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/ .

 

Water to wine- the act that welcomes all

There is the story of Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show speaking to an eight year old boy. The young man had rescued two friends in a coal mine in West Virginia. As Johnny spoke with the boy, it was clear that boy was a Christian. So Carson asked, if he attended Sunday school. When the boy said yes.  He asked "What are you learning in Sunday school?" "Last week," came his reply, "our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine." The audience roared with laughter but Carson tried to keep a straight face. Then he said, "And what did you learn from that story?" The boy shifted a bit- it was clear that he hadn't thought about this. But then his face lite up and he replied, "If you're going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!"

 

To the modern hearer, it might be a bit puzzling to hear that Jesus’ first public act in John’s Gospel Is turning water into win-now I know you might say—hey by Episcopal standards that this is an exceptional miracle.  But really water into wine?- In the Gospel of Mark--Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism, in Matthew it is the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke it is a sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth on the sabbath.

 

So what is John's is trying to tell us about Jesus and his ministry in this first story?

Let’s look and see: 

Jesus’s family is invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee and he and his disciples tag along.  As we look into this story we see a little bit of comedic tension between a mother and her son. Reminding us though Jesus is God, he is still a son.  Mary is a demanding mother has faith in the abilities of her son.  So much so she goads Jesus to take care of a problem.  A problem that would have been a shameful experience for the family of the bridegroom.      

 

So what does Jesus do—he directs that six stone water jars which were to be used “for the Jewish rites of purification” to be filled with water.  The water in those jars would have been used for making people ritually clean to participate in the community celebration.  This is important because in the Gospel of John, there is a running debate between Jesus and the religious authority.  Where as the Authorities adopt of posture of following the rules that allowed some to be in and others to be out.  Jesus offers a grace that welcomes all.  By changing this water into wine, Jesus makes a symbolic statement that foretells Jesus’s ministry. Because really Jesus could have gotten water from any where else to may wine from but he chose the Jars of purification and repurposed them for grace.   The jars could not be used for ritual purification any longer.  In other words no would have to jump through hoops to be made clean or worthy to join the party. 

 

John calls this miracle the first of many signsthat reveals the glory of God in Jesus.   In the Gospel there are  6 other signs that reveal who Jesus is.  The signs could be miracles but they didn’t have to be.   For John the signs confirmed belief, encouraged faith, transformed individuals.  For John it is not the miracle that was important- for you see once the wine is gone- it doesn’t really matter how good it tasted but what is significant is that the sign helped the people to discern that there is something special going on- God is doing something and especially with Jesus.   The sign of the changing of water into wine at Cana- lead those disciples who on the fence about Jesus to be confirmed in their faith!  It lead them to a deeper commitment to God through Jesus. 

 

For you see in the Gospel of John,  those who could recognize the signs were people who could spiritually see and understand the power of God as opposed to those whocould not see the signs and who were spiritually lost. 

 

Signs are important for us in our world as well .  We see a stop sign and we do what? We stop of course!   We see the flashing lights of a police car we immediately recognize the sign and slow down or pull over- and pray we don’t get a ticket. 

 

In church there are signs that are brimming with great symbolism, Baptism is one:  when a child- or an adult and the baptized it is a powerful sign, we call it a sacrament an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The sign tells us something about holiness of the act and the holiness of the promise being made.   

 

Sometimes there are signs that are not so positive, this past week in the news we encountered a sign in our Anglican Church.  A sign that revealed a deep division within our Anglican church,  as we wrestle with hard issues of who is welcomed and included by God in our church.  I am speaking of course of the recent sanctioning of the Episcopal Church by Anglican Primates.

 

The sanction recommends that, the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent the Anglican Church on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, and should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committeeand they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

 

The sanctions were imposed in response to our churches decision at General Convention last June to change canonical language that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman (Resolution A036) and authorize two new marriage rites with language allowing them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples (Resolution A054).

 

But even though there is a call for sanctions the Primates called for an unanimous desire to walk together in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. 

 

What we might understand from this sign is that there is still a lot of work to do to reconcile differing perspectives in our Anglican Church. 

 

But in the midst of the great work that has to be done.  Our presiding Bishop Michael Curry and our Diocesan Bishop Nick reminds us, that Jesus calls us to be House of prayer welcoming all people.  We are church firmly and courageously hold to the understanding that whether you are gay or straight, black, white, latino, Asian, young or old, conservative or liberal the Episcopal Church is your church!  And that our church is part of movement that began with the first miracle in Cana of Galilee. A Jesus movement- a movement of justice, it is a movement that acknowledges that God loves us- all of us. 

 

I am proud our church, I have faith in our church – because it is a church that welcomes all with the grace of God!

 

Because friends Jesus has been invited to our party- and his isour community.  And by God’s grace we will by the g walk and pray with those who do not share our point of view.  And by our walk we will  fulfill our vocation to welcome all to Jesus.  And we will be a community that isvisible sign of God’s inward Grace! So that all may learn and believe!

 

Amen!

God Stakes A Claim

 

God Stakes A Claim
The Rev. Amy Spagna
January 10, 2015 – The Baptism of Our Lord Isaiah 43:1 7; Luke 3:15 17, 21 22

Has anyone told you they loved you today?

I bet God has. If you listen closely enough, it’s not all that hard to hear it.

That we are on the receiving end of the most powerful force in the universe is PRECISELY what our words and actions today are meant to demonstrate. That force has called us by name, paid an enormous price to save us, and will continue to hold us as a thing more precious than the riches of Egypt, Ethopia, and Seba combined. This statement is old news. Not only did the exiled people of Jerusalem hear it through the words of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus himself heard them as well, as he sat on the banks of the Jordan after his own baptism. We will be continuing the long standing tradition repeating them in just a few minutes, and again at the 11:00 service, when we welcome four little children into the Body of Christ. In doing so, we will formally recognize the claim that God has already staked on their young lives.

No matter where, or how, we hear it, the phrase, “You are my beloved Son,” is a powerful one. When God speaks it, things are changed forever. Created order arises from chaos. Abraham leaves his home and goes to the land which God would show him. The Red Sea is parted for just long enough to allow Moses to lead the people to safety. I could go on, and on, and on, but you see the point: that God loves the world seems to have a way of changing the course of human history. That claim means we are valued, so much so that entire nations were the price of our ransom, and we are loved beyond the point of human understanding. Our belonging to God is the one thing which cannot fail us, even when it seems as if our lives have careened out of control.1 Although we we are told this from the time we can understand spoken language, it bears repeating: you belong to God, and you are beloved.

