Monday, January 24, 2011

Second Sunday After the Epiphany 2011

In the season of Advent we started a new year in the Church calendar. It was a season, of course, of anticipation and waiting—waiting not just for Christmastide when we celebrate the Incarnation coming into the world, but also the waiting with anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And the readings throughout that season reflected this with the accounts of John the Baptist and his ministry as the one who prepared the way for the Messiah.

Now we have entered into the season of Epiphany—that in-between season which doesn’t get as much attention as Advent and Lent, but is all the same an important season. This is because in Epiphany we bear witness to the fact that Jesus did works which were signs of God’s Presence made manifest in the world. And in these signs, Jesus enlightened the dark world, and drew to himself those who would carry his witness into the whole world.

So it’s no surprise that the theme of today’s Gospel reading is one which transitions us from the precursory ministry of John the Baptist to the messianic ministry of Jesus Christ.

The backdrop to this passage is hard to place, however, we can gather from the reaction and proclamation of John the Baptist to Jesus approaching that John has a crowd around him once again. When John sees Jesus, he immediately confesses that Jesus is the one of whom he had been speaking. And while the baptism of Jesus isn’t recorded in this particular Gospel, John the Baptist recounts it. John even says that his reason for baptizing with water was that Jesus might be revealed to Israel.
Now we all know that this was John’s job—he was supposed to be the one who prepared the way for the messiah, but was never meant to keep all of the glory for himself. What we may forget, however, is that John was a popular preacher. In fact, as we continue through the passage, we see that he even had his own disciples. We get a small glimpse of it here, but once again later on in the Acts of the Apostles.

We’re told that the following day, John was with two of his disciples. Once again, Jesus approaches, and this time John confesses him as the Lamb of God—once again pointing beyond himself to Jesus.

What follows is an extended call narrative in which the twelve disciples are gathered together, beginning with these two disciples of John—however our reading ends with the re-naming of Simon. This is also something which is quite significant, but I’ll come back to that later.Right now, our focus is on this transition from the Precursor, John the Baptist, whose entire ministry was a witness which pointed to the coming of Jesus.

We know that he had a pretty successful ministry—not only did he make enough of a stir to make the Pharisees and Sadducees angry with him, but he made the people love him enough that the religious authority feared what might happen if they spoke out against him. Of course, we also can’t forget the impression that he had on Herod, and that while he had John arrested really didn’t want him dead because he somehow respected John.

So, even though we don’t see all of it here, we should be clear that when John subordinates himself to Jesus, it really is a big deal. All the same, as I’ve already mentioned, we know this was his purpose from the very beginning.

For those of you who were able to make it here on Christmas day, you will remember Fr. Mark Robinson’s sermon about how John was called to make himself like a pane of glass—a window through which the Light could shine into the world. He went on to remind us that this is also our own call as Christians, that we do our best not to get in the way of Jesus being seen, and that whatever we do, it should always point back to Jesus Christ.

So, now in this season of Epiphany, we are reminded of our call to reflect the Light of Christ, manifested not only in the Incarnation, but also in and through us, the Church, his Body.

But there is still more in this reading that I think needs to be explored—because the reading doesn’t end with John’s confession, it ends with the re-naming of Simon. I told you I was coming back to this…

The significance of this naming is to remind us of those moments in the Old Testament when God would give someone a new name. For example Abram is renamed Abraham, Jacob is called Israel, and each time these new names mark a deeper relationship with God. It marks a new life, and purpose.

Jesus does this here with Simon, in giving him a new name he gives him a new purpose in life. It just so happens that this purpose is to be the foundation for the Church.

To be honest Peter doesn’t have the best track record as a good disciple—I mean he’s not even really a person you might put in the running for second or third best. We know him to be impetuous, and quick to do foolish things, like cut off a guy’s ear when they try to arrest Jesus. All the same, at the end of today’s reading we have Jesus giving him a new name, one which means “Rock,” even though at this stage in the Gospel, it seems almost impossible to see “rock-like” qualities in Peter. But the important thing is what Jesus sees is who Peter will become—especially after the Resurrection. Most importantly, who Peter thinks he should be continually gets in his way, and who he really is—the person Jesus knows him to be—doesn’t come through until he’s followed Jesus to the end.

What I think we have in this passage as a whole is an almost perfect metaphor for this transitional time between Advent—and even through Epiphany, and on into the Season after Pentecost. Because what we see here are two of the most important things that the Church is supposed to be. We’re called to make Christ visible by becoming like windows which allow his light to shine through us, and we’re also called to be a foundation upon which the Church can continue to grow.

When I look around this parish I see people who I’ve come to know as faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. It’s not hard to see your “window nature,” and Christ’s light is quite clear in your lives. There is very little—if any—pretense to the lives of faith I see lived out here. And like John the Baptist, you seem to have no trouble pointing toward Jesus. This is a good thing—except for one piece—John the Baptist’s ministry ended with the appearance of Jesus. And whether you think your work is done or not, I can tell you it most certainly has JUST BEGUN.

In these two years, we’ve begun to see new people join the parish and start to become involved. We’ve initiated a relationship with Agape’ Campus Ministries which is not only an ecumenical and diocesan college ministry, but also belongs to us and should be counted as one of our ministries. This is not to mention what possibilities we have yet to try out, in this coming year—because I can only imagine what ministries have yet to emerge for us.

