamescathedral.org/worship/sermons/2016/11/06/bridging-political-chasm. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]

[2] Monty Python and the Holy Grail, special ed. DVD. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001.

[3] Carolyn J. Sharp, “Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=678. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]

[4] Ibid.

[5] W. Nicholas Knisely, “A Divided Community: Responding with Hope and Action.” http://episcopalri.org/ForClergyCongregations/ResourceLibrary/ViewArticle/tabid/96/ArticleId/135/From-Bishop-Knisely-in-response-to-the-2016-elections.aspx. [Accessed November 12, 2016.]

Waiting on Top of the Wall

It is still hard not to ask that question when we see what’s going on in the world around us. Take the civil war in Syria, for example, where on Thursday UNICEF reported that yet another elementary school was bombed without any concern for the children inside. Or how the Standing Rock Sioux are having to defend their ancestral burial grounds and sole water source in North Dakota from an unwanted oil pipeline project. It’s a peaceful and prayerful protest whose participants have been violently removed from the land, and one where our own Episcopal Church has added its voice to those calling for law enforcement to stand down. Closer to home, I’ve heard that question asked many times. Whether it’s expressed in in the need for a new job, the desire to help a loved one in crisis, or anything else, the question underneath all of those things is why. Why does God not seem to be listening? Why isn’t God answering my prayers RIGHT NOW, when God clearly knows there is a great need?

Adopting Jesus's way of life

Adopting Jesus' Way of Life .

 

 

Today in the midst of our summer the readings from the lectionary seem to have an Advent theme.  Isaiah reminds us that God will come out to judge our actions, which must be congruent to our worship patterns.  God does not want us to offer beautiful services filled with sacrifices if we forget to do Good.  So Isaiah reminds us that we are to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow, in other words we are to watch out and care for all members of our community!

 

Paul reminds us to be people of faith, people with an abiding trust in God, and in this trust we are to act on the promises of God- even when we do not know if our actions will fortuitous for us.  And as we trust in God as people of the OT did in their time- we too will be a part of that city of God, prepared for the faithful. 

 

            And in the Gospel we are told to "Wait, Watch, be alert - and learn to find our security in God.   Perhaps, in the midst of a lazy summer we are called to remember some important concepts. 

 

Foundational in our faith:  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

 

1.     But how are we to prepare ourselves for that coming of Christ?  For the final establishment of the Kingdom?   

 

I. Many get ready by predicting God's return. The Second Coming of Jesus is such a touchy subject for the church. From the 1st Century even to the present moment there are people who 

Perhaps our Advent hope or rather our Christian hope should not rest on figuring out a date for perhaps our faith requires us to simply trust in this reality. And prepare by  adopting a way of life that is rooted in God.

 

In the Gospel Luke Jesus contrasts this way of life with a life rooted in the securities of the World. 

 

In the passage preceding today's Gospel reading Jesus encounters a young man who was arguing with his brother about an estate that was unfairly divided. The young man wants Jesus to preside over his case and resolve the matter.  Because he wanted a secure financial future. Jesus said, I am not your lawyer young man but I will give you a piece of advice: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

 

And then tells him a parable about a rich man who had a great crop and stored it all for himself but that night his life went in unexpected direction. On the very night he got his barns built and secured his future he died. He never ate a single grain of corn. It is better, therefore, Jesus concludes, to be rich toward God.

 

Jesus then turns away from this young man to address his disciples and he says, this fellow is worried about his life and how it will all turn out. I don’t want you to worry about your life. I don’t want you to worry about what you will eat. I don’t worry about what you are going to drink and I don’t want you to worry about what you are going to wear. Consider the ravens and the lilies, he said. Doesn’t God take care of these, how much more valuable are you?

 

Jesus understood that most of our life is spent on worrying about our security. But what would happen if we trusted in God to provide our needs?   What if we used our energies, our abilities, talents to help the world around us instead of wasting time and energy in worry . What if we adopting a posture for living is rooted in the understanding that God will provide all our needs. What if instead of living in fear- we lived with a sense of purpose and abundance- how rich would we feel, how satisfied would we feel?

 

And for Jesus this adopting of God's way of living is also adopting a posture of service.

 

For all the words that we use to describe Christian behavior there is none better than servant. One whose life is focused on helping others and creating a better world.   In today's parable from Luke. A master has left to go to a wedding banquet and there is no way for the servants of that master to know when he will return. It could be that very night. It could be the next. It could be three days before he returns home.  They are simply to be ready when he knocks on the door.

 

Everyone listening would have understood.  The servants would be responsible for the household, everything must be kept in order, the work of the house must be run well in accordance to the wishes of the master and then when the master comes, they must be ready to feed him, help him unpack,give him an accounting.   If they are not ready they’ll be judged harshly!

 

This makes sense--- but in verse 37 there is a twist. It is not the servants who wait on the master but in Jesus' story it is the master who waits on the servants. It will be good for those servants who are ready for the master not because there is the threat of punishment inattentive behavior but because there is the promise of a lavish master who upon his return graciously gives to his servants. The Master sits them down and serves them!

 

This is quite a different picture of a master and a servant. This picture of God's relationship with his servants gives us an understanding of God's abundant grace and love. Jesus' vision for us the servants for God is clear when the Kingdom in its entirety- God will sit us down at his banquet table and not just as servants but as children of that Kingdom.

 

For the reality is my friends when when we trust in God, adopting God's view of the world, God's view of service, we can also trust that God's wonderful kingdom will come.  And yes my friends by each Good choice we make we are making that Kingdom a reality and we servants are among those who participate in it! 

 