We receive the first hint of this message from the prophet Isaiah. This particular section of the book, often called “Second Isaiah,” is thought to have appeared toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. At that time, it seemed an end to this episode of suffering might be near. Some of the people had been allowed to return to Jerusalem to re establish a the worshipping community in the Temple. It gave the people reason to have hope again – hope that God had not totally abandoned them after all. This is a marked shift in tone from the previous chapter, which ends with a lengthy description of how God punished Israel for its sins. The people simply refused to listen; and so, Isaiah tells us, “[God] poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of his war; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him, but he did not take it to heart” (Isaiah 42:25, NRSV).

1 David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624.

But. That was yesterday. Today, God speaks a new word: Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. Just as it was with prior punishment, God is the only explanation for the sudden change in the people’s fortunes. This new word announces an end to judgment and proclaims the promise of life from captivity and death.2 This is NOT the language, or the work, of a distant God who could care less about the people S/He created! A distant God would not go to such great lengths to save the beloved people. Nor would She promise to be present in the midst of life’s trials. And a distant God would most certainly not willingly choose to become incarnate as a part of the world God created.

Isaiah’s announcement that God has paid Israel’s ransom takes on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus.3 This time, we meet him as a young man who has joined the crowd listening to his cousin John the Baptist. No matter which of the gospel accounts you happen to be reading, they all end with the affirmation of Jesus’ special status. Something which looks like a dove appears over his head, and a voice from heaven announces that, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” While John relies on John the Baptist to relay this information after the fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the scene as it happened. Many people had gathered along the banks of the Jordan River to hear John’s sermon and to receive his baptism with water. This baptism was meant to do two things. One, it was an act of repentance and cleansing. Two, it was a key part of preparing for the One who would come to baptize the people with fire and the Holy Spirit. John is one of the few people who already knows Jesus’ true identity. So when Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him, John is more than a little surprised. John isn’t entirely sure about it, though does it anyway. And as Jesus comes up out of the water, that voice from heaven rings out for all who would hear it.

What sets Luke’s version apart from the others is that it raises the issue of who applied the water. Matthew and Mark both are clear that John does it. The two verses from Luke which the editors of the lectionary chose to omit tell us that John has already been thrown into jail for speaking out against King Herod. Yet, his ministry is continued by SOMEONE, at least long enough to allow Jesus and some other, unnamed people, to be baptized. By failing to name a human agent here, Luke reinforces the idea that baptism – and most especially this baptism – is God’s work. What’s active here is the Holy Spirit – the very same one which baptizes us. Because of this, we can have confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing we do can remove the mark identifying us as God’s beloved. What’s more, our relationship with God is the only one we can’t completely screw up. Sure, we can try to run away and hide from it. We can even neglect or outright ignore it, but the one thing we can’t do is to destroy it completely.4 God loves us too much to ever let us go. If you need proof, you don’t have to look any further than the words of Isaiah. Yes,

2 Anathea Portier Young, “Commentary on Isaiah 43:1 7.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494.
3 Howard Wallace, “Year C, Baptism of Jesus: January 13, 2013. Isaiah 43:1 7.” http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/web/OTComments/EpiphanyC/BaptismJesus.html. 4 David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.”

God got angry and punished the people. In the end, however, it was God who deliberately chose to ransom them and bring them home.

God loves us. So what? What are we supposed to DO about that, and how are we supposed to live with that? Fortunately, there are plenty of road maps to choose from. They include the one titled “The Baptismal Covenant,” which is found on page 304 of the Prayer Book. There, we are given five basic tasks: one, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; two, to persevere against evil and return to the Lord when we need help with it; three, to preach the Gospel by word and example; four, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and five, to seek justice and peace, while respecting the dignity of every human being. It’s a tall order. Nor is any of these things particularly easy all of the time. Fortunately, we do not have to attempt them alone. Nor are we expected to. Baptism, like Eucharist, and all the other sacramental rites of the church, are fundamentally an action of the whole community. Clergy and people together are needed to make these promises come to life. When that happens, we are told, Christ will be in the midst of us –and we will see for ourselves what Isaiah meant when he quoted God as saying we are precious and honored in God’s sight.

If there is any nugget of wisdom I would give to Adeline, Kylie, Madison and Kennedy on the occasion of their baptism, this is it: we are precious and honored in God’s sight. There are no exceptions or conditions attached which can change that. What we do here today, through our prayers, a splash of water, and anointing with fragrant oil, is to begin whispering that awesome truth to them. The message that truth conveys also bears repeating for all of us who are promising to uphold them in their new life in Christ. When all else fails – when the world, or the people around us, let us down – that God loves us is what we can fall back on. With that, the legendary question bears repeating: has anyone told you that they loved you today?

"An Ordinary Christmas"

 

The Rev. Sunil Chandy

Rector

Christ Church Westerly, RI

 

Merry Christmas

 

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and for many of us, we are familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. 

 

It begins, with shepherds watching their sheep. There are angels, prophesies, and of course Empires and Kings that provide-the backstory. In fact folks, the very cosmos is involved, as the God is ever present in the story. 

 

The Gospel of Luke describes powerful forces at work because the birth story of Jesus begins a new phase in the struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. 

Between a hopeful vision for the world- a vision filled with justice, peace and goodwill as opposed to a world filled with greed, violence and hate. 

 

But in the midst of this epic struggle, Luke does something extraordinary- he focuses his attention on ordinary folk- like you and me, he moves our gaze to simple shepherds, an ordinary carpenter, a teenage mother, and a new born infant. We watch as they respond in faith to the fulfillment of God’s promise.    

 

And this is not just in this birth story, in the scriptures that follow,  Luke, focuses on Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist, Peter, James and John and countless other ordinary folk as he advances the movement of that Epic Universal Struggle- a struggle that is won finally for Good in sacrifice of that same child who would grow to be know as Jesus.  A man who tells us that God’s Vision of a Just Good World is a reality for us- if we act with faith and compassion!  He reminds us of this even at his death on the cross that for every act of violence and hate-- if we respond in faith and love--the forces of Good will win over the forces of evil!

 

Why does Luke do this? And Why is this important to us?   