The fact is that we are no longer the St. Alban’s from the years of the original building, when there were people and programs and even a school—and we can’t live in the shadow of that. But we’re also not victimized underdogs—that’s an illusion we’ve bought into for too long. Because like Simon; we’ve been given something like a new name. We’ve been given a new purpose, a new life to mark a deeper relationship with God. We may not fully understand where God is leading, but if we’re willing to work hard together, we can trust that God will not be stingy in helping us get there.

Now it could also be said that like Peter we also don’t have too many people who would bet on us. Perhaps not all of our best “rock-like” qualities are evident right now, and we could choose to allow that to discourage us from ever stepping out and taking chances. On the other hand, we could trust that whatever it is that Jesus knows us to be is what will emerge if can begin to trust, and work toward a common goal.

We have approximately 7 months left together, and the countdown has already begun. What will we make of these last months together? Will we begin to lay the stones upon which this parish and the Church can grow? Or will we wait idly in fear to see what the bishop wants to do here? Personally, I believe that God has some really big dreams for this place, and even now we don’t lack a single thing but motivation to make those dreams come to reality.

So here at the beginning of the Epiphany season, I call all of us to work together to truly discern who we will be, and where God might take us. I don’t mean that only a few people offer some modest ideas that get no follow-through. I am asking for a commitment to common mission, to common dreaming so that not only can we grow into the lively parish God has called us to be, but also become a parish who works in the hope that Christ could be revealed.

As we prepare ourselves then for our Annual Meeting, that time when we take council together and discern the direction for our parish, I ask all of you to truly be present. I ask that we all allow our hearts to be opened in this Eucharist, and that our minds would be inspired to move forward with vigor and strength. I have no illusions that this work will be difficult, and tiring, but if we are willing to be true to what we believe, we can’t fail—we can only learn more lessons for our growth.
Now is the time to search our hearts—will we remain only passive windows, or can we trust that who we are will be revealed if we can trust and follow Jesus to the end.

Easter 3, 2010

Easter 3
For us, who live the story liturgically, today’s Gospel lesson seems, perhaps, a little anti-climactic. After all, we’ve already got our ‘Alleluias’ back, and have heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection… What we forget, however, is that in the narrative, there are disciples who are dispersed and frightened. For all that the resurrection is good news, they still have no idea what to make of it. What does this mean for their lives? Before the crucifixion, at least Jesus was with them every day—now… Now, he pops in-and-out of their lives—in-and-out of their trying to figure it all out—in-and-out of their making sense of their time with Jesus—in-and-out of their trying to get over it, and get on with their lives.
Jesus has already shown up—resurrected and with a body which bares the marks of his crucifixion wounds. He’s made it to everyone at least once, but we gather that in this story there is something that is yet unfinished. For Peter and the rest, it’s just another day after ‘what happened in Jerusalem.’ It’s another day of remembering when he and his friends seemed to have some destiny other than hiding from the temple police. So, like anyone who grieves, he goes back to what he knows—fishing. I suppose even in doing this there is a kind of heaviness
Now, I know it sounds odd to talk about Peter and the disciples grieving, especially since Jesus really had returned. But I imagine everything felt different… Perhaps we’d call it a kind of survivor’s guilt. Maybe they should have been arrested too, instead of running away. All of their emotional wounds must have smacked of guilt, especially in light of the resurrection.
Perhaps if they were just able to keep Jesus around, it could be like old times—teaching in the synagogues, freaking-out the Pharisees. But this time afterward, this time of frustrating confusion about what it all meant, and what it all means must have just eaten them up. And so, they go fishing.
I wonder if they talked about things in terms of “Post-Resurrection.” It’s such a world changing event that it must have reached into every part of their lives. I suppose there wasn’t a place they could go, a thing they could do that didn’t remind them of that week in Jerusalem. But how do you come back? How do you come back from an event that so reshapes the soul of your world?
It’s really not that hard to put ourselves in their place. Both individually and corporately we carry with us a story and a variegated timeline which has made us who we are now. For each us there are certain things which have shaped who we are and how we understand the world. These may be things like our Baptism, graduations, the birth of a child, whatever. But they are the things by which we mark our personal timeline.
And, for all of us, there are shared experiences—historical moments which have so transformed our cultural memory that they are the things by which we mark the story of humanity. September 11, 2001 immediately comes to mind—but even things like the American Civil Rights Movement, the end to Apartheid in South Africa—all of these events and many others shape us as the human community.
So we haven’t very far to go to understand what the disciples might have felt. And just as we might do, they go back to what they know. They seek the comfort of the mundane, and the safety that comes with familiarity. But there is something different on this particular day. On this day, Jesus stands on the shore and calls to them and his features are barely discernable by virtue of darkness or distance. But somehow, they know who he is, and John says so. And as is typical of Peter, he responds with immediate action, and jumps into the water and swims to shore to find Jesus waiting.
We can see that it is a strained meeting, but it’s a good meeting. All the cards are on the table for Peter, and I’m sure that he can’t help but notice the irony of the coal fire. After all, it was while warming himself near a coal fire that Peter denied Jesus. But here at this fire, there is only acceptance, meaning and closure.
Rather than a discussion about betrayal, Jesus offers breakfast. Rather than a harsh rebuke, Peter is given a commission to feed the Lord’s sheep.
That day they had gone fishing because it seemed that there was not much else left for them. It wasn’t so much that the glory of the resurrection had worn off for them, rather it was just not that easy to figure out where it fit. So, for these disciples, who lived the narrative, all of the pain, the loss, the victory was hard won and in real time; because for them it was a matter of living through a series of life altering experience.
For those of us who try to ‘live into’ the Gospel story, and even moreso the Season of Easter, we may find it somehow contrived. The feeling of awe, or even the experience of overwhelming guilt turned to gratitude that we see in this narrative may seem too far away. Maybe it’s just that we’re doing our best to recover from the marathon of services in Holy Week. But what we cannot fail to understand is that the power of the Easter story is such that it cannot be contained in a day, a season, or even a lifetime.
By virtue of our liturgical observance, and stories like today’s Gospel reading, we are reminded of the lasting power and surprise of the Easter mystery. But the power of that mystery cannot be fully realized unless we allow it. And if we do allow ourselves to be changed by the power of Christ’s resurrection, we allow our story and our personal timeline to be marked. A thing which transforms us wholly.
It is still the Easter Season, and we are always a Resurrection People, in season and out. For the redeemed in Christ, there cannot be a lack of awe and gratitude for the gift of the Easter mystery. After the resurrection, we try our hardest to go back to our normal lives—just like Peter, Nathanael and Thomas. But there is no going back. Because even when we try to go back to the familiar, we find that it is anything but familiar, because it is there that Jesus will inevitably show up. And for all of our forgetfulness, our lack of faith, and even our betrayal, Jesus is there to love and forgive and offer renewed meaning to our lives.