Amen  

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities


The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 2C (Proper 4) - May 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10
“When [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking
him to come and heal his slave.” (Luke 7:3, NRSV)
It’s a familiar story, one which is repeated in some way or another throughout the
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ early ministry. Someone from outside of Jesus’ inner circle of
hears about what he’s been up to, and asks for his help. Jesus’ fame has grown
exponentially at this early stage of his public ministry, thanks in no small part to the people
he’s fed and healed, and the sermons he’s preached. It seems like everyone wants a piece of
him. The centurion, whom we never meet face-to-face, is not all that different from anyone
else who seeks Jesus’ attention. His method is much less direct than those who threw
themselves across Jesus’ path and begged for mercy. He first sends some of the Jewish
elders with whom he’s been working, and then, when Jesus gets close to his house, he sends
some of his friends to ask for him. And all of them give the same glowing recommendations
about this centurion’s character and why he deserves Jesus’ help.
I have to admit, his indirect way of going about it reminds me a little bit of being in
middle school and how boys would try to approach girls whom they liked. (For context, this
was in the late 1980s in the South, so attempting to ask anyone of the same gender to go for
ice cream or to the school dance was an absolute no-no.) You can probably picture how it
went: the boy sends one of his friends, and/or one of her friends, to ask her, instead of
doing it himself. Maybe it’s because he’s too scared she’ll say no, or blow him off in some
way, or otherwise reject him, and to have his trusted friends deliver that blow is easier. I
don’t know. But I do remember how it happened to one of my best friends… and she said
no, to a soft-spoken boy a year older than she who was in her band class and played the
trumpet. The boy, to my knowledge, never risked talking to her again, and life went on. She
didn’t give it another thought until recently, and messaged me on Facebook with a, “hey, do
you remember that time when I told that kid I wouldn’t go with him because I didn’t know
who he was?” She’d heard through the grapevine recently that he was doing well, and was
wondering if maybe she’d missed out on a shot at being friends with a really great person
all those years ago.
Our centurion wasn’t exactly in search of a dinner date, nor are we told whether he
had the same what-if type questions after this encounter with Jesus. We don’t even know
the fate of the slave, other than that the centurion’s emissaries found him in good health
when they got back to the house afterward. However, a happy ending for the characters
themselves isn’t the point of this episode. That someone can possess – and act on – faith in
God while falling clearly outside of the socially acceptable parameters for that faith, is. This
was a huge issue in the early Church. There was a faction known as the “Judaizers” which
held that one had to be Jewish in order to have a proper faith in Christ. If one wasn’t, full
conversion, including circumcision for males, was required before one could be baptized.
There was another faction, whose leaders included Paul and likely the writer of Luke and
Acts, which said that no, God’s grace and a person’s faith in Christ were more than adequate
prerequisites for inclusion in the Church.
This passage is one of the places where the tension between the two groups shows
up – along with a challenge to push the boundaries of the community outward. For a while,
the Judaizers’ somewhat narrow point of view prevailed. It would have been a shock to
them that someone decidedly outside of the boundaries of the Jewish community could
possibly have the kind of deeply authentic faith which would lead him or her to ask Jesus
for help – and get it.
The centurion was probably what we’d call a “lifer.” A career enlisted man, his rank
in the Roman army was roughly the equivalent of a master sergeant. He commanded a
group of 80-100 other soldiers, known as a cohort, but was also accountable to those
officers higher up in the chain of command. He’s one of the good Romans, who gets along
really well with the Jewish elders. He even built a synagogue for them. His respect also
extends to observing parts of the Law. He doesn’t dare to risk inviting Jesus into his home
because of the risk of Jesus’ becoming ritually unclean. Hence the multiple emissaries and
their request that Jesus not trouble himself on the centurion’s behalf.
Yes, this centurion clearly has clues about how to work within the prevailing
cultural norms where he serves. The one thing we might find a bit offensive about him is
the fact he owns at least one slave. While our modern sensibilities might question him for
it, it would not have been unusual for a man of his standing to have at least one or two
slaves as part of his household. Most of Luke’s original readers would probably shrug it off
as a normal part of life. That is, as long as the slaves were treated well, which it seems that
this particular one is. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t wonder about the
centurion’s motives in seeking out Jesus’ assistance in healing him of his illness in the first
place. Does he only want to ensure his property will keep producing income on his behalf
for a long time? Does he regard the slave as an equal, and wants to help him out as friends
do for each other? Does he want to test Jesus on behalf of his Roman superiors? Or is it
something else?1
Regardless of his motives, it’s clear that the centurion has a great deal of respect for
Jesus. As one who is both under authority and possesses it over others, the centurion is
able to acknowledge Jesus as someone who operates under similar circumstances.2 This is
in direct contrast to the people at his home synagogue in Nazareth, who had all but run him
out of town on a rail a few chapters back when he tried to tell them who he really was. It is
also one of the first hints we receive from Luke about the universality of Jesus’ nature and
message. Faith in him, and its benefits, are not limited to a select few. He’s for everyone,
regardless of whether they have Jewish heritage or not. His willingness to engage with the
centurion serves to push the boundaries defining the community of faith outward. In giving
voice to the marginalized – in this case, the slave, and possibly the centurion as well – he
drives home the point that our connections to one another are far more important than
strictly adhering to the rules which produce sharp definitions around who’s “in” and who’s
“out.” They are the key to our shared, lived reality. We need each other, to put it simply.
And despite what our stiff-upper-lip New England culture tells us, it is not a source of
failure or shame to admit it. We require the the larger community, including the
community of faith, to speak with and for us, and to help us name what is just and hold us
accountable.3
1 Verlee A. Copeland, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost
and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 95.
2 David Lose, “Unexpected Faith.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2592.
3 M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and
Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 96.
This is exactly the point which the evil King Ahab in today’s Old Testament lesson,
and the community St. Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians, have missed. Both Jesus
and the Roman centurion understand it completely. We can’t go it alone. Nor can we simply
dismiss someone out of hand because they don’t fit within our preconceived notions of
who’s properly included. We too run the very real risk of missing out on something
fantastic, when we fail to stop and consider the unexpected possibilities when they’re
presented to us. We don’t just miss the possibility for new relationships like the one my
friend short-circuited all those year ago. We lose out on the chance for God to work in and
through us, and for lives to be changed as as a result. It’s precisely this kind of openness to
new possibilities which allows for the slave’s healing, as well as for Jesus to turn the tables
on society. His actions clearly say to them that even this slave, and his master, who is
unable to come talk to Jesus himself, are worthy of the love he is shown. “I tell you, not even
in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9, NRSV)

Of Fire And Confusion


“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart…”1
Did the writer of this ancient hymn really know what he or she was praying for?
Does ANYONE really know what they are praying for when they invite the Holy Spirit into
their lives? Think about it for just a minute. It’s as if we are playing with fire, in the most
literal sense of the phrase. Fire is something which requires a great deal of respect. Yes, it
can be life-giving. But one misstep, one puff of wind blowing the wrong way, and we’ve got
the potential for a major disaster on our hands. Fortunately, destruction was the last thing
on God’s mind when God sent the Holy Spirit blowing through Jerusalem with the rush of a
hot wind, and enflamed the hearts of Jesus’ followers. The end result was a lot like what’s
left after a forest fire. Once the smoke has cleared, it does not take long at all for the forest’s
ecosystem to start rebuilding itself. Often, that new life can be hard to see if we’re not
looking for it intentionally. A colleague who went hiking in a recently burnt area of
Montana describes it this way:
“… The charred remains of spruce, lodgepole pine, and fir were all that I could see.
Burned sentinels of formerly majestic trees rose ahead and above us, and those no
longer standing littered the forest floor as if some great force had arbitrarily tossed
1 “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985), 504.
them and let them lay where they fell… Amidst the desolation, I began to see that
life was everywhere, pushing upward in infinite detail, where, previously, my vision
had been limited only to what was most obvious to the eye. I caught a glimpse of a
mule deer, drawn to the open terrain by the lush, waist-high vegetation now
growing in the sunlight. Fireweed, a lovely plant with lavender and pink flowers that
grows in just such burned-over land, was everywhere around us. How had I missed
it?... I had not seen it in part because I had not paid attention to the moment and to
the larger, more complex picture it contained. Focusing only on the blackened trees
straight ahead and above me, I failed to see the profusion of life flourishing right
beneath my feet. Seeds of lodgepole pines needed only the intense heat of the fire to
release their inner Chi—the deepest, essential life breath and energy—but I had
both literally and metaphorically not seen the emerging new forest for the desolate,
burned trees. Indeed, flourishing was everywhere, in stark contrast to the all too
evident reminders of what had been, on the surface, a very challenging time for this
forest ecosystem.”2
We don’t know too much about wildfires here in coastal Rhode Island. However, we
do know a few things about hurricanes and flooding rainstorms. So many of you still talk
about the infamous 1938 hurricane which killed several of our parishioners. More recently,
there are still many people in Westerly who don’t have adequate housing almost four years
after Hurricane Sandy struck. Similarly, the aftermath of the biggest flood of ancient history
– you know the one, where Noah built an Ark and brought an entire zoo with him, without
2 Bill Harkins, “Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed.” http://www.atthispoint.net/articles/transitionresilience-
and-fireweed/232/.
asking his wife’s opinion first – is what the people living in Shinar knew all too well about.
For some of them, that epic flood might well have been in living memory, or at least had
been their parents’ favorite story to tell them about the bogeyman living in their closets:
“Go to sleep, or God will flood this bedroom!”
Underneath that, however, is a real anxiety over how this community, which had
suffered so much physical damage and still needed to do some rebuilding, will make its
name for future generations to remember. It’s more than just their legacy that they’re
concerned about. They’re also nervous about what this walled city, with the baked-brick
and bitumen ziggurat at its center, communicates about the character of the people living
there.3 Instead of leaving something which tells their descendants that their greatness
extended all the way to heaven, what they’ve done is the exact opposite of guaranteeing the
security they crave. In building their walled city, they’ve separated themselves from the
rest of the world. And their reward is exactly as they feared: “So the LORD scattered them
abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” (Genesis
11:8, NRSV)
Oops.
They did exactly what my colleague had started to when he looked up at the
destroyed forest, and saw only the charred remains of the trees. By focusing only on their
own self-definition, they missed the important stuff, the signs of life they could only find by
looking down at one another. Instead, they looked up at heaven and thought the best way
to access it was by building a skyscraper. What they didn’t realize was that the skyscraper,
3 Dennis Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts: Genesis 11:1-9.”
http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cpentecostot.html#text.
as big as it may have been by their standards, was nothing at all by God’s standards. And
maybe, just maybe, God really intended for them to focus on something other than what
they could build with their own hands and wills. That something was, and still is, authentic
relationship with God and with one another. Living into those relationships requires
breaking down walls, not building them. Whether they are literal walls made of stone and
mortar, or figurative ones constructed from our own pride, anxiety, and/or need for
control, they have the same function of getting in the way. And that is the point of this
story: that the very things which drive us to define the world in our own way result in a
world where communication and authentic relationship are impossible.4
God’s sending Jesus, and then the Holy Spirit, are meant to fix that problem. Jesus
showed us how to love one another with no regard for our own welfare. And then, after he
left, he sent us another Advocate, to be with us forever. It’s this mysterious Spirit of Truth
Jesus was talking about, and it arrives on the scene in spectacular fashion. It blows into
town like the wind, and manifests itself among the disciples with tongues of flame. If that
isn’t enough, everyone who was present received the further shock of hearing the Gospel
message spoken in their own native languages. It was absolutely chaotic, to the point where
some in the crowd thought they were witnessing a giant frat party still in progress from the
night before. Nobody knew what it meant. It was not until Peter explained it to them that
they truly understood that God had some something astounding. Later in the chapter, we
are told the crowd was, “cut to the heart” and left to ask Peter just what they were
supposed to do about it (Acts 2:37, NRSV).
4 Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts.”
This is not a comfortable situation. Nor is it meant to be. As Peter and the rest of the
disciples already knew, the Holy Spirit has a particular knack for stirring up trouble. This,
its first appearance, is no exception. In addition to the people in the crowd who grumble
about the disciples’ already being drunk at 9 am, there are some 3000 others whose lives
are suddenly changed forever by this encounter. The heat of the Spirit’s fire and wind
cracked open their hearts. In doing so, it opened them to a whole new way of life – one
lived in the hope and light of the Resurrection, and devoted to, “the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, NRSV).
They were not promised it was going to be easy, or that their saying yes would
guarantee their safety. What they were promised, however, were two things: one, a way of
being God’s people which placed sacrificial love for one another ahead of strict adherence
to the Law; and two, perhaps most importantly, that they would never be left alone. That
promise is still very much in effect now, some 2000 years after it was made. As was the
case for our ancestors, the Spirit’s celestial fire will crack us open, too, if we lower our
defenses long enough to let it. Just like with those lodgepole pine cones in Montana, it’s key
to our long-term survival. That is, if we have any intentions at all of helping the Gospel to
take root and grow outside of these walls. By catching just a tiny bit of its heat and energy,
we receive the opportunity to be planted in the soil and thus to share the gift of the new life
with a world which still desperately needs it. And if, like my colleague, we can stop just long
enough to look more closely at our surroundings, we just might catch a glimpse of it,
growing in our midst.