 

Because in Luke’s story the ordinary people are forerunners ... of future believers.  And he Luke invites, to relate to the them.  To see ourselves in them.  To understand that we can be like them, the shepherds-- are who are waiting for purpose, waiting for something meaningful to be apart of and to be joyful about.  Or we are like Mary and Joseph  caught up in a violent, and busy world, and  filled with pressures and forces we can’t control.  For you see their world is not unlike our own, filled with fear, terrorism poverty and a host of other problems.  But Luke reminds us that it is to this broken world that God chooses to establish a new way. 

 

And this new way it must be chosen by of these simple folk.

 

In response to the visit of the Angles the shepherds move from terror to rejoicing. Joseph and Mary moves from anxiety and worry to reflection and recommitment to God. 

And our response to the Good news is a choice as well that will help the vision of God to be a reality.

 

Because friends Choices matter, because what we choose to believe about ourselves and our world defines how we live in it.
 
I would like to offer you a gift today.  It is a story that I heard over 15 years ago and it changed the way I see myself in the world.  Its about a boy named Teddy.

 

He was one of those kids! Disinterested in school; wrinkled clothes; uncombed hair; you know the type--a deadpan face; unfocused stare. Miss Thompson his teacher, just couldn’t relate to Teddy. He always answered in monosyllables. He was unattractive, unmotivated. He was just plain hard to like.

 

You know how parents say they love they love their kids all the same. You know that’s not true, sometimes you love some better than others. Well for teachers I think it’s the same thing!  Miss Thompson said she loved the all the class the same way but deep down this wasn’t completely truth. Whenever she marked Teddy’s work, she got a bit of pleasure Xs next to the wrong answers, and when she put the Fs at the top of the papers, she did it with a flair.


She knew better; she had his records and knew his history.

 

1st Grade: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation.

2nd Grade: Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home.

3rd Grade: Teddy is a good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.

4th Grade: Teddy is very slow, but well behaved. His father shows no interest.

 

Well Christmas came and the kids in Miss Thompson’s class brought her presents. Among the presents was one from Teddy. She was surprised.

 

Teddy’s gift was wrapped in ugly brown paper and held together with Scotch tape. On the paper were written the simple words, "For Miss Thompson from Teddy." When she opened Teddy’s present, there was a half bottle of perfume (not the really expensive type) and also out from the bag fell a gaudy rhinestone. The other kids started to laugh, but Miss Thompson had enough compassion to silenced them by immediately putting some of the perfume on her wrist and then holding her wrist up for the kids to smell, she said "Doesn’t it smell lovely?" And the children agreed with "oohs" and "aahs."

 

At the end of the day, when school. Teddy stayed behind. He came over to her desk and said softly, "Miss Thompson...Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother...and her bracelet looks real pretty on you. I’m glad you liked your presents." When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her, for her cynicism and lack of compassion.

 

The next day when the children came to school, they were welcomed a new Miss Thompson.  She chose to became a different person, no longer just a teacher going through the motions; she had become an agent of God. A person committed to loving her children and doing things for them that would live on after her. She helped all the children, but especially the slow ones, ones like Teddy Stallard. By the end of that school year, Teddy showed amazing progress! He had caught up with most of the students and then She didn’t hear from him for a long time. One day, she received a note that read:

 

Dear Miss Thompson:

I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class.

Love, Teddy Stallard

 

Four years later, another note came:

Dear Miss Thompson:

They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The university has not been easy, but I like it.

Love, Teddy Stallard

 

And four years later:

Dear Miss Thompson:

As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were still alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.

Love, Teddy Stallard

 

Miss Thompson went to that wedding and sat where Teddy’s mother would have sat. She deserved to sit there because her faith and Godly response helped to change a young man’s life, a life that would touch the lives of others!

 

Yes my friends Luke is right- it is the faithful, courageouschoices of ordinary people like you and me who will build the kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish! 

 

So Friends, this Christmas, for this year- for every act of violence or meaness that you experience or see find a way to respond to the world in love!  For every fearful or angry moment you may have choose to respond in faith and compassion! For this is the model of the savior child born in bethlahemand it model for establishing God’s dream of a Kingdom of Peace.

 

Amen

 

 

Advent IV "The Faith Of Mary"

The Magnificat:  The Power of Mary’s Choice

By the Rev. Sunil Chandy

Christ Church

Westerly, RI

 

 

Today in the Gospel of Luke we hear the story of Mary the  mother of Jesus meeting her cousin Elizabeth.  She sings one the most beloved hymns in Christendom, “the Magnificat.”  What Advent Season would be complete with out the Magnificat?  Lets look at this ancient Christian hymn or canticle and understand the powerful effect of the choices of Mary and how these choices affects us today.   

 

The Magnificat , also known as the Song of Mary,  comes from the first word of the Latin version of the canticle's text – Magnificat anima mea, Dominum --(My soul doth magnify the Lord).

 

In our Anglican tradition this canticle is usually sung or recited during the main evening prayer service, Evensong—And occasionally at Holy Eucharist as it was today- sung by our choir so beautifully!

 

In the first part of the hymn, Mary the future mother of Jesus -declares her gratefulness to God for choosing her to be the mother of the savior. 

 

The 2nd half of the song expresses the thanksgiving of the nation. God is the powerful one who has destroyed the enemies, scattered the proud, and reduced the rich. The lowly he has exalted, and she declares that he will remember his promises to Israel.

 

The Magnificat stands as a powerful testament of the faith.

Mary’s faith is deep but we need to look closer in the Gospel of Luke to understand how deep it is. 

 

Luke’s Gospel decribes the meeting of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.  Earlier in the Gospel we learn that Elizabeth much older than Mary- and well past child bearing age. Yet as Mary meets Elizabeth we understand that her condition is also the result of a miraculous pregnancy.  Her child would one day grow to become John the Baptist.

 

And as the two cousins meet,  Luke describes that Elizabeth’s unborn child moves within her womb. Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary’s response is the Magnificat

 

I love this wonderful picture that Luke paints for us…but this beautiful Christmas card word image may masks the danger and uncertainty that Mary must have been feeling. 