Good Friday 2010

“It is finished” With these words, Jesus completes the work which God has ordained for him, and thereby punctuates the Passion story. Three words for us, yet in the original Greek, simply one…’tetelestai.’
I mention this not as a scholar or grammarian, rather as one who is amazed at how imprecisely we render the word in English. Paying attention both to the temporal effect, and everlasting significance, the Greek language conveys that this emptying, this oblation is at once a moment, but also a word which echoes meaning throughout time. We’re not to think that Christ’s final word is relegated to historicity, we may plot it on a timeline, but cannot hope to contain its profundity. By its very completeness, this word announces wholeness and offers ‘shalom’ to those who will hear it. He who is Very God, and Very Man breathes out with his spirit a final blessing to creation which calls all of us to join in his death, that we may await with bated breath his resurrection.
What changes in us when we hear the Son of God speak blessing at the moment of death? What happens to the bearers of tradition and liturgists when the passion is proclaimed? What occurs in the hearts of preachers, and those who hear?
As lost sheep, we may be roused from our complacency and amnesia long enough to say “not I Lord, I will never forsake you…” But do we fall asleep again, only to be awakened to our betrayal by the hollow sound of crowing?
In this final benediction by our Lord, we have a challenge set before us. First, we are meant to live the Passion of Jesus Christ with all of its power and its pain and its darkness—now, in this very moment. But secondly, perhaps more importantly, we are to understand that this offering of Christ is more than enough to cover any and all of our betrayals. In this way, we find solace in this word—this blessing—which amounts to the whole of our salvation, yet cannot be contained in any other words. Because the limitless power of Love which has brought the Incarnation into our world, Jesus into our lives, the Christ to the Cross, and us to that cross lingers forever with brutal grace which calls us again and again to repentance and forgiveness. This is true love.
By his final spiration—the Son of God, the Suffering Servant speaks an oracle of salvation for those who dwell in darkness and await a saving word. However, unlike Isaiah’s fiery coal from the altar, this resignation of Christ, breathed from his very lips, burns us deeply and cleanly so that with resurrected and new hearts we may believe, and hear again truly, “It is finished…”

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday (Luke) 2010

The crowds gathered at the gate, awaiting the arrival of a king. It may seem odd that a king would ride on a donkey’s colt however, it was the way of kings to ride to battle on horses, but when they returned to Jerusalem in peace, they rode upon a donkey. And this is where we find Jesus, being welcomed as a king and riding upon a donkey’s colt. But it isn’t just kings who are carried upon donkeys, but sacrifices, as well.
Jesus comes to the city in peaceful mien, his whole purpose to herald an age of peace. All the while, the powerful machine of the Roman Empire maintains Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, with military force. The irony is all too clear for the pilgrims who had gathered to greet this humble king.
His entrance into the city is overwhelmingly significant, both in its signs, and it meanings. Jesus is greeted as the very line of David, the Tribe of Judah, reclaiming the throne of Israel. For the people who believe, the coming of Jesus is the promise of liberation; the coming of a new era.
I’m not certain that the crowd of pilgrims who stand waiting for Jesus are the same people who shout “crucify him.” But if they are, they represent for us the weakness of spiritual vision; a kind of short-sightedness that eventually blinds hearts.
Certainly there is a period of time between his entrance and trial (which we do not read about today) in which their hearts may have been turned against Jesus. Whether through capriciousness, or short-sightedness, we cannot know for certain what caused such vehemence against Jesus. However, we can pretty easily guess at some of their reasoning.
After all, it isn’t hard to miss that a king and messiah would become a sacrifice for all of Creation. Likewise, most revolutions are defeated after the death of their leader. It also isn’t hard to miss the presence of a kingdom which “is and is not yet” at the same time. If anything, Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday makes our own short-sightedness so much more evident, especially since we move so quickly from a triumphal entry, to a brutal execution.
What remains, however, is the promise that this is only the beginning. Today is the beginning of Holy Week, the precursor to a new season of new life, and the memorial of our redemption. So how do keep from missing the significance of today? How do we train our spiritual eyes so that we will not miss the presence of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the Kingdom of Earth? It starts with our “Hosannas.” But more than that, it is our ability to see beyond every moment of everyday, and recognize that the foundations of God’s Kingdom are laid in our hearts. Because this is promise to those who Christ redeems. When we realize this, we need not look very far to see the triumph of Jesus’ humility and the Messiah in the King.