Peter's Buffet

The Rev. Amy Spagna Easter 5C – April 24, 2016 Acts 11:1-­‐‑18,   John 13:31-­‐‑35

 

When I was in elementary school, I was a proud card-­‐‑carrying member of the Lunchbox Crew. The privilege of buying lunch in the cafeteria, instead of bringing it from home, was a rare treat. Usually that meant my sainted mother hadn’t had time to bake bread for sandwiches. Regardless, the dollar she handed me on the way out the door on those days meant getting to savor the opportunity to stand in line with the other kids, peering over the sneeze guards to see what the cafeteria ladies were serving up. One of their more wonderful offerings was a triple-­‐‑decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the best any kid could want – the kind where the peanut butter oozes out the sides and the middle layer of bread somehow just got subsumed into what it was trying to hold together. On one non-­‐‑lunchbox day when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I had my heart set on one of those PB&J’s, so much so I could almost taste those gooey layers by the time our class’ lunchtime rolled around. So you can imagine my shock and horror when there magically appeared on my tray… a meatball sub. Meatballs?! On a hot dog bun?! What a disaster! Now, I’d been taught to accept what I was served gratefully, but by the time the line snaked its way up to the cash register, I was really distraught. How could I possibly eat such a thing as a meatball sandwich, even though I was having trouble finding the words to ask for what I really wanted?

We find Peter in more or less the same spot today. While he’s not standing in a school cafeteria line, he does have to try to make sense out of something which, at first glance, doesn’t make much sense at all. He’s had a vision, from God, in which he’s presented with a buffet of proteins to make any chef envious. However, there is nothing on that buffet which he can eat, thanks to his adherence to Jewish dietary laws. If he touches any of it, he will become ritually unclean. It’s absolutely repulsive, and unthinkable to him, until the voice from heaven tells him 3 times that he can have whatever he wants, without penalty. Once Peter snaps out of the trance which produced this vision, he’s puzzled. While he does know there’s a real-­‐‑world application for what he’s just seen, initially he is not sure what that is. His confusion is only lifted after three messengers arrive, and ask him to go and visit with the Roman centurion Cornelius. While he is a Gentile, Cornelius is, by all accounts, an, “upright and God-­‐‑fearing man, who is well-­‐‑spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts10:22, NRSV). The very next day, Peter goes with these messengers to meet with Cornelius. What he finds is exactly as the messengers describe: a Gentile who has come to believe in Christ, and whom Peter can find no reason not to baptize.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, and has to report all this to community there, the consequences are nothing less than staggering. The conservative Jewish Christians who made up most of the membership were uneasy at best when it came to interacting with Gentiles. However, Peter’s story serves to completely change their understanding of who Jesus is, including who Jesus is FOR. The vision of the buffet, along with the baptism of Cornelius, vision has hammers home the theme that Jesus is for EVERYONE, regardless of whatever heritage they may claim. Peter is among the first to recognize that it does not matter: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

It’s a devastating realization for him, and for those who were listening… because it requires changing, fundamentally, their understanding of “community” – beginning and ending with the God who was the reason for its being. The Early Church really struggled with the issue of who should be included as a “real” follower of Jesus. Fortunately for us, they were led to the conclusion that the old rules about belonging didn’t hold water any more. They’ve been superseded by Jesus’ death and resurrection – events which served to open up yet another pathway to God for anyone who came to believe in him.

This episode also serves to demonstrate how Peter, and the rest of the disciples, have taken Jesus’ final commandment to love one another to a whole new level. By hearing, and acting on, God’s direction to welcome Gentiles into their community, they’ve pushed its boundaries outward. They’ve put into practice the realization that this commandment is not intended only as the introduction to a long, final lecture given to a select group of graduate students. The Resurrection, and subsequent spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world like wildfire, have transformed into a do-­‐‑or-­‐‑die thing. Peter’s vision only reinforces the reality that there is no choice in loving one another in the same way God loves us. It is THE requirement for joining the ragtag group of disciples which had gathered to break bread with Jesus. Of course, there is one small catch. The kind of love Jesus talks about here is the kind God shows for the world, not the friendly kind of affection you and I might feel for each other. The English language does not easily distinguish between them.

However, there are two different verbs for “love” in Greek: phileo, to be fond of others as I am fond of my human friends; and agapao, to love another to the point of death, as God loves us. Jesus uses agapao appears three times in delivering this final directive. The repetition serves to hammer home that his intention – and that of his Father -­‐‑ is that his disciples love one another with the same reckless abandon as he does.  To do so does not mean entertaining a sweet, sentimental feeling. Instead, it requires taking the action of putting one’s love into a lived context.1

For Jesus, that meant allowing himself to be murdered in a very public and brutal way, and then allowing God to take care of the rest. Peter’s realization, not all that long afterward, points to how the consequences are universal, and not limited to a group of people which had come to believe in God in a particular way. God’s love is given freely, without being restricted to a specially chosen group of people, and at the expense of others. In Peter’s context, that means it applies to those who do not share his Jewish heritage. And, it’s up to him to help open the doors and welcome them into the Christian community. It’s a really audacious claim to say that God chose everyone, not just a small group. By making it, Peter runs the real risk of getting the boot from his leadership position, having people call him a heretic, or worse. Fortunately for him, his audience believes him, and is willing to act on the basis of that belief. But, it doesn’t come without a fundamental change in their understanding of God’s very nature – a change which can be very tough to process on an intellectual level. That tough processing can all but shut down the rest of the system while it’s happening. Once it’s done, however, what we’re left with is a way of being which has a tendency to make us so much more than what we are – if only we will allow God to take what we have, bless it, break and share it.

Embracing this new kind of life is inherently risky. It involves far more than just whether we get meatballs when we want a PB&J (and didn’t tell anyone about it!), or whether we can go right ahead and pick up that lobster with a side of   bacon-­‐‑wrapped

1 Karyn Wiseman, “Commentary on John 13:31-­‐‑35.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1621

scallops. We risk that our long-­‐‑held assumptions about who we are, both as a community and as individuals, might be challenged and overturned. Despite the new and improved version we get back in the process, losing a piece of our identity is no picnic. We are still challenged to engage with people who are, for all intents and purposes, outsiders of one sort or another. Just as Peter was, we are called to be very deliberate about including them. They are EVERYWHERE – most especially, they are the ones who don’t look, or talk, or act like us, or who aren’t “from here.” What we lose in daring to be in authentic relationship with them is our own fear over how the peanut butter will be chunky when we expected creamy, or the jelly will be grape when we wanted strawberry. Instead, we get so much more: the endless buffet of knowing, serving, and loving other people as God loves us.

Love In Action

Easter 3 Year C 2016

The Rev. Sunil Chandy

Christ Church Westerly, RI

 

 

There is a moving scene in the play, Fiddler On The Roof.

Tev yev asks his wife, "Golda, do you love me?"

"Do I what?" she replies

"Do you love me?"

Golda looks at him and responds: "Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you're upset, you're worn out, go inside, go lie down, maybe it's indigestion."

Tev yev interrupts and asks the question, "Golda, do you love me?"