 

Yes there was danger for Mary.  She is a teenager and unmarried in the small community of Nazareth- and unlike our own, in her community, women were stoned for committing adultery.  In Mary’s birth community one’s behaviors directly impacted the status and perception of the family.  There were enormous pressures to make sure that unwanted behaviors and mistakes don’t occur.  And though Scripture and the church believes that the pregnancy was the result of God’s miraculous intervention, the people of Mary’s community would not know.  So the teen would be hard pressed to explain her situation. 

 

So she was in danger.  This might explain why she leaves her community of Nazareth and travels over 80 miles to see her cousin in Judah.  I can only image the worry and anxiety she must have been going through.  Questioning herself and wondering what to do?  It is in the midst of her worry that she reaffirms her course of action. She will believe in God and She will have the baby and will raise it faithfully! 

 

And as she meets Elizabeth - who is also in midst own unexpected pregnancy.  She is greeted with affirmation, welcome and love.   These two women live in the midst of life that is filled with harsh realities and yet they dare to believe… and have hope---in a God who can do marvelous things even when circumstances suggest otherwise. 

 

This hope that she passes on to her unborn child. 

Imagine Mary singing this lovely Magnificat canticle as a lullaby to her child!  Imagine how that lullaby, and the choice of Mary to have a hopeful and faithful attitude might influence and nurture the faith life of that child.  And imagine it is God that uses that child borne of unexpected and inconvenient circumstances to change the way we see God and the world. 

 

Yes the story of the young Mary is a powerful one for us as well to struggle with our own lives, and sometimes our lives are filled with harsh realities, and it may seem easier for us to lose faith. It might seem easy for us to see only the problems of life, it would be easy for us to loose sight of our faith.

 

This is why Mary and her choice is powerful!  The simple and wonderful faith of that teenage girl shows us that we too can have faith in a God!  And as we have faith, we too can give birth to the Kingdom of God in our lives and in the world! 

Amen

"Of Scribes & Widows" Mother Amy Spagna Nov 8th


The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 24B (Proper 27)
November 8, 2015 Mark 12:38-44

Would this not have made a fantastic Gospel reading for the stewardship campaign? Seriously! One could not ask for a more wonderful scene than this to undergird the idea that all of us have something to contribute, no matter how small. The Temple treasury is having a red-letter day. Rich and poor alike are walking up to the donation box in to put in their contributions. However, all is not as rosy as it seems. Mark makes clear that this crowd contains a lot of wealthy people, and they are putting a lot of money into the collection box. They may even be making a show out of it, so they can’t help but be noticed by anyone who might be watching. Jesus, who’s standing off to the side somewhere and watching all this, looks right past them, and notices someone else sticking out from the crowd like a sore thumb: a poor widow, who has come by herself and put into the box the very last of her material resources. She, and her motivations, could not be any more different from the rest of the people there. Jesus hammers that difference home by pointing her out to the disciples as the one who has truly given the most. (How lovely.)

However, there is a great deal more going on here than just a story about someone who gives up everything she has for the good of the community, and with the undertone of, “That’s what WE should be like, too.This is NOT a story about how the most vulnerable are yet again asked to give up the most, or even about offering something as an act of devotion to God.1 Instead, it’s sandwiched among Jesus’ harshest criticisms of the religious establishment of his day an establishment which seems to have gotten so full of itself that it ignores its own basic rules for how people are to interact with God and with one another. That criticism is meant to point out how backward the world was - and still is! - compared with how it OUGHT to be. We OUGHT to be able to see, and to treat with care and respect, even the most invisible people in the world... and yet, we still have trouble doing so. We tend to get so caught up with our own stuff, our own status, our own whatever it is that we can’t see any farther than the boundaries which our stuff has made for us.

For better or for worse, this kind of short-sightedness is the human way. Not much has changed in that regard in the past 2000 years, which is why this part of Mark is still relevant for us now. Jesus draws our attention to it through his harsh criticism of those in positions of privilege within the religious establishment. He follows that up by going out of his way to point out one individual who embodies everything “the establishment” is not. This one poor widow is a symbol of Jesus’ – and God’s - upside-down way of putting people first who would otherwise remain invisible. That Jesus notices her, one of the invisible people of her day, at all is remarkable, perhaps even more so than what she has done. By putting her last two cents into the donation box, she’s given up everything she has to support an institution which, despite the best intentions of its founders, has grown corrupt.

1 Emilie Townes, “Theological Perspective: Mark 12:38-44.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 286.

In the process, its leaders have also lost the ability to look beyond their own self-interests toward those of the wider community including widows, orphans, and anyone else lacking a male blood relative to provide for them.

Standing in direct contrast to this widow we have a group of scribes, who only seem to be in it to be seen wearing their long robes and to get the best seats at dinner. In other words, it’s become all about them, and maintaining their privileged positions, and not about what they have to serve others like the poor widow. Whatever word we might want to use to describe them, whether it’s narcissistic, self-centered, self-serving, stuck up, or just plain ignorant, these scribes are decidedly not ideal role models. Instead, they’ve become hypocrites, leaders whose failure to put their money where their mouths are opens them up to the harshest criticism Jesus has to offer. Because they are so well-educated, they of all people ought to know what the Law requires of them. Yet, they still choose to act in ways intended to draw attention in the public arena, instead of using their knowledge and power to set a positive example for the people watching them. What’s worse, they’re greedy for power in the religious arena. When it’s given to them, they turn around and use that power and status to, “devour widows’ houses” instead of obeying the mandates in the Torah to ensure those widows are provided for.2

In pointing out the scribes’ bad habits at the end of a chapter where he’s spent quite a lot of time arguing with them already, Jesus turns things upside down yet again. As a symbol of the “down and out,” it’s the widow who demands our attention, and not the scribes in all their self-important and swishy robes. The Old Testament is very clear on this count. The law codes lump together widows, orphans, and strangers into a category as people who must not be abused, lest God’s wrath be kindled against the abusers (Exodus 22:21-24, NRSV). Psalm 94 goes a step further in describing those who do so as “evildoers.” The prophet Isaiah even gets in on the action:

“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,

so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?

For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.” (Isaiah 10:1-4, NRSV)

2 Robert A. Brant, “Exegetical Perspective: Mark 12:38-44.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 286.

Again, the scribes of all people SHOULD know this better than most. Yet, they’ve chosen not to act like it. No matter what excuses they might have given for their behavior, it raises the question of what has gotten in their way: is it the seductive trap of being liked and respected both inside and outside of their “usual” circles, and the material rewards that respect commands, or is it something else?