Lent 5, 2010

Last week, as you will likely recall, our Gospel Reading was the familiar tale of the ‘prodigal son.’ This parable of Jesus in which a young man demands his half of his inheritance, and burns through it in wasteful living—‘prodigal living’ as it were…
The story ends, then, with the long awaited return of this son, who is greeted by his father, and his reluctant older brother. In the end, the return is marked as a festal occasion, and a grand celebration is given in honor of the son’s return.
This word, ‘prodigal’, because of its particularly well-known usage in this story, has come to only be defined as wasteful, and careless. However, the word prodigal also means extravagance or profuse generosity. So, were we to commend the father’s loving response to his son’s return, we may also consider him a kind of prodigal himself. In such a case, we see extravagance as an out-pouring of love, rather than a wasteful misuse of one’s resources. This is the kind of prodigality that we see in Mary as she anoints the feet of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.
We do not need the help of the Gospel writer to explain to us that something extraordinary is happening in this story. Mary’s act is not simply obeisance to an honored guest, but we are not led to believe that she is fully aware of what it is that she does, either. What is clear is that this act of hers is one of deep love and devotion to Jesus. Likewise, once we realize the expense of the oil; we begin to see at what cost her offering is given. But what speaks to the mystery of this moment is the great show of humility, as Mary wipes the teacher’s feet with her hair. It is then that we recognize not an act of hospitality, but one of sacrifice.
What could have been the thoughts of the disciples? Perhaps there was an initial feeling of anxiety. Why would she do such a thing? But, then I imagine, as the place was filled with the scent of perfume; the humility of Mary’s sacrifice made it clear that they had been drawn into sacred space—a space which has been facilitated by this beautiful, generous gift.
We’re given only a brief moment to consider Mary’s act when Judas raises the question: ‘Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?’ Our narrator is quick to point out that this is typical Judas. He is a man that the Gospel writer maligns as a liar and a thief. This man who has become synonymous with betrayal—he whose name has become a moniker for any person given to sinister acts—even here in the Gospel is made a caricature, or even a personification of all that is darkest in the soul.
Therefore it is his very modus operandi to raise a query which might imply the self-same pretense and deceitfulness in others that dwell in his own heart. After all, we’re assured that Judas cared nothing for the poor, and was himself a thief. So, by the merit of his infamous nature, we’re not to be taken in by his false concern.
But now that the question has been raised, we might actually wonder the same thing. While his intent was wrong, Judas still makes an interesting point… Was the cost of this perfumed oil worth the brief moment in which it was used, when it easily could have been sold for the benefit of the poor?
It is a sensible question. In fact, there are some of us who wish that the Gospel writer had spared us the parenthetical statement about Judas. In fact, it seems like a poor attempt at ad hominem logic to discredit the man’s question.
I cannot estimate how much help three hundred danarii might be to the poor in Bethany. But in this context, where Mary has offered such a rich gift, and has displayed such humility to Jesus; we find that we’re missing the point if we linger too long in Judas’ camp.
After all, the oil was not his. It was not something held in common that Judas should have any say about how it should be used. And if we pay attention to the generosity with which Mary offers this expensive oil, or her humility in wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair; we begin to see how Judas missed the point.
It is true that the oil was an expensive gift, however, when given in love and devotion to Jesus, it became a sacrifice. And as is necessary of any true sacrifice, it is always something of great value which is given. This particular sacrifice was Mary’s prodigal act of love, and is one which should challenge us in our own devotion to Jesus Christ.
For most of us, sacrifice is something that we only talk about in abstract terms. Sacrifice is the subject of having to choosing one thing over another or the offering of time in our day. But when we begin talking about those things which are due to God, we become far less comfortable. Somehow talking about giving things over to God sacrificially, and no longer maintaining control or claim on them makes us very nervous. After all, we can always reschedule our time, but to offer something to God is far less superficial.
What is more difficult is that in our call to follow Christ we’re asked to offer nothing less than our whole selves. Perhaps it is because it seems like such a tall order that we rarely think of the high cost of our faith. What we cannot ignore, however, is that by our prayer and participation in the sacraments of the Church, we proclaim ourselves to be living sacrifices to God. By such a proclamation, we say that we are no longer our own, but are marked as Christ’s own forever.
It is far from simple to respond to a call to Christianity, especially when we count the cost of choosing God. But then, Jesus Christ was the cost for God to choose us…
In the end, as a people of faith, how does Mary’s act of love and humility speak to our hearts? What would a life given more generously to God look like? How prodigal might our worship become? How extravagant could our love for Jesus Christ become? It’s my hope, that like Mary, we’re willing to try and find out at any cost.