Golda sighs as she looks at him and says, "Do I love you? For 25 years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cows. After 25 years, why talk of love right now?"

 

Tev yev answers, "Golda, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared, I was shy, I was nervous."

"So was I," said Golda.

"But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other, and now I'm asking, "Golda, do you love me?"

"Do I love him?" Golda sighs. "For 25 years I've lived with him, fought with him, 25 years my bed is his! If that's not love, what is?"

"Then you love me?" Tev yev asks.

"I suppose I do!" she says.

"And I suppose I love you too!" he says. "It doesn't change a thing, but after 25 years it's nice to know."1[1]

 

In the Gospel today Jesus asks Peter the same question. And It’s interesting to note that this is last story in John involving the disciples and it occurs in the same place where the disciples first met Jesus in John -- on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But today’s story picks up with Peter and 6 of the other disciples going back to their old occupations. Back to their old way of life. And once again Peter was back in his old fishing boat. But it wasn’t a very exciting return. They had spent the entire night fishing, but they had caught nothing.

 

I am sure that through that long and frustrating night.  Peter and the others must have remembered another time on the same sea shore almost three years earlier when Jesus said "Come, follow me and I will make you a fisher of men." A time when a itinerant holy man, gave them new hope, a new direction, new life, a new purpose.  Then suddenly, John was pointing toward the shore. Peter looked and saw someone and asked, "Who is it?""Can't you see?" cried John. "It's the Lord!" Then Peter recognizes Jesus.  The scripture is detailed, and it reminds us that Peter was naked, he put on some clothes and then jumped in the water. 

 

Later, when Peter and Jesus at a quieter moment, Jesus asks a question that goes to the heart of Peter. He asks: "Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?" Then two more times Jesus asks this question: "Simon, do you love me?"

And three times Peter responds by saying: "Yes, Lord, you know I love you."

And three times Jesus commissioned Peter: "Feed my sheep!"

 

Now I know that preachers may have an inclination to focus on the three questions that Jesus asked, or the three responses of Peter or the challenge of Jesus to "feed my sheep." But today I would like to focus on how Jesus dealt with Peter.  Because I think it offers us a model that would help us an Easter people to grow in our spirituality.  And in turn to help the world grow deeper in spirituality. 

 

It important to see how Jesus handles Peter – he handles him in a loving way. Love is something we in the church talk great deal about, it is an ideal that we romanticize about. We all agree with Dione Warwick when she sang “what the world needs now is love sweet love.”  It is something we know we need more of. But by watching Jesus deal with Peter along that shore of the Sea of Galilee, we get a good clear picture of love in action. [2]

 

I am sure that as Peter found himself in period of profound awkward silence. There must have been feelings of guilt felt by Peter. Remember scripture describes Peter as a big, impulsive, guy with an even bigger heart.  He often said things before he thought.  We remember during the Passion how Peter swore that he would never leave Jesus!  And even when Jesus foretold Peter’s denial.  Peter kept insisting that he would never deny Jesus.  And yet in Fear he did deny his friend, teacher and Lord Just when he needed him most!

Yes Peter was probably trying to figure out how to put the apology into words. But Jesus dealt with the awkward moment by looking at Peter and asking a simple direct question.  Jesus could have handled the situation in a very judgmental way. He could have asked, "Simon, are you ashamed of denying me?" He could have said, "Simon, I understand you lied about knowing me." He could have asked, "Simon, how can I be sure you won't deny me in the future?" But Jesus knew the hurt in the man’s heart, so he went right to the heart of the matter by asking: "Simon, do you love me?" By asking this question three times Jesus might have been providing a way of helping Peter overcome his earlier denials. But one thing is clear ---Jesus dealt very carefully with Peter. Jesus didn’t try to embarrass Peter or to compound his guilt. Instead, he asked a simple little direct question, but a question that was tempered with a love, caring and compassion.

 

When you love, like Jesus, caring and compassion become the cornerstone of your love. Love is not vicious or hostile. Love does not try to compound the guilt. Love doesn't try to rub salt in the wounds of shame. When we learn to love after the pattern of Jesus, we learn to show care. We learn to show understanding.

 

Peter must have been hurting on the inside. After all, look what he had done. He had denied even knowing Jesus. He had shamed himself by cursing those who accused him of being a disciple. He had used language so vile that even the soldiers were shocked. But alone with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, Peter was looking for a way to prove his love. But what could he do? He couldn’t appeal to his record of faithfulness because his record was smeared with shame. He could not appeal to his reputation as a man of his word, for that reputation evaporated the night he denied knowing Jesus on three occasions. He could not appeal to the witness and testimony of his fellow disciples because they knew that when the chips were down, fear turned Peter into a coward. Peter had nothing, absolutely nothing, to prove his love was genuine.

 

But, then Jesus three times asked, "Simon, do you love me?" And three times Peter responded: "Lord, you know all things. You know the whole story. You know everything about me. You know I love you."

Peter had nothing left with which to prove his love. And yet, Peter sensed deep within that he did not have to prove his love. He knew that he did not have to prove his loyalty. He knew that the heart of Jesus would be forgiving for his shortcomings.

 

This is the way the love of Jesus is -- it is forgiving. Forgiveness did not take away Peter's memory of his denial -- he carried that memory with him to his grave. The forgiveness of Jesus simply re-established the old relationship and assured Peter he was still loved. This is the way of Jesus' love -- it is forgiving. In spite of the sin in our lives, in spite of the wrong we do, in spite of the guilt and shame we bring on ourselves, the love of Jesus is a love that is forgiving.

 

A priest once told a story of a woman is in the hospital with a terminal illness. Her life has been lived on the wild side. Some would say it was bad and as despicable as they come. But, now she was dying.

A priest, came to her room and she asks, "Am I dying?"

"Yes," the priest said.

"Does he love me?" the woman asked.

"Your husband?" the priest asked.

"No," she said. "You know who I'm talking about. Does God love me?"

The priest said, "Yes, God loves you!"

"I find that hard to believe," the woman said. "You know the kind of life I've lived. How can you say that God still loves me?" The priest smiled at her question and said, "I'm telling you that no matter what you've done, God still loves you." Then the priest began reading one of the prayers in the Last Rites service in the CatholicChurch.  He read the prayer which says: "God loves you and God accepts you. Your sins are forgiven; you belong to God; You are now with God."

 

This is the message which came through to Peter along that shore of the Sea of Galilee. And it is the message which we need to hear. In spite of our sins, in spite of our failures, in spite of everything we have ever done which denies God, God’s love forgives us and accepts us because we belong to God. And as we accept this love and grace, we grow in Christ, and then we follow Jesus by doing the same in the world.  For all of us knows someone in our lives that needs to know they are forgiven! that they are accepted! And that they are loved!  And folks as we follow Jesus in Jesus’ way, we find ourselves and the World grow spiritually in Christ.

 

Amen. 

 

[1] “Do you love me” from musical “Fiddler on the Roof “ by Jerry Brock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. 

[2] Allen Robert , “Do you Love me” John 21:1-14, Wonderful thought by Robert Allen. 

Doubting Thomas, Revisited

The Rev. Amy Spagna

Easter 2C – April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

 

            In some parts of the Church, this second Sunday of Easter is known as “Holy Humor Sunday,” where the telling of jokes and funny stories is highly encouraged. As the logic goes, since God pulled the biggest practical joke of all time in raising Jesus from the dead, it’s only fitting that we ought to take advantage of the opportunity to laugh, a lot. In that spirit, I have this to offer:

Jesus is playing a round of golf with Moses in Heaven and they come upon a water trap.

Jesus turns to Moses and asks, “Didn’t you do something with water once?” and Moses says yeah, and proceeds to do the trick where he parts the waters.

Jesus is impressed, and Moses in turn asks, “Didn’t you also do something with water?”

Jesus says, “Yeah watch this” and proceeds to step out onto the water, but he sinks almost immediately to his knees. He gets out, gets a running start, and tries again, this time sinking to his waist. He comes out confused and embarrassed and Moses asks, “What was it you were trying to do?”

“I used to be able to walk on water,” Jesus replies.