Since they’re human, the answer to that is probably, “all of the above.” I would bet we all know someone like that and have acted that way ourselves from time to time. Fortunately for us, we are blessed with a whole community of people here to tell us when we’ve gotten to that point. Hopefully those people will also help us begin to make the changes we need to make so we can pull our heads and our hands out from underneath our robes. Unfortunately for the scribes, they don’t seem to have that kind of support as readily available as we do. Jesus tries to get them to stop and look in the mirror, seemingly to no avail. At least, Mark never tells if he succeeded at that task or not. Regardless, Mark’s – and Jesus’ – point is that to see the upside down way of things in God’s Kingdom is what matters. Period. Instead of desperately trying to get others to complement us on our finery, we should be paying attention to the widows, orphans, and strangers all the people we might not even notice otherwise. THAT is how to turn things upside down by the world’s reckoning. The great thing is, that’s right side up when it comes to God’s way of doing things. Michael Curry, the new Presiding Bishop, in the sermon preached at his installation last Sunday, puts it this way: “Yes, the way of God’s love turns our world upside down. But that’s really right side up. And in that way, the nightmare of this world will be transfigured into the very dream of God for humanity and all creation. My brothers and sisters, God has not given up on God’s world. And God is not finished with The Episcopal Church yet. God has work for us to do. Jesus has work for us to do and it’s the Jesus Movement. So don’t worry. Be happy!”3

My friends, we’ve been given a job to do, and that’s to go out and serve the people in our town who most need what we have to offer. Everyone’s got something to contribute. Whether it’s material resources, time, or the embarrassing wealth of talent I see sitting in front of me this morning, we need it all. Our very survival depends on taking it and dropping it into God’s collection box. And just as we will do later in the service with the offering of bread and wine in the Eucharist, we will give thanks, ask God to bless it, and marvel in what God will do with it.

3 “A Sermon Preached by the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry: The Installation of the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church.” Delivered at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, Washington, D.C. November 1, 2015. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/11/01/video-currys-sermon-at- installation-of-the-27th-presiding-bishop/.

Bishop Knisely's 2015 Diocesan Convention Report

Bishop Knisely's 2015 Diocesan Convention Report

We as a people, as a Church and as a community of followers of Jesus are moving into a new way of ordering our lives. It not unique to us, it’s happening all around the world, and we don’t know yet completely what it will look like when we arrive in the place to which we’re headed. 

And He Lived Happily Ever After....

... And He Lived Happily Ever After The Rev. Amy Spagna
October 25, 2015
Pentecost 22B Job 42:1-6. 10-17

One of the TV shows you’ll find on my DVR is the HBO series Last Week Tonight. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s similar to its cousins The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in how it looks at the week’s news through the lens of satire. One of Last Week Tonight’s features is a lengthy essay segment which explores a variety of cultural topics, ranging from food waste to discrimination against minority groups. Several weeks ago, the host of the show, an Englishman by the name of John Oliver, used this time to explore the so-called prosperity Gospel, including how some televangelists manage to raise exorbitant amounts of money by preaching it. This questionable piece of theology holds that what we give to the Church will eventually come back to us, in the form of wealth that’s been greatly multiplied. The promise usually goes something like this: if you give $50 as your “seed faith,” you’ll harvest far more back in return. It’s a little bit like the parable of the mustard seed, except it lacks the part about how that planted seed has to be properly cared for if it’s to grow into something green and fragrant.

To learn more about how this “prosperity Gospel” supposedly works, Oliver decided to invest in one of the television ministries preaching it. He sent the church a letter, along with a donation of $20. Over the course of the next seven months, Oliver received over thirty form letters from the church’s senior pastor in return. The second of these letters contained a dollar bill, and instructed him to send it back with his, “best prove God tithes or your best offering” of an additional $37. (Yes, that’s a quote directly from the actual letter.) Oliver’s comment was, “It’s like being pen pals with someone who’s in bad with a loan shark.He then went on to describe how all of the letters instructed him to return the contents, along with another donation. No matter what was in the envelope and there was some truly bizarre stuff, including a dollar bill which Oliver was instructed to put into a Bible overnight, and then return in exchange for yet another a dollar bill which had been specially blessed the instructions, and the pitch, were the same: “Keep sending us your money, and you’ll get even more in return!”1

That pitch, and the empty promises underlying it, sound more than a little bit like the explanations Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar tried to give him after he lost everything. They spend far too much time trying to convince him that not only is he to blame for his suffering, but also that he alone has the power to fix it. It isn’t hard to imagine them taking the step of telling Job he has to go see the priests at the Temple to properly atone for whatever he’s done – or at least, to let them do it on his behalf. “You know it’s your fault, Job but we can help! Just send us to the temple with the one last shekel you have there in your pocket, and we’ll give it to the priest for you. THAT will make God happy. Then you can put this whole mess behind you and just get on with your life.

1 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, “Televangelists,Episode 49. [Original airdate: August 16, 2015]. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg [accessed October 19, 2015].

Of course, that’s not how it works. At least in part because of the transformation Job has undergone, it is VERY dangerous to look at this “happily ever after” strictly from the point of view of the material wealth God restores to him. To do so is a gross oversimplification, not to mention reduces his struggles to the level of the absurd. As Job himself says over and over again, he’s not as interested in getting back his stuff as much as he is in getting an answer to what God is up to. At least, the happily ever after begs the question of what the whole point of this exercise in suffering is. It’s not a matter of needing to remind people of the fact that suffering is part of the human condition, or to raise questions about the causes and the nature of that suffering. Instead, it’s about how we perceive God’s power and presence within the bounds of our relationship with God. Until we, like Job, can recognize the extreme imbalance there, we too will be left on our ash heaps with nothing more than a potsherd for comfort.

Job’s encounter with God has left him with virtually nothing, except for the faith which generates his complaints. As we heard last week, God is very quick to disarm Job’s whining: Gird up your loins like a man, and I will answer you. Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?(Job 38:3-4, NRSV) Job can only answer this charge one way, and that is by admitting he hasn’t seen God for who God really is. It’s at this point when we see the change that this encounter has brought about in Job. When faced with his status as mere dust and ashes, he can do nothing, except to pause and recognize just how little he really understands about God. The very terms of the relationship have been changed. We can hear it in how Job’s tone softens. Instead of demanding an answer, he simply states the parameters of this relationship: “I will question you, and you will declare to me” (Job 42:4, NRSV).