Lent 2, 2010

Since when do Pharisees warn Jesus? I mean, if we can’t count on their adversarial interactions with Jesus, how is the Gospel supposed to move along? I have to admit, that reading this passage makes me wonder about the whole nature of their relationship.
Sure there were some Pharisees who were secret disciples of Jesus—Nicodemus, for example. But what about this passage? Jesus and the Pharisees are supposed to be at odds—that’s the way things are supposed to work. The Pharisees are the stodgy religious elite, and Jesus is the Messiah who puts them in their place. That’s what gives us such satisfaction in reading these stories. I don’t know the whole protagonist/foil thing just seems threatened.
But in all seriousness, what we see in the usual behavior of the Pharisees is a mark of who they are—their people concerned with the preservation of their way of life. Jesus happens to be a person who continually challenges the ‘heart’ of that ‘way of life’ and is at continual odds with them. That being said, we should stop and take a second look at this interaction. Because whether Jesus eats dinner with some of them or not, they still don’t get along all that well. But, here we have a group of Pharisees warning Jesus about the threat of Herod.
We can trust that the threat is real, because the Herod that they’re referring to was Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. It was Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas, who tried to have Jesus killed in his infancy. And, as we probably remember, this Herod Antipas was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded to impress a woman. He is the ruler of Galilee, but we know the real power is Rome, so all of Herod’s authority is borrowed. All the same he doesn’t come from a particularly nice family.
Being well aware of the kind of person Herod Antipas was, the Pharisees seem to act with true concern for Jesus and we could probably agree that the sooner he leaves Galilee, the better. But this is where the tables turn. When Jesus responds, he threatens to upset the power structure by making it very clear who holds true power over his life, and it isn’t Herod.
Jesus says to the Pharisees “go tell that fox”, that caricature of a puppet king—tell him that he doesn’t get to have me. Jesus says that he is casting our demons and performing cures—he was doing it that day, and he would be doing the next day and the next day after that. He hints that his mission will inevitably be completed by his death. But he assures them also that he will not die anywhere but Jerusalem—and he will not be the victim of some random act of violence.
Jesus already knows that he must go to Jerusalem. I suppose that after the conversation he had with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of Transfiguration, he had a pretty good idea of what awaited him. And rather than falling victim to the anxiety of the Pharisees, Jesus uses this moment to drive his point home—Herod has no power, certainly not over him, and certainly not above the will of God. After all, everything was happening according to God’s plan. Each person played a role in moving Jesus closer to the purpose of his work. The Pharisees were the status quo that needed to be challenged, the people that Jesus met along the way were people who needed to hear the message of hope that is promised in the Kingdom of God—but this threat by Herod is one which attempts to disrupt Jesus’ mission. So we see in today’s reading these assumed roles changing slightly so that we can see that the Messiah’s work would not be stalled by anyone. By being obedient to no one but God, Jesus takes the power away from Herod, and sets his sights upon Jerusalem.
Where I think this translates for us is that each of can think of places where we allow others to have power over us. This isn’t the same as allowing certain people to have authority, or how we withhold some of our own rights so that we can avoid anarchy. What I’m talking about are systems which are only maintained by fear.
The easiest examples of this can be seen in our government. We watch as certain things are legislated which may be unconstitutional, but we make allowances based on perceived threats of terrorism.
We could also think a little closer to home, and our finances. We know that there is need now in Chile, Haiti, and much of the world. All the same, it seems impossible for us to give to organizations which offer aid to these countries, because money is just that tight right now.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of these things—I understand not having money, and I understand that there really are people who want to harm us. These threats really do have teeth, just like Herod Antipas. But the question is what do we allow to rule us? To what do we give power over us? Will it be our financial security? Will it be our perceived safety? In the end all of that is perpetuated by fear.
The good news is that we don’t have to be ruled by that fear—we don’t have to let it own us. Instead, Jesus stands as the only true authority in life. Not only does he take the power away from Herod, in our lives he takes away the power of fear and anxiety—in whatever form they may take. The question is, will we allow him? Will be open enough to trust in God, and allow God to dissipate the immobilizing effects of fear? Because only by giving up our fear can its power over us be taken away—and then, with that fear pushed aside, we can begin to see the one who has the true power in our lives—Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Trinity Sunday Year C