“The last time you tried it,” Moses asks, “Did you have those holes in your feet?”[1]

            While holes in his feet might stop him from walking on water, they don’t keep him from walking into a room through a locked door. How he gets into that room, where the disciples have gathered and are hiding, we aren’t told. What he finds there is a group of people who are still very afraid of what’s going on outside. The city hasn’t calmed down much after the upheaval of the past few days. While it wasn’t all that unusual for public executions to take place there, they didn’t normally involve outspoken Jewish prophets who claimed to be the Son of God.  The disciples had scattered on Friday afternoon out of an abundance of fear for their own lives. It was a small comfort that nobody had tried to track them down – at least, not yet. But once they see Jesus, standing there among them, everything changes. Rejoicing replaces fear. Even Thomas, blessed Thomas, who demands to see the proof for himself before he’ll believe it, cannot help but confess Jesus to be both his Lord and his God once he finally does. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Yes, the sarcasm is deliberate. For many preachers, interpreting or retelling the story of Thomas is risky business. One of the challenges comes in trying to avoid beating a proverbial dead horse – which in this case, is the theme of “to see is to believe.” While that theme is crucial to John’s understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, if you’re like me, you have probably heard this part of the story so many times that it has become a cliché. Leaving the story at that is also somewhat less than satisfying. So I found myself asking the question of, “what if?” in the process of wrestling with the text this week. What if we look at it from a different angle? What if Thomas actually does understand what has happened? And, what if he were to tell the story himself?

With apologies to the real Thomas, here is an attempt to answer those what-if questions.

“Blessed are those who have not yet seen, and yet have come to believe.”

I’ve been pondering this phrase for years, ever since the night he said it to all of us. We all saw him, and we all believed that not only had he been raised from the dead, but that everything he’d told us was absolutely true. I’m not sure how much of it we really understood at first, though. It took having to go through the awful thing of watching him die and be raised before we finally did get it. To hear from Mary Magdalene that he was alive was almost as big of a shock as losing him was. When she came running up to us, out of breath, the look on her face told me all I needed to know about our lives once again were about to change in unimaginable ways.

I didn’t NEED solid proof of that. What I did need to know, in no uncertain terms, was that there were actual signs of the change Mary told us about. That’s why I told everyone else that I HAD to see the physical evidence that it really was him. Somehow the idea of going and dying with him no longer meant standing up with him and running the risk of falling victim to the anger of the crowds. It had this whole other dimension to it, too. Part of the point of it was as he’d shown us through his teaching and his actions. His work glorified God, so that those who witnessed it, whether in person or not, would believe in him. Of course, it’s not “belief” of the sort that would, say, demand you go to sacrifice a cow to appease a God who doesn’t care one way or the other about your long-term welfare. It means taking on a whole new sort of life, one that participates in Christ’s work and where death is not the last word. As I later heard a fellow by the name of Paul had told some people in Rome, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his, and that new life that we live in and with him is a life lived to God (Romans 6:5-11, NRSV).

Of course, there is more to this new life than simply glorifying God. What we experienced firsthand in Christ’s death and resurrection is where the hope for our own futures lies. While it’s hard to be sure exactly how that will unfold, even with some of the visions floating around out there, the one certainty we do have is that somehow, God has done something new through him. It is that new thing in which we, in turn, are called to participate. Jesus’ giving the Holy Spirit was intended to help us get to that place. Just as the Father breathed life into creation at the very beginning, the Son is doing the same thing for us right here and right now. That’s right, it’s not something that you have to wait for until his return, or even necessarily until you celebrate Pentecost. It is a gift, given freely and for the taking, if you’re willing to make the leap and simply believe in him.

It’s the immediacy of it – this offer of a new kind of life – that shocked me the most, I think. We all had problems with the idea at some level, even before Jesus was crucified. Let’s face it: when someone is talking about being the Bread of Life, offering living water to drink, and saying that the wine on our Seder table is in fact his blood that has been poured out for everyone, it’s easy to think that he’s totally nuts, or that he doesn’t understand what he really means. It also makes one wonder whether he even completely believes what he’s saying. Convincing other people that you’re telling the truth, even if you aren’t, is not all that difficult. But, when I saw Jesus walk into that room, I was certain that I understood all of it. Jesus had been insisting at least since he raised Lazarus that what he called eternal life was indeed on offer. Of course, he didn’t mean that those who came to believe in him could avoid the physical necessity of dying. However, what he did say – and what his own example points to – is that seeing his glory here, on earth, will let us see it again when we join him in the Father’s presence.[2]  It was this that I got a glimpse of in Mary’s eyes on Easter morning, and saw in its fullness when I saw Jesus in person the next week. It was all I could do to get the words out to tell him that yes, I know who he is. 

            The story doesn’t end with my confession, or with the breakfast on the beach a few days later, or even when the Holy Spirit blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost. As my old friend Peter reminded everyone that day, we are all witnesses, along with the Spirit, to what God did through Jesus. And, we can continue to reap the rewards of that as long as we act in light of it. Even those who didn’t see those things directly, and yet have come to believe, are blessed by their having taken place. As Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the more famous preachers of this generation notes, we may not literally be able to take Jesus up on his invitation to reach out and touch his scars. However, if we open ourselves up to the fact that it is possible, the story makes us feel as if we can. If we believe, because believing is all the Holy Spirit needs to bring it to life. Or to put it more precisely, believing is all the Holy Spirit needs to bring us to life, breathing on us the same way Jesus breathed on his disciples.[3]

 

           

 

[1] “Funny Easter Jokes for Adults.” http://laffgaff.com/funny-easter-jokes-for-adults/

[2] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the Gospel of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 240.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing in the Word.” Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 117.

The Prodigal Big Brother

Lent 4C – March 6, 2016 Luke 15:1 3, 11b 32

I have a confession to make. When I read what the lectionary was serving up for today, I wasn’t entirely thrilled. It’s not that I dislike the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s that it is one of those passages of Scripture which seems to have been preached to death, and there is very little which can be said about it which hasn’t already been said a hundred times over. This very famous and beloved parable is told while Jesus is at some sort of dinner party with sinners and tax collectors. Luke describes the scene as a sort of informal outdoor gathering, which makes it easy for some Pharisees and scribes to sneak up on the group to eavesdrop. As you might expect, the aren’t very happy about what they see and hear. Jesus has chosen to break bread with a group of people who are part of the slimy underbelly of society. Despite the presence of these undesirables, the Pharisees and scribes are probably feeling more than a little insulted at being left off the guest list, especially since they were so accustomed to being able to invite themselves to eat with whomever they wanted. However, Jesus never asks them to leave, so the point of this scene really isn’t about exclusion. Instead, it’s about how God always manages to gather up people who, for all intents and purposes, are counted among the lost.

In addition to its hopeful message, what is particularly appealing about the story of the Prodigal is its cast of characters. We can all relate to the father, the older brother, and the Prodigal himself at some point in our lives. For me, as the oldest child in my immediate family, there were times when it was not all that hard to understand at least some of where Big Brother is coming from. Luke doesn’t tell us much about him, except that he’s a dutiful son who’s more than a little upset at the sudden reappearance of his do nothing, no good baby brother. It’s not hard to imagine that he’s feeling angry and more than a little bit jealous over how his father appears to have enabled and rewarded his brother’s bad behavior. If he were to tell his side of the story, it might go something like this:

That idiot brother of mine just what does he think he’s doing?! And, that equally idiot father of mine –just what does HE think he’s doing!? Seriously. Even with his little speech about how he has sinned before God and in front of his family, I doubt Little Brother has really repented. I can’t believe he has the audacity to come back here, after all that he’s done. Well, actually, I can. I’ve heard this before – he’s been able to manipulate our father into getting whatever he wanted since we were children. It didn’t matter whether it was a pet lamb or a silver coin so he could buy some expensive oil at the market. All he had to do was make that pouty face, and the next thing you knew, there was that lamb following him around or that coin jingling in his pocket. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he convinced Father to give him his inheritance a couple of years ago, or that that he’s come crawling back home because he

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wasted every last penny of it. And now, as an added insult, he’s managed to convince Father to throw him a huge party – which of course he NEVER did for me, ever!1

I just don’t get it. I mean, I’m the good one. I’m the one who stayed here, did what he was told, and always made sure he was following the rules. I should be the one to get the reward, not my brother. It’s not that I don’t understand how he wanted to go explore the world – who hasn’t wanted to do that? But to blow everything on gambling and women, instead of using it to buy some land of his own and find a nice wife – that is not OK at all. I even overheard some of the servants talking when I left the house, and do you know what they said about him? They heard he’d had to take a job on a Gentile’s farm, keeping pigs, because he couldn’t get any other work. Working for a Gentile, keeping pigs. It doesn’t get much worse than that. If he were MY son, I’d march him straight up to Jerusalem and make him go through all the purification rituals. And then we’d talk about a proper apology.

Where was I again? That’s right – the inheritance itself and how it’s supposed to help secure the family’s future. This whole mess certainly does not help me to feel any better about that. I only expected to get half my father’s property to begin with. I’m not complaining about that at all, far from it. I’m thankful it’s there in the first place and know we are lucky to have it at all. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if I will get even less than my fair share, now that that weasel is home. I bet he’ll try to claim what he thinks is MY share of the inheritance as his own, too. He already blew half of our father’s money. Why does he deserve a second chance?