It is worth noting that Job’s repentance in no way equals an acceptance of God’s judgment, or an admission that he has sinned.2 The Hebrew word translated as “repent” can also mean “recant” or “despise.” I’m also told the Hebrew does not make entirely clear what Job has recanted, or what he despises. The best guess is that it’s his former attitude of taking God’s presence, and the blessings which go along with it, for granted. What he learns, despite the lack of an answer to his question of, “why me?” is there is far more to God and God’s presence than anything he could possibly have imagined.

It’s precisely because of this change that God restores Job’s fortunes. It’s easy to interpret this act as God’s somehow returning the favor for all of Job’s suffering – or, as the letters John Oliver received from the televangelist put it, Job has harvested all the “seeds” he has planted through his faith. What the editors of the lectionary have left out is that this restoration begins with Job’s so-called friends, in their role as community leaders. Listen to what God tells them:

“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the

2 Dale P. Andrews, “Homiletical Perspective: Job 42:1-6, 10-17.” Feasting on the Word. Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 197.

truth about Me as did My servant Job. Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, my servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about Me as did my servant Job.” (Job 42:8-9, JPS)

As leaders, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are called to make this sacrifice on behalf of the whole community. It is the action as prescribed in Leviticus as an appropriate remedy for their having sinned without knowing it. For his part, Job’s prayers are meant to remind him that he, “... must show the empathy that [his friends] had not shown, and leaving his cocoon of self-interest and self-pity.”3 He has to show that his transformation is a permanent one. His prayers on behalf of the community are what we might recognize as an act of radical forgiveness. At the least, they are the actions of a man who has come to see and know that God’s presence in the world is far bigger than the well-intentioned and often trite sentiments offered up by his friends.

The encounter with God is the REAL “happily ever after,” not the restoration of Job’s property, the gift of ten more children, and a lifespan of 140 years. It still comes at a price. It isn’t a matter of pouring colored oil onto a piece of paper and slipping it into the mail, along with a check for $19.95, or even what it costs God in terms of grace to do this. Instead, it’s about what it costs Job to invest heavily again in his family as he knows what it’s like to lose it all.4 He can bear all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios of this risk because of his faithfulness. He has learned that there is not some kind of proportional relationship between the suffering he has faced and any kind of reward he can expect to receive, either in this life or the life to come.

If there’s anything we can learn from Job, it’s that God is present in the suffering which is part of the human condition. All that is required of us is to turn and look for God there, instead of trusting in the empty promise of a quick fix or an overly simple explanation which attempts to place blame somewhere. Those are the wrong questions to be asking or, if you will, the wrong place to put our money. What we should be asking instead is how to be present to, and with, people who are experiencing some kind of hardship. That’s really what we’re doing when we pledge our time, our talent, and our treasure to this community. It’s a pledge to show up, as God shows up, and not to try to convince our friends that their suffering is something which can be fixed without our help. That pledge does not cost us any more than its face value, nor does it have to be put into the mail with additional donations to prove our sincerity. Instead, following Jesus’ lead, we
take it, give thanks for it, and trust that God will make it into something wondrous.

3 Mayer Gruber, “Job Commentary.” The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1561-2.
4 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2001), 142.

"What is true ambition?"

Aquality of our sacred scriptures that I find refreshing,  is that the scripture don’t give us sanitized versions of the heroes of  our faith. Many times the models of our faith are shown to be confused, flawed, judgmental , often  holding on to false ideas of God,- even as God engages them to think, and act differently.   This is a good thing!!  For in the dysfunctions of these holy people of God,  we the modern day reader of scripture see their humanity and we understand that they are often just like us!  Human beings struggling to understand our relationship to God and doing our best to live lives as God’s people in our time. 

 

So today we hear the story of the Zebedee brothers, James and John in the Gospel of Mark.   Christian scripture and tradition shows them as brothers who initially worked their father Zebedee’s fishing business.  But they left all that  behind as they decided to follow Jesus.  Scripture tells us that Jesus calls them the “sons of thunder”  most likely because  of they were ambitious, impetuous, loud, filled with fiery passion which could be often be seen as anger.  Today in the Gospel lesson we see James and John and their raw ambition which causes them to make a power play.  I can’t help but think of some of the fishermen I l know from Rhode Island – you know the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society and Even fishermen from Fulton Fish market in the Bronx.  I can image salt of the earth type of guys—calling Jesus to the side and say, Jesus- rememba we left everything for you, all we need is a little small favor- when we get into the kingdom- you put us a the right and left” 

 

Or even more funny is the same story in the Gospel of Mathew Chap 20 vs 20-24.  But this time, these sons of thunder ask their mother, their mother to ask Jesus this same question of siting at his right or left.  I can imagine the conversation” Ma….”  

 

And in both these passages the reaction from the other disciples is anger.  From the Gospel we can understand that they weren’t angry because the sons of thunder asked for something inappropriate.  But because as Jesus recognized they too wanted special consideration from Jesus.  Jesus reminds all of them that the Kingdom of God

is not one that is built on power and influence and but on commitment to service. 

 

The more I think about this passage I am sure you might be left with questions? Such as- Why would James and John ask for the ability to sit at his right and left?  I imagine they understood Jesus coming into his own Kingdom and they wanted a place in his court, and traditionally those who sit at the right and left of the king were people who had the power to influence the king.  Yes, but why would James and John want power anyway?    

 

Well, All of us have a need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem. The need to know that we are needed, significant, worth something. And some of us may feel the need for others to see us, to feel significant.   Perhaps, James and John were fearful that they aren’t recognized as important or worthwhile and this is why John and James wanted to be at the right and left of Jesus.  The position would boost their self-esteem, everyone would know that they were worthy or more worthy than everyone else,  But wisdom gives us the understanding that fame won’t help them build their self-esteem until they accept who they are internally.  In the passage Jesus reminds James and John that they are called to a ministry, a baptism and through that baptism they are accepted as children of God not because of their position in life.  Jesus reminds them that their call as disciples to serve God by serving the world not Lording over it! 

 

In my mind Jesus confronts their fears with a call for them to trust in a God that loves them and will provide for them even their need for self-esteem. 

 

Todays passage helps me to remember that I need to trust in God to provide for every need that I may have while I am committed to building a better world through the Kingdom of God. 