It’s always an interesting exercise to think about our image of God. Certainly we can consider this on a number of levels. There are our emotional strata: “Who is God to me?” Perhaps we might even think about how it is that we experience God, recounting ‘God moments’, so to speak.
It’s an interesting exercise which never fails to engage people, even people who’ve been in church their entire lives. Because for all of the rich symbols and sacramental signs of God in the Church, there are a lot of us who have either never really thought about our image of God, or we are limited in our scope. Perhaps we can’t get beyond seeing God only as the “Old Man” in the clouds with a long white beard, or something. Whatever the case, there are almost always reasons for the ideas and images we have of God—and they’re probably more commonly held than we might think.
But for all of the thoughts and familiar images of God that give us comfort, there is still a subject which often confounds, namely the Trinity.
Apparently unless you are in a systematic theology class or in a heated debate with a Jehovah’s Witness, this important part of our theology doesn’t seem relevant. And if we do get around to it, either no one wants to hear about it, or the apparent complexity of explaining it makes heads spin. It’s really kind of sad that one of the foundational theological statements of our faith seems so convoluted that we’d rather just avoid it…
I suppose there might be the fear that in discussing the Trinity, we could unwittingly lapse into some heresy. Maybe that’s why we don’t really talk about it that much. Maybe we’re all too worried about going too far off the orthodox reservation—then again, I could just be completely out of touch with what people really talk about. Either way, the subject of Trinitarian theology is not as freely discussed as the weather or sports.
It makes perfect sense, really, for a multitude of reasons. Especially if we consider how it is that we derive our images of God—through personal experiences, for example—it makes sense that we would not really have a framework for understanding the Trinity. I mean, when was your last “Trinity moment”, and what was it like? It’s hard to place, because honestly we experience ‘God’ in a multitude of ways through the Three Persons of the Trinity, as each one speaks to different parts of our lives. But then, luckily today is Trinity Sunday, and what better day to try to sort it all out?
Scripture commends to us the oneness of God, (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One.”) and the Church affirms this as it has been commended to us. We say that we believe in One God who creates all that is—the God of the Old Testament; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and the Father of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament tells us of how this God continually called humanity back from our destructive tendencies. Prophets who were called by God to deliver the message came and went. Overall, we weren’t very good at listening or about returning to God.
Then, as a fulfillment to God’s message through the prophets, God joined us in human life, by sending Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Living God. What this meant for us was that not only did we finally have God with us to demonstrate all the stuff we had been hearing, but God also experienced what it meant to live as a creature in an intimate way.
But Jesus had to return to God so that the Holy Spirit could then come and fill the world with God’s Presence. While this meant a kind of “goodbye” for Jesus’ disciples, it meant hopeful news for the Church that they left behind. This is because Jesus is no longer limited by his location and is with us always in spirit. So there is no need for believers to hop a plane to find Jesus the way that we would were he still here in a bodily way.
Finally, as promised by prophets, and Jesus at his Ascension, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the world. We may only understand this in the way that a fish understands that it’s wet—because we’re a people who have never been without God’s Holy Spirit in the world. This is the same Spirit which God used to empower Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. This is the same Spirit which even communicated God’s message of redemption through all of the prophets. Now, this is the same Spirit which lives in all of us.
The Holy Spirit helps us to pray, and urges us to pray when we need to. The Holy Spirit helps us to read and understand what God is telling us in Scripture, and then helps us to try to live that message in our daily lives. Most importantly, the Holy Spirit is the Presence of God, and because the Holy Spirit is within us, we can never be far from God.
Now, I know that none of this is really new information to many of you. We say the Nicene Creed which covers all of the same information; our collects normally reflect some Trinitarian theology and even the Eucharistic prayers model it. But for all of that, how can we conceptualize the Trinity as Three in One—and more importantly, what does it matter to any of us in our daily lives?
Well, as much as I’m sure that you all would enjoy hearing me read from the Capadocian Fathers, or even other theologians who are more qualified to talk about all of this—instead, I’d like to ask you to try to use your imagination with me.
Now, if you would, imagine three people. This would be the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in this kind of ‘dance.’ This is a movement which the Patristics (a group of Early Christian writers) called ‘perichoresis,’ which is a Greek term which has the same root as the word choreography—dancing.
This dance is a kind of intricate procession that unifies these three, and by their shared love, and the movement and sharing of spirit they are somehow one being. What’s great about them being “Three Persons” is that they are able to share in their love, but in such a way that allows others to be part of that love—it’s not a one-to-one thing, but a community thing. After all, that is what Jesus hopes for all of us in his High Priestly prayer; that we all could be one. Yet these Three Persons are somehow perfectly one.
Where this affects us, and all of Creation for that matter, is that the Father who calls us to be in community, sends the Son to teach us how to live in loving community, and the Holy Spirit then draws us ever closer to God, and invites us to be part of a much greater community than we could ever imagine. It is a thing which is far greater than any individual because, of course it’s in this community of faith that we learn who we truly are.
Now, I understand that I haven’t unraveled for you the mysteries of the Trinity. But, for what it’s worth, I can offer what this mystery of the Trinity means for me—perhaps something of it will resonate for some of you, as well. My Trinitarian God Image, if you will.
In the Trinity, I find that God is one who calls us to be in community in a more perfect way. I see a God who creates us as creative beings who seek to mirror and know our Creator. This same God empties himself and becomes one of us just to be near us. Above all, I see a God who is holy beyond knowing, but still finds a home in our sometimes hardened hearts, and will stop at nothing to remind us of unconditional, self-giving love. It’s that same love and spirit which unify the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and which calls to us to be in communion with God. The good news here is not only that there is acceptance, but also the promise that in and among these three, there is infinite room for all of us to find our place.
If nothing else, I hope that all of us hear and understand this particular point: it is God’s very nature to love, and accept. This, I think, beyond theological rightness, is reason enough not to miss the powerful meaning of God as Trinity.