I admit it: I’m jealous. But I’m not sure that’s the right reaction to a situation that’s so complicated. On the one hand, our father seems to give my brother whatever he wants, with no concern of whether it’s right or fair. Nobody else seems to have that power over our father. On the other hand, my brother wasn’t too smart about what he did with all the money he was given. He literally has nothing left – well, assuming our father is smart enough not to give him anything else, that is – and so has to rely totally on other people for everything he has from this point onward. The only reason he’s not out on the street is because our father fell for his pathetic, entitled routine. “No longer worthy to be called your son” – yeah, right. Then why was he given the best robe, a new ring, AND the fatted calf for supper?

Father never did anything like this for me. Never. I’m the good one, and there’s no reward for that. So what was the point of it all?

The problem with the older brother’s attitude is that it puts his need to be right ahead of the need to be in right relationship with both his father and his younger brother. As Luke leaves it, the older brother has neither of those things. He is right in pointing out the real world consequences for his brother’s actions. More importantly, where he’s gone wrong is in allowing his feelings of rage and jealousy to hold him back from even going to the party to grab a plate and say hello to the neighbors. And like the Pharisees who are

1 Richard Swanson, “A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 15:1 2, 11b 32.” https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/a provocation fourth sunday in lent year c luke 151 3 11b 32/

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eavesdropping on Jesus’ dinner party, he’s missed out on two important things. The first is that he was never disinvited from taking part in the celebration. He’s done that on his own. Getting back into the party is as easy, and as hard, as acknowledging that it’s about something much greater than what his anger and jealousy are allowing him to experience.

The second point he misses is just how much mercy his father has chosen to show. It would have been far easier, and far less costly, for his father to send his younger brother away with nothing than it was to give him new clothes and throw him a huge party. The choice the father makes when he sees the Prodigal walking up the road means that he will not wind up in a distant country, without authentic connection to the rest of his family.2 He chooses relationship over needing to be right – the very same thing which is asked of us. And that is exactly Jesus’ point. It would have cost him everything he was to send the Pharisees and scribes packing, instead of allowing them to crash his party. That kind of exclusion from the wide net of his Father’s mercy was simply not in his playbook. And that, in the words of the Presiding Bishop, is what this parable is really about: “...the determined, compassionate, infinite providence of God, [not] the ways of God’s prodigal children.”3

Does the older brother understand that point? Do the Pharisees and scribes understand it? From the way Luke leaves it, we can’t be sure who understands what about God’s willingness to go to the ends of the earth to reclaim those who are lost. But it won’t be long before Jesus makes that point very clear by offering himself in obedience to God’s will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.4

Metanoia – turning to God in the midst of Tragedies

Lent 3

Exodus 3:1-15  

Psalm 63:1-8  

1 Corinthians 10:1-13  

Luke 13:1-9

 

 

Today in the Gospel text we deal with an ancient question that has plagued faithful people through out the millennia. “ Why do bad things happen to people?” 

 

In Luke today we find references to two tragic national events that touched the core of the nation of Israel during Jesus’ time. The first is a Roman military operation against civilians at the great temple in Jerusalem, and the second is the accidental collapse of a structure at a building site that killed 18 innocent people.  Both of these events become the source of a gnawing anxiety for the nation.  How Jesus answers the question behind the anxiety can help us with our own anxiety as we deal with the challenges of our own lives. 

First, lets look about closer at the context of the two events of concern.  Those who have read the scriptures understand that in Jesus’ time, Israel was an occupied nation, under the Roman Empire.  The people of Israel learned to live with this--but they weren’t happy.  In fact there was a religious revolutionary movement referred often in the scriptures as the “Zealots”- and they were ready to do what was necessary to win Israel’s freedom from Rome. The Zealots despised Rome, and Pilate, the Roman leader in Jerusalem. 

And for good reason - Pilate was a ruthless ruler.  In the incident brought up in the Gospel, Pilate shows just how cold blooded he could be.  You see an angry Pilate in response to a zealot uprising in the Galilee decided to vent his anger - by making an example of a group of innocent Galilean Jews who were visiting the temple to worship.  The Galileans who were targeted were most likely not zealots, and were thought to be innocent. Scholars speculate that Pilate didn’t care about their innocence; instead he told his soldiers to go into the temple in the middle of the day, while there were tens of thousands of people worshipping there, and execute these Galileans.  He did this to send a political message to all of Jerusalem:  If you do not keep your region under control, Rome will crush you. So those innocent men were killed for no real crime. They were simply in the wrong place at the right time.

 

Jesus’ disciples wanted to know why these faithful Galileans died in such a way. And in answering this, Jesus brings up another tragic incident - an accident in which the tower of Siloam killed 18 innocent worshiping people.

 

The disciples assume that somehow there was something specious about the victims.  Somehow they deserved to be the center of such great calamity - they had some bad JUJU if not –and why did a just, good God allow their horrible deaths?  Extraordinary tragedy must signify extraordinary guilt.

 

But Jesus responds to deepen our understanding of God’s ways in the midst of life’s inevitable tragedies. He basically tells the questioners that the question “Why God allowed these tragedy to happen?” is not a helpful question - because it is unanswerable. The truth is life is filled with chaos, tragedies, death, sickness, heartache, and yes evil, evil in people and evil in situations.  All of the above are part of life.  

 

Now, this tells us something very important. God is not up there pulling all the strings. God does not control the world in the way we would like God to.

 

But what then does God do?  And what is our response to the action of God. 

 

Well there are two significant words in this passage - “Repent” and “Perish”.

 

The word “Repent” is translated from the Greek word “Metanoia”.  It means to do an about face, to turn around from the path one is heading in, and further in the context of the New Testament scripture, it means to turn back to God.  This is important because when most people face tragedies in life, they turn inward - focusing on themselves and their problems.  It is natural,…but when we stay looking inward and we lament- “Why me?” or “What did I do wrong?” or “Why did God do this to me?”, we find ourselves without hope and without access to power that can most help us. 

 

This is why in this passage the second important word is

“Perish” - “apoleisthe”- in the Greek.  The word implies permanent (absolute) destruction, i.e., to cancel out (remove); "to die, with the implication of ruin and destruction."

 

So Jesus tells us that we are to repent, turn away from a path that will lead us to “perish” (to be utterly destroyed) and turn to God - in order to live.  To find healing for our soul.  To find peace - even in the midst of the tragedies or our greatest challenges. 

 

Westerly has recently been in the national news because of a young man named Dorian Murray.  Dorian is an 8-year-old living in Westerly who was diagnosed with a rare cancer four years ago. Doctors last month informed his family that his cancer was no longer treatable.

 

Dorian told his father that he dreamed of becoming famous in China.  Some may ask why would he want to become famous thinking it may not be a worthwhile goal, especially for the last year of a person’s life.  But I think it is most appropriate for this child who has lived only for 8 years.  Dorian wants to know that he is significant.  That somehow his young life will have had an effect on people.  That he matters. 

 

And, yes he matters! 

 

Days after Dorian's family posted his request to their dedicated Facebook campaign page he became a sensation on Chinese social media. By early Friday, Dorian's #DStrong hashtag was the number one trending topic on China's Weibo Twitter-like service, with more than 33 million views.

 

Dorian’s mother - I thank God for the response. 

 

I find this story inspiring! For in the midst of a situation like Dorian’s we could turn away and say “Why does tragedy like this happen to a young person like this young man?” We could find ourselves despairing.  This is a path to destruction.  But there is a choice - we can also turn to God and notice what God is doing.  In Dorian’s case, God is moving people to act in compassion.  And in this action God brings life and joy and even peace to Dorian, his parents, and the world. 

 

My friends my hope for you in this season of Lent is that you don’t turn a way from God in the midst of life’s challenges but that you turn to God to find life, hope, and peace!

 

Amen. 

"Cutting a Covenant"

Cutting a Covenant
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Lent 2C – February 21, 2016 Genesis 15:1 12, 17 18

Everywhere I’ve looked this week, it’s seemed like the dual currents of, “That isn’t fair!” and “I’m really anxious!” have been in the water. This nation lost a sitting Supreme Court justice, and a great deal of hand wringing and political wrangling over his replacement began only hours after the news of his death broke. Closer to home, the headlines are filled with stories detailing the ongoing arguments about how to finance badly needed repairs to Rhode Island’s bridges and roads. And on a personal note, my friend Rachel, who was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer a little less than two years ago, got yet another piece of not so good news about the progress of her treatment. There is so much about her situation which is definitely not fair. Needless to say, it’s grown into a major cause for worry for all of us who know and love her. Those of us in that circle who are people of faith have often found ourselves asking not only where God is in all this, but also how God could possibly leave us all without the abundance of long friendship that was promised when we met as college freshmen. The only consistent answer we’ve gotten has been along the lines of, “Don’t be afraid, because I’m in this with you.” At times, it’s felt like a kind of cold comfort, though in the absence of some miracle cure, it’s about all we have to go on.