 

Today we begin our fall stewardship campaign  Deb Dunham our Stewardship Chair will introduce a Stewardship talk by one our own Youth Group members, Peter Kemalis. He is an amazing young man with a heart and mind nurtured in faith in our community.  It will be a blessing to hear what he has to say. I find it inspiring to know that Peter’s parents, Judy and Ed, among all the various choices they had in raising their son- chose to trust in God, chose to raise him in this community of faith.  And by doing so- I believe that our community has helped to shape Peters ideas of God and community. 

 

But I know it was not easy.  It would have been much easier to stay in bed, to not commit to following Jesus on this road to the Kingdom. 

 

But In our call to follow Christ, we are called to move through our fears and insecurities, we are called to Trust even if following God’s plan in establishing the Kingdom is difficult. 

 

This past year has been a wonderful one for me and my family.  I know that God has led us to this wonderful community! And it is a powerful community in which the energy of God is causing sparks.  I see miracles happen here.  This year when my wife and I fill our pledge card we will be thinking about presence of God in our community.  We will be thinking about the energy in this place.  We will be thinking about young people like Peter, who are being nurtured in faith.  We will be thinking about all the people who are who continue to be nurtured in faith in our community.

 

I know that thinking and praying about giving the talent and treasure you have earned-- to God, might be a difficult process for many.  I understand that at the core of this difficulty is fear -  fear of not having enough, fear of sacrificing some of our luxuries or maybe even fear that the money we give away to God may not be used wisely.

 

I understand these fears.  They are present even in my mind as I too fill my pledge card but I also understand that just like James and John who worked through their fears by trusting in Jesus.  I will also remember the energy, passion, and miracles happening in this place and I will remember that we are called to trust and invest in God.  And just like James and John- God will use my faith to continue to build a Kingdom and just like James and John I will participate in that Kingdom with great joy! 

 

And my hope is that you too will trust and participate in that Kingdom with great joy and hope !  Amen

 

Mother Amy: "Giving Up On Privilege" Pentecost 20B (Proper 23)

 October 11, 2015 Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Mark 10:17-31

If you’ve been listening closely to the readings chosen for today, it seems as if they have given us all the ingredients for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, no matter which way you cut it. First we have Job, who is once again trying to explain to his friends that the horrible predicament he’s in is not his fault. He cant even find God to ask the burning question of, Why me?and it frightens him. Following that is the Psalmist’s plaintive cry that she or he is in big trouble and there is no one to help. And THEN, to top it all off, we have the story of a rich young man who can’t deal with Jesus’ instructions to go and sell all his possessions and donate the proceeds to the poor. It is not what he expected in return for his piety. The shock of hearing that he hasnt been doing things right all along all leaves him unable to do anything other than leave in tears. For better or for worse, he is the only one who has any ability to fix it.

Just like many of us at times, this young man cant quite come to grips with the idea of giving up his many possessions. It isn’t the stuff itself so much as it is his attitude towards it. Just as it was with Job, it is all too easy to think that his material wealth is a tangible sign of Gods blessing, regardless of what he’s done with it. Also like most of us, this young man is faithful, at least when it comes to his obedience to the Law. Keeping all the commandments is an essential piece to maintaining his relationship with God. It’s just the right way to live and, it definitely has its rewards, as evidenced by his status as one of societys elites.

These two things, material wealth and slavish obedience to the Law, are the only things which seem to matter to this young man, and to so many of the other people who approach Jesus. It could not have been easy for them to hear that a great deal of what they took for granted wasnt quite right. However, Jesus NEVER tells his questioners not to follow the rules. He simply wants them to remember that those rules are rooted in the need for connection with one’s fellow human beings. It’s in this area that the rich young man has gone off the rails a bit. Jesus’ instruction to him to sell everything he owns is intended to force him to pay attention to those outside his immediate sphere of influence. He can only get access to that region beyond if he isn’t burdened by the many possessions he has. The implications of Jesus’ words are clear: sharing in the hardships and need of one’s fellow human beings is a requirement for life in the Kingdom.1 Or, as St. Paul would later remind the Christian community to whom he addressed his Letter to Galatians, the Law doesnt matter nearly as much as their faith in Christ. At the end of a long rant about slavish obedience to the Law, he writes, For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14, NRSV)

Love of neighbor is precisely where the rich young man has come up short. His wealth is NOT the problem in and of itself. Jesus never says it is. However, what Jesus DOES point out is the huge burden brought on by the young mans apparent failure to use that wealth to benefit his neighbors who dont have as much as he does. Changing his behavior requires giving something up, something he clearly values greatly. It means prioritizing people and relationships over both his stuff and his social status. No, it’s not an easy thing to do not for the rich young man, and not for us now.

However you define it, privilege still has a tendency to blind us to the needs of the people around us. I experienced quite a bit of this during my time in Pennsylvania. While our church was nestled among the lovely Victorian homes in the historic district of downtown Bethlehem, and had been for well over a century, the people who came through our doors on most days were decidedly not the sorts who might live in one of those houses. You see, the church hosts a feeding program five days a week. It was started in the early 1980s by a group of parishioners who simply could not ignore the cold and hungry people they often saw hanging out on the street corner just two blocks away. In the intervening years, it has grown from a team of three serving soup on the tailgate of a station wagon to a restaurant-like operation which serves an average of 150 lunches per day.

As you can probably imagine, many of the neighbors who live in the historic homes are not too happy to have those peoplelined up on the sidewalk outside the church every day and, they dont hesitate to let the staff know about it. The loudest complainer I encountered was the owner of a bed and breakfast at the end of our block. One day, when I was the only clergy person in the building to supervise lunch, he angrily marched himself right down the street and started yelling at some of the guests who were waiting in line. I went outside to check out the commotion, and immediately became the target for this mans anger. I think one of them,he spat, relieved himself in my yard. If I point him out to you, youre going to call the cops for me. You have to control these people, because theyre homeless and theyre ruining our neighborhood.He was not at all interested in my explanation to the effect that all we could do is put the word out to our guests as to what had happened and that calling the police was actually the innkeepers responsibility. Nor was he interested in actually TALKING with the guys milling around and smoking on the sidewalk in front of the church. If he had, he would have found they were mostly harmless, though mostly down on their luck for one reason or another. Sadly, the innkeepers desire to protect his property only served to short-circuit any possibility of being in relationship with the church or the people it serves. And so he stomped off down the block, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Just as it is with the rich young man, the innkeeper’s privileged position in the neighborhood is not really the issue. What is, is how that privilege is used. The question we should be asking where its concerned is this: is it something we hoard only for ourselves, or do we share it with another person who doesn’t have as much?