Feast of St. Leo the Great

So, what does “Great” mean exactly? Perhaps I could blame it on our culture, or even a certain kind of cynicism which lingers on in my generation. But for whatever the reason, I find that I have a hard time not so much with the veneration of Leo as saint, or even Pope for that matter—but I find myself stumbling when I get to the “Great” part of his title.
I mean, it’s not hard for us to rattle off a list of all of the things which have come to be called great. After all there is The Great Gatsby, The Great Muppet Caper, or even the Great Pumpkin…you get my point. It just seems that what it means to be great is lost in a culture where we like all our heroes to be morally gray, mixed bags.
However, what we find when we look at the life and witness of Leo the Great, is a life which actually defies modern pessimism—which is really no small thing.
History along with Church History remembers Leo in the Episcopal see of Rome—in a power vacuum left behind after the empire’s capital was moved to Constantinople. Along with the successful consolidation of ecclesiastical power, Leo held secular power as well, and was one of three ambassadors sent by Emperor Valentinian III to dissuade Attila the Hun from sacking Rome.
Pope Leo was also integral to the Early Church clearly defining its belief about the nature of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine. His letter, known as the “Tome”, speaks of the importance of this dual nature as a necessary part of God’s participation in human life, and is therefore the means by which humanity is made new. This was a statement which opposed some of the popular beliefs circulating at the time. However, unlike many of those popular beliefs, in Leo’s teaching, we find a God who is no longer distant from us, but one who chooses to live among us.
If anything, what I think we see in the life of Leo the Great, is not just greatness, but the very stuff of what Jesus spoke about in the Gospel reading for today: salt and light.
In his discussion of this very reading, priest and writer Sam Portaro talks about some of the properties of salt. He mentions that salt is used as a preserving agent, and of course a seasoning. What he also says is that when a thing has a bitter taste, salt may be used to make it sweet. So for instance, coca is cut with a bit of salt to make sweet chocolate. He also points out that our bodies need salt to operate in a healthy way, especially after strenuous activity or exercise.
Of course this just adds to an already strong metaphor used by Jesus. But in using such an image, Jesus was preparing his disciples to go into a world of bitterness which needed salt to make it sweeter—a world which would always sort of be on the verge of collapse, and needed some agent of preservation.
In taking to heart his own ‘salt’ nature, Leo became that preserving element in his time as he fought to hold together a ‘toddler Church.’ He worked diligently to maintain some sweet social order in the midst of bitter conflicts. And while the challenges he faced were unimaginable to many of us, we find that it was because Leo was first salt and light that he came to be called great.
In our own Christian vocation, we also hear the words of Jesus to us that we are salt and light. In this life we’re to be agents of preservation and illumination in a world which can be terribly dark and bitter. But like Leo, we are being raised up and called out daily to be a glow to see by and a savor to enliven the faith of one another.
In the Church today, we face what seem like insurmountable obstacles and challenges. We see young people taking their own lives because they just didn’t have enough light to see another way out. We become anxious because we do not see the economic recovery that we all hoped for—and some of us become bitter.
But deep in our hearts we know there is something more. Because what we find in the life of Leo the Great, and countless other saints is a promise. It is the promise that God will continue to call faithful servants to illuminate the way. And while our own call is not necessarily to greatness, if we begin at being salt and light, we find that we can do great things by God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” So, today and tomorrow and the day after that; go into the world, not so much to be great. As I’ve already said ‘great’ isn’t what it used to be. Instead be salt. Be light. And if we can all hold on to that, this could be a bright, sweet world. Amen.

Proper 25, 2010

There is always a temptation I suppose to say a whole lot more in sermons than is actually necessary. This isn’t to say that there aren’t passages which really do need some breaking down. But then there are Gospel readings like today’s which are pretty clear in their intention.
In today’s reading we find Jesus in a crowd of people. Now, these people, we’re told, trusted in themselves, and despised others… A modern equivalent to these people might be what are known as jerks by today’s standard.
We can only guess at how Jesus got into this situation, but recognizing this as a teachable moment, he offered the group a parable. There were two men, Jesus says, who went up to the Temple to pray. One happened to be a Pharisee who prayed out loud, and took the opportunity to make known his piety. And in case everyone wasn’t clear about how wonderful he was, the Pharisee points out how glad he is that he isn’t like other people: thieves, rogues, and adulterers—and even this nasty dirty tax collector who stood nearby. It’s actually not a really hard list to beat when you think about it.
But what about this tax collector? It’s true that as a tax collector he was guilty of stealing, fraud, extortion and a whole host of other bad, nasty things. All of it sort of came with the job, and, incidentally, it was a job given by the Roman government. So, not only was this man a party to dishonest dealings, but he also worked for the conquerors and oppressors of his own people. Jesus said that he wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven when he prayed. This man stood far off beating his chest asking for God’s mercy. Just as we might assume, it’s the tax collector who returns home justified.
It’s a pretty straight forward parable, and the lesson doesn’t take too much abstract thought to get at the meaning. Jesus comes through loud and clear. Basically, don’t be a jerk. Right? Amen…
Except, to end there would be just a gloss over the surface. Because there’s more here than just what we get on the surface. What Jesus sets up in this parable is not just about a person’s behavior, but as usual is a matter of the heart.
Jesus begins this parable by telling the crowd that two men went up to the temple to pray. Most likely this would have been one of the appointed times for sacrifice in the temple—and the people that Jesus spoke to would have gotten this piece. This sacrifice was offered twice a day as atonement for the sins of the people, and people might come to the temple to offer prayers that God would accept the sacrifice on behalf of their own personal sins.
However, the Pharisee, much like the crowd to whom Jesus is speaking, cannot see how much he also needs God’s grace—he doesn’t seem to get that even he needs to be reconciled to God. Because like all of us, he needs God’s as much as any tax collector.
One of the things that initially attracted me to the Episcopal church was that all of our services have a confession built in to them. In college, this was a point of contention for my more Evangelical counter-parts, as they saw this as a license to do whatever one wanted because there was always the assurance of confession and absolution.