We find Abram in much that same boat this morning. Having wandered far from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans on nothing more than a promise of land and descendants, he’s been left to wonder if those things will ever come to fruition in his lifetime. The blessings and the promises he’s received up to this point on his journey are all fine and good. However, they aren’t enough to make Abram feel more secure about his future and that of his family. It’s not a surprise that he’d be thinking about it, at his age. At this point in the story, he’s already 75 years old. His wife Sarai is 65. Both of them are ancient by the standards of their day, so it’s easy to imagine they are thinking about it, hard.

It’s not that their travels have left them with nothing. They have substantial wealth in the form of their herds, as well as the belongings and human resources they’ve brought with them. By the standards of their day, they are fairly well off. And yet, they are still missing something. Abram’s chief complaint is that all this wandering through the desert has left him without the one thing he really wanted, and that was a blood heir. That he’s without one is not ideal, though is not the end of the world. He does have a contingency plan in the person of Eliezer of Damascus, who is a slave in Abram’s household. However, that he’s had to make this plan really bothers him. He’s not afraid to let God know it, either. In a very short span, he says twice, “You have given me no offspring!”

With this statement, it’s almost as if Abram is accusing God of failing to live up to God’s end of the bargain. I imagine the lead up to the conversation we just overheard between the two of them might have gone something like this: “Hi, God. It’s Abram – you know, the guy you asked to leave the security of his home a few years ago. What exactly are you doing here? I’ve walked thousands of miles and narrowly avoided getting into serious

trouble a few times to boot, all because you promised me land and children. I’m kind of tired, and could really use a break – or at least, some sign that you’re still out there and are going to hold up your end of this bargain.”

And so God appears to Abram in a vision, where we get the meat of Abram’s complaint. It’s a very serious thing to try to charge God with not keeping God’s end of the bargain – which is the heart of what Abram is trying to say. His words stem from something common to the human condition, and that’s fear. I don’t mean the kind of fear which leads us to run away from an animal with large claws and big, sharp, pointy teeth. The kind of fear Abram expresses here is the existential sort which makes us wonder what we have to show for everything we’ve done, and if any of it mattered at all. His question is that of a man who is wondering what his reward is for being faithful to this God who’s pulled him out of his home and asked him to wander thousands of miles “to a land I will show you.” If he’s going to feel better, Abram HAS to know how God can be trusted, particularly when God’s sense of timing in fulfilling a promise isn’t in sync with Abram’s sense of what’s proper.1 I’m also told that Abram’s response to God’s initial appearance in his dream can be paraphrased as, “Really?” complete with all the curiosity and frustration it implies. God has yet to make real the promise of descendants, so maybe Abram’s real question is, “What will you give me? Is my reward to be something other than children?”2

God’s response? Don’t worry! “You won’t be able to count how many children you will have!”

And Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, NRSV)

This tells us as much about God’s character as it does Abram’s, and that’s how both of them are pretty darned good at keeping promises. The Hebrew in this verse is ambiguous at best, which leaves open the distinct possibility that the description of “righteous” could apply to both of them. One way to read it is as we just heard: Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness. In other words, Abram trusted God’s promise. In return, God indicated that the patriarch had fulfilled the obligations of his relationship by such trust. But this sentence might also be understood like this: “Abram believed the Lord; aye, Abram reckoned that God’s doubling down on the promise was God living up to the obligations of his relationship.”3

Living up to those obligations is what “righteousness” is about. God knows this, so to show how serious God is about it, God does what is called “cutting a covenant. “Abram cuts a bunch of animals in half, and then God, in the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, passes between the pieces. It seems like an odd practice to us now, though it was not

1 Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 6.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730. 2 Ibid.
3 Ralph Klein, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 12, 17 18” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1599.

all that unusual in the cultures of the part of the world where Abram was traveling. It was commonly used to seal agreements between two vastly unequal parties – for example, God and Abram – with the understanding that breaking that agreement would result in the offending party’s being cut in half and then burned like the animal carcasses. God’s being the one to pass between the pieces places God in the position of suffering the consequences, instead of Abram. It marks God as a righteous God who keeps promises. And as we know, God did finally deliver the goods to Abram, in the form of Isaac and all those who came after him. For his part, Abram was no less worthy. He passed every test God threw at him with flying colors, living to the age of 175 and dying, “an old man and full of years” (Genesis 25:8, NRSV).

At the very heart of the interaction between Abram and God are two big things: faith, and trust. If Abram can see and understand that righteousness is THE hallmark of God’s character, and that as a result God will make good on God’s promises, then Abram can believe and trust that things will come out as God says, and in God’s good time.4 And so too can we put our faith and trust in God’s ability to show up in our lives, whether asked to or not, instead of doubting whether we’ll get what was promised. In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier summed it up this way: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.”5

The ability to be open to the new and unimagined possibility does not automatically take away our anxiety or fear. We have to work at it. As people who claim to have faith in, and be imitators of, Jesus Christ, it means cultivating trust, not only in each other, but especially in this God who has an uncanny knack for being present when it is the absolutely last thing we expect. For my friend Rachel, it probably won’t cure her cancer. What it has done instead is helped those she’s invited to walk with her to learn how we can best be there with her and with each other. It starts with simply showing up and listening, instead of speaking all the unhelpful platitudes our own anxiety about losing her pushes to the surface. It’s even made us stop to count the number of stars in the sky along the way. That infinity is what we’re promised – and it goes well beyond what we have in front of us right now.

4 Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 6.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730.
5 Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2006), 47.

Mapping Your Journey Through Lent.

      

      Today is the first Sunday of Lent and through this season we understand that we are a people invited to holy journey.  A that began on Ash Wednesday when we received a mark of ashes on our foreheads.  On our journey together in Lent we are reminded that we are a people struggling- with our mortality, our frailties – our temptations, fears and insecurities- and yes with our sins- and as we journey together we become a people of God. 

            But there are some practical questions which may pop into our mind.  Questions that all of us ask when we are on a trip.  Where are we going?  How do we know we when we get there? And for our holy journey some of us may ask what makes our journey different from the rest of the world which also travels.  And some of us can be like impatient kids in the back seat who ask “Are we there yet?”  And with these questions-- scripture can help us.   

            Through our scripture and through the lectionary readings in Lent and we understand that the story of God’s people is a story of a people who are always on a journey.  Adam and Eve moving out of the Garden of Eden into the Wilderness, or Noah traveling through the uncharted oceans to find land or Abraham and Sarah traveling from Ancient Iraq to the land of Caanan.   Jacob- traveling alone away from his home and then coming back home with his family.   There are times the story involves God’s people traveling to places like Egypt to survive and at other times they journey to escape slavery and captivity as they did in Egypt and Babylon.

 

The consistent theme is that the people of God are always traveling- where are they going? – most times to the  “promised land” a land which means for them- a place of peace, security, hope- a place they could call home. But the truly ironic thing is that the promised land may not be physical destination it may be something altogether different –because-- in the places they end up – all ways fall short of expectations.  For there is always trouble brewing in Eden and outside of Eden.

Notice even in the Gospel, the moment Jesus is Baptized, the moment he acknowledges his understanding of his vocation as “Beloved Son of God”- he is driven into the wilderness, he begins a journey that tests his call.  But also notice that as he traveled, his sence of security, hope and peace was not some place- Jesus seemed always seemed to be at “home” where ever he went. Maybe because he understood that he was never alone- God was always with him.  This is a piece of wisdom  that each generation of faithful Israelite eventually learn.  It is a lesson that we may learn as we journey with God- if we go with God we are always in the promised land.  This makes our journey uniquely holy!

   

   Today in our liturgy- we began by praying the Great Litany. Traditionally, Anglican Churches engage in this liturgy on the first, second, third and fifth Sundays of Lent, although many churches pray this litany on the first Sunday of Lent as we do today. For us, it marks the beginning of the journey of Lent.  You might have some questions about this litany. 

 

First off what is a litany – it is a series of petitions that are said in a responsive fashion between a leader and an entire congregation.  In the Great Litany, nearly every area of prayer is addressed.. including prayer for the church, the world, the government, and the poor. These petitions are prefaced by a series of requests asking God to deliver us from all manner of afflictions: evil, sin, heresy, schism, natural disasters, political disasters, violence, death, and the list goes on.