This need to share points to how our faith requires us to take action. That is, all of those rules we learn in Sunday School are more than just something we are to spout back at our teachers on demand. This is exactly the point Jesus is trying to make: if, for whatever reason, we aren’t able to act on the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors, it makes it that much harder for the Kingdom of God to take root and grow. It seems like a lot to ask at times, especially when it requires us to be deliberate about maintaining relationships with people we might not otherwise even consider talking to.

However, Jesus is asking no more of the rich young man, and all of us, than was being asked of himself in that moment.2 That request is simply to pour out a little of who we are on someone else’s behalf. It will probably not, for most of us, mean the sacrifice of our lives on a cross. What it might involve are things along the lines of sharing our resources with those who don’t have them; or actively promoting and encouraging the leadership of people who don’t traditionally occupy those positions; or perhaps, as many people in our diocese are doing now, trying to understand more fully how their ancestors may have been involved in or benefited from in the slave trade. All of these intimately involve connection with others, which is what the rich young man, the innkeeper in Bethlehem, and I would suspect all of us, to some degree, are missing. Making and maintaining these connections is just the beginning. As Jesus tells Peter, the rewards will be great: a hundredfold now, and in the age to come, eternal life.  

Job And Suffering -- Pentecost 20

Job and Suffering

The Reverend Sunil Chandy

Christ Church Westerly

Pentecost 20

Job 2:1-9, 16-17

 

In 2012 I took part in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, led by Bishop George Councell.  And one night we had cocktails at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem- we are Episcopalians after all

 

Bishop Councell recounted the story of Hotel that was established by HG Spafford, a prominent Chicago lawyer who lost much of his fortune in the Great Chicago fire of 1871.  Two years after the fire, in 1873, Spafford decided his family should take a holiday to visit the great evangelist Dwight Moody in England.  But a business issue caused a delay for him- so he sent his family ahead: his wife and their four young daughters.    On November 22, 1873 their ship was struck by another sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all four of Spafford's daughters. Mrs. Spafford survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in England, she sent a telegram to Mr. Spafford that began "Saved alone.] Spafford then sailed to England; going over the location of his daughters' deaths and after a period of mourning went back into his cabin and wrote the Hymn "It Is Well with My Soul"

 

The hymn includes these lines:

 

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

This verse and the hymn is testimony of faith.  I was reminded of this hymn after reading the first lesson from the Book of Job. 

 

The story of Job is a fascinating and powerful story.  The book of Job is one of my favorite books in the Bible!  I heard my father preach one of his last sermons on Job and ever since this book has been a source of inspiration and challenge to me. 

 

Many Biblical historians believe that the book is an allegory. For it describes the relationship of humanity, to God, in a world filled with great suffering. 

 

The story revolves around the faithful servant of God- Job.  In the prologue of the book about 2 chapters we learn about righteous Job.  He is a prosperous man with a large and beautiful family, loved by all. Including God.  According to the biblical account, God marvels at the righteousness of Job but Satan, a member of God’s court and asserts that Job only trusted God because things were going well for him. Satan argued that if his prosperity and family were taken away, Job would curse God.

And In response, God permits Job's goods to be lost and all his children to die in a great windstorm. His suffering devastates Job, he would not give up his allegiance to God.  God again marvels at Job’s righteousness to Satan but Satan as seen in today’s lesson replies “Skin for Skin!  All that people have they will give to save their lives.”  Hurt him min body and he will curse you! With that Satan was allowed to inflict Job with painful lesions, boils that caused his skin to fall off like ash.  It is at this point that His wife tells, Job, curse God and die. …But he does not but rather he wants God to explain himself!   Four of his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, Elihu come from different parts of the world and they sit with him for 7 days in his grief.  That would have been good but after the 7 days they open their mouths and ruin every thing!  They urge him to acknowledge that he had sinned and deserved what happened to him.  They even argue if he didn’t sin, his children did and he was being inflicted by a just God because of them.   But Job protested in his innocence and argues back that he did not sin and he always offered sacrifices for his children just in case...

 

For forty chapters Job does not curse God, but he does want God to explain himself. In the end, God did come to righteous Job!  But God did not come with comforting words; God did not explain himself to Job.   God instead told Job to “Gird your loins man!  And in an angry toned reminded Job of the mighty actions of God in the universe. He asks Job a series of questions about the universe, the sky, the stars, the beasts of the land and the creatures of the sea.  He asked if Job knew how they were created and held in balance.  Job was throughout these questions simply silent.  At the end of the book God’s reply Job, with humility and trust, accepting that there will be no explanation to his suffering. 

 

Job repents for questioning God's ways. Job again asserts his trust, even the face of the great calamities that had befallen him.

 

The struggle of Job brings us face-to-face with the question that people who face tragedy often struggle with:  Why did this happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this?  And if you are a person of faith you might be tempted to ask what did I do?   How did I sin, in order for this to happen to me?   Or further if I am a good person a faithful person why did God do this to me?  But the book of Job tells us that might be the wrong question.   For it is the question Job asks.  And it is the question for which he never receives an answer it is a question for which he repents!  For life my friends is filled with suffering.  It simply is.  It does not matter if you are good or bad, a faithful Christian or not—if you live—you will suffer! 

 

What we might understand out of this book of wisdom is that God sees our suffering.  It is in the midst of this suffering that God is present. 

 

For us when we encounter suffering, cancer, a loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, frustrations and upheavals.  Even acts of violence, such as the killing of nine people in an Oregon Community College two days ago- an act of violence that was prefaced by the question from the shooter to his victims- “Are you a Christian?”

 

We may ask- why God?  But a better question may be “Where can I find God in this?  And what can I learn from this tragedy?  This challenge? 

 

Job learned at God does care because God comes to Job and Job is satisfied.  For Spafford, who lost everything, God came and was the rock he held onto through the storms of life and the rock that brought him peace.

 

For us God may be the one whom we place our trust in and who helps us through our time of chaos.  The one who directs us to create a better and hopeful world! 

 

 

Amen.