 

For those of us who are new to the Episcopal Church the Great Litany might seem a bit peculiar or awkward.   It might seem like we are doing some sort of  liturgical aerobics, yes--it is not a something that is done in other religious traditions. Because really-- what church ever begins a service with ten to twelve minutes of a cappella chanting of prayers while a congregation repeats a refrain the entire time. The chanting is done all while the choir, clergy and lay ministers process into the sanctuary and continue to process around the sanctuary until the entire litany is over.

 

But this litany roots us- to an ancient tradition.  The Great Litany is the first piece of liturgy that ever existed in the English language. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, compiled this litany from Catholic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox sources at the request of King Henry the Eight in the 16th century .  Prior to this point all church services were in Latin. King Henry VIII commissioned this Litany because at the time it was the practice for litanies to be offered in procession through public neighborhoods.  And the King was disappointed that people were not responding and joining in the prayers. He observed that this was because the people “understode no parte of suche prayers or suffrages as were used to be songe and sayde.”

 

It remains to today almost entirely the same, sung to the same chants Cranmer originally assigned.

 

Through this procession of community- in prayer we acknowledge several realities.  First we understand – that prayer is central to our life together and mission in the world.  The Great Litany helps us to see that we need God’s intervention and involvement in all areas of our lives.  It also reminds us that we are on a journey with God and with each other. And it is in the midst of this journey that we let go of our illusion of  control, and empty ourselves to God.  And finally, we understand that regardless of where we are, when we are with God--- we are at home. It may be cliché sounding --but friends wisdom tells us the –the destination is never as important as the journey and who we travel with.   

 

What a wonderful way to begin Lent.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

"What's My Motivation?"

Ash Wednesday February 10, 2016
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Joel 2:1 2, 12 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b 6:10; Matthew 6:1 6, 16 21

The parish where I served in Pennsylvania is home to a large and busy soup kitchen which serves an average 150 hot lunches per day, five days a week. Our guests, as we preferred to call them, hailed mainly from the slightly run down neighborhood just 2 streets from the church building. Somehow, over the course of the 35 years the soup kitchen has been in operation, it has grown into yet another part of the parish community. Ash Wednesday was one of the three or four days out of the entire year when their belonging was placed front and center. Many would come to at least part of the noon service to, as they put it, “get their ashes.” We were always more than happy to have them participating, as long as they weren’t disruptive. Of course, that did happen from time to time, and as you might expect, it was not a happy thing for most of the “regular” parishioners to experience. We were discussing how to manage this challenge at a worship planning meeting last year when I hit on a smashing idea: what if we had a little service, just for the soup kitchen, and then made ashes available to anyone who wanted them after they’d had their lunch? The rector, in her usual sneaky way, looked over the rim of her glasses, smiled, and said, “I’ve been wanting to try this for a while now – perfect!”

And so, when the day came, out to the front steps I went. Almost immediately, I began to question what had motivated me to stand outside on a very cold day next to a giant snow pile and holding a dish of ashes. Had I put the concerns about minimizing disruptions and the discomfort some members had expressed at having to encounter “those” people ahead of our guests’ needs? Was my intent really to create something special, as a sign that we cared at least as much about our guests’ spiritual lives as we did about their having full stomachs? Or was it something else?

The question of motivation is one we should be asking today, of all days. It is not only to be asked of people who “get ashed” on street corners instead of in the context of a church service, but also of ourselves. It is made particularly important by the culture in which we find ourselves, where ever increasing demands on our time from work and school mean we have far less of it to devote to the people and places we love. As the world grows increasingly skeptical of the Church as an institution, it often seems to regard public displays of piety such as wearing ashes on one’s forehead with a high degree of suspicion. In the face of this, perhaps we too should pause for self examination. Why did we take the time to come to church today? Is it because we want to show the rest of the world just what good Christians we are? Are we afraid God will punish us for not living up to our obligations? Or is it something else?

Jesus, too, is very concerned with outward appearances and the motivations behind them, though perhaps not in the way we might think. While he does not go as far as condemning outright the visibility of certain actions, he does ask the disciples to stop and consider that doing them just to be seen is not the best thing in the long term. Religious practice in the ancient world greatly emphasized public observance, to the near exclusion of private devotions in polite conversation. Sounding a trumpet when putting money in the collection box, standing to pray on street corners and synagogues, and disfiguring one’s face while fasting were all ways to send the message to the rest of the world that you were

serious about your beliefs. Because religion just wasn’t done in private, secret meetings and those who attended were often regarded with a great deal of suspicion. The Romans’ paranoia about secret societies, particularly ones that tended to cause riots, would have been enough reason to keep evidence of one’s religious leanings out of sight.1 There was really no way to come out ahead on the issue. If you, as a Christian, practiced your piety in public, you risked being arrested for it. If you didn’t, your neighbors would think you were a bit strange, at best.

Recorded against this backdrop of growing suspicion from secular authorities, it’s little wonder Jesus gives precedence to acts done in secret and without fanfare. He is saying that what we do by way of not showing off our almsgiving, fasting, and prayer to the rest of the world is in fact quite all right. They are a private matter between us and God. No other opinion matters. Instead of commanding us to keep up with the Joneses, these words are a call to authenticity in our relationship with God. They instruct us to make sure that our intentions in fact match what we show to the world. To borrow an old cliché, we have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Simply putting on a costume and acting as if it’s really important aren’t enough – unless that costume and “as if” match what we feel at the deepest level of our being. Or as Jesus tells the disciples, don’t be like a hypocrite a stage actor who’s playing up a character for all it’s worth. Instead, be who you were created to be and just do the things you ought to, without concern for anyone other than your Father who sees in secret and who will reward you.

This does not, however, mean that we should give up our public practices. They are so much a part of who we are, both as individuals and as part of this community, that to do so would mean losing a fundamental piece of our identity. Rather, Jesus means to challenge the underlying motivations for doing them in the first place. We are asked to define our actions not in terms of the wider culture or our own self centeredness, but rather in terms of how they form the backbone of our relationship with our Creator. When faith is practiced to obtain something other than relationship with God – that is, only to be seen by others, as Matthew puts it – that faith is implicitly inauthentic. It substitutes a desire for created, finite goods such as social recognition or status for a genuine relationship with the living God.2 This is not what Jesus wants his disciples to do. It’s attention to what does matter that he’s after – for us to rend our hearts, not our garments, to work toward a place where what we do outwardly and what we feel inwardly about the faith we confess are at last congruent.

For those who choose to receive ashes today, they are indeed an outward sign of an inward grace. At the least, they communicate to the other people around us that there is something more to our interior lives than they might have thought. What those ashes are not is some sort of temporary disfigurement designed to tell the world that we’ve checked off the, “I went to church” box just for today. They speak to something more: our status as a sinner worthy of redemption, our mortal nature, and God’s gracious gift of everlasting life. As St. Paul words it, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as

1 Diarmaid MacCullough, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 159. 2 Rodney J. Hunter, “Pastoral Perspective: Matthew 6:1 16, 16 21.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Lent through Eastertide), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 22.

sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10, NRSV). With that smudge, we are marked as people who are willing to at least consider the possibilities those things contain, for today and beyond. They are for all of us, no matter what our status within the community might be. What’s more, they are infinitely rich, and their reach into the core of who we are is far deeper than any sort of praise or rebuke from others can ever be.

This universality and richness were, I think, what I encountered through the soup kitchen guests last year. There was a real grace present in our interaction, as we together turned that snow pile and stone steps into a sacred space. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we said over and over again, as we prayed for each other and the tough world into which our guests were returning. Anyone walking by would easily have noticed that something else was going on there besides just the creation of time and space to mark the beginning of Lent. Reflecting on it later in the day, I was struck by how much more was present than I’d expected – especially so because some of the guests who’d asked for ashes and a blessing found it very difficult to interact with any sort of institution or authority figure.

By accepting God’s unconventional invitation to stand with a foot on each side of the dividing line between the safety of the church building and the not so safe space of the neighborhood beyond, we all took the risk of encountering something which put us all firmly outside of our comfort zones. In doing so, we came to embody the message that there is something more we all have to offer each other than just the hard reality of being poor in this country, or the comforting message that God will provide an infinite number of second chances if asked. If there is any season of the church year when we are asked to live into that truth, Lent is it. As the Presiding Bishop noted in his latest video message just the other day, “... it is a season of making a renewed commitment to participate and be a part of Jesus’ movement in this world.”3

This is the invitation of invitations, to the party of all parties – won’t you join me?

3 The Right Rev. Michael B. Curry, “Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Message for Lent 2016.” http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/02/08/presiding bishop michael currys message for lent 2016/ .