What I had been taught to understand it as, however, was not so much that I had been given free license, rather whenever it was that I said the confessions, I knew I needed it. Because like the Pharisee, and the tax collector, none of us is perfect. And rather than pretend that our short-comings are not the subject of polite society, and so we ignore them—instead, our tradition helps us to have every opportunity to confront and be freed from them.
Something that we can learn from 12 step programs is that one is always in recovery, and this is why the saying “One day at a time” is so poignant. Because it is a statement that presupposes that we are still always susceptible to the old patterns and ways which draw us away from God. In our spiritual lives, one thing that we know all too well is that we’re never immune to driving a wedge between us and God. Whether it’s an unkind word, an attitude or how we choose to treat another person, what we know is that at the center of our negative behavior is a matter of the heart. And we know that we’re never really ever completely free from falling into those same traps.
What’s more, even if we may have already been forgiven of the hurts caused by our actions, sometimes it’s the guilt of the action that lingers. Sometimes that’s enough by itself to keep us from returning to loving relationship with God and God’s people.
In Baptism we say “whenever we fall into sin” that we will return to the Lord. This isn’t an act of hedging our bets, instead it is part of the acknowledgement that we can return “with God’s help.” And like the saying “One Day at a Time”, we admit that all of our healing and reconciliation is a continued and daily process. Not because we’re such miserable people that we have to always be in a state of repentance, but because God understands how lost and abandoned we feel when we are at odds with ourselves and God.
So, as it turns out, today’s reading isn’t just about not being a jerk. While that’s not a bad place to start, it isn’t the end. Because as people called by Jesus Christ to be in community, we know that at the core of relationship to God and others, there is a matter of heart. And like the tax collector, we offer our personal prayers of penitence, believing that the sacrifice that was offered in Jesus Christ is more than sufficient to reconcile us once more to God and one another.
Today as we turn our hearts to the altar of God, and remember the sacrifice of Christ in our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, remember that we’ve been given another opportunity to make the slate clean. And whatever it is that we might be carrying with us in our hearts, I would remind you that this is the place to leave it. Because if we’re willing to trust in God and not ourselves, we will leave this place justified not by our own righteousness, but by the work of Jesus Christ.

Proper 23, 2010

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how church people can behave at restaurants… I say this both as a fellow customer-turned-spectator, but also as someone who worked in a restaurant busing tables once upon a time. Whether it’s being rude and demanding of the server, or leaving poor tips, it’s something that happens too often.
I hate to admit that I’ve been with church people who behaved badly in this way, and I always feel like crawling under the table in those moments. But if I’m sharing a table with them, or watching them from across the room, I still find no justification for that kind of behavior.
And Sundays are really the worst, because they come in groups after their respective worship services. So there’s really very little anonymity… Anyway, they come in, act out, and it’s as if all of the goodness that should have been conferred to them in their worship of God just evaporates. And I can’t help but wonder why it happens.
Anyway I started thinking about all of this while working on my sermon for today—it seemed to fit with a question that came up for me about the Gospel reading. Is it that the people who should know better—specifically, those of us who have known God’s grace—do we just choose to forget that grace, or do we get so comfortable with it that we just forget to be thankful?
In today’s Gospel reading the section begins by telling us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem—this is to signal to us that he has moved from his broader ministry, and is moving closer to the culmination of his work on the cross in Jerusalem.
As he and his disciples passed through an area between Samaria and Galilee, we’re told that Jesus met 10 lepers. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that they had Hansen’s disease the form of leprosy we’re most familiar with. But in Scripture the term leprosy included a number of skin conditions. All the same, Levitical Law did not allow them to be part of society, and often such people were treated quite badly—so if the disease didn’t make them suffer, society certainly did. What’s also interesting is that they are a mixed group—we find out later that there was a ‘foreigner’ among them. This could be in part to the fact that they were near Samaria, which was not considered part of Jewish territory, or simply because they found commonality in their condition.
In the end, it is only this foreigner who returns to Jesus to offer any kind of thanks. This is something that would have astounded the religious elite in the First Century. However, the readers of Luke’s Gospel should not be so surprised. After all only 7 chapters prior, Jesus was telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. You’ll remember that the significance of the story wasn’t just that the Samaritan offered help to a man near death, lying on the roadside. The true resonance of the story comes from the fact that the hero in the story was from a culture considered disreputable by the Jewish people. So the fact that it was a Samaritan who acted honorably was meant to stir up those who considered themselves pious.
Our reading today echoes this lesson. Jesus had no more than sent these men to present themselves to the priests, (something required of them by Levitical Law) and yet only this guy of unknown nationality is said to have praised God and returned to thank Jesus.
Once again it’s underlined for us by the Gospel Writer that this one who wouldn’t be expected to respond appropriately to the situation, is the one who got it exactly right. On the other hand, those who should have known better have not.
To be fair, the response of the nine—or even the lack thereof, may not have been negligence, or even ingratitude. Perhaps they felt that by going on to the see the priests they were doing what they were supposed to do… Or maybe they just didn’t think to turn around and thank Jesus—maybe it’s just not their personalities. There really may have been some legitimate reasons, except that we already know by their willingness to follow the rules about presenting themselves to the priests that should have known better. So for all of the possible reasons, these nine who have been given the equivalent of new life miraculously have received it cheaply like a hand out.
As Christians, we seek to give thanks and praise to God through our worship. We do this not only because we are recipients of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but also for all of the other gifts we’ve been given. We also know that our thankfulness doesn’t begin and end at the church doors, and being thankful should teach us to never undervalue, or become desensitized in our to gratitude to God.
But if we can hold on to an attitude of thankfulness to God, we find that it changes us. We find that we can appreciate even the small things in life, and see how they give us meaning. We also recognize the importance of people in our lives, and even the value of those people put in our paths along the way. What becomes apparent is that there is really nothing good in life for which we cannot give thanks to God for—so how could we not be changed? And perhaps if we’re willing to allow that change to occur, we’ll find that our gratitude is not only present while we’re in church, but more importantly we’ll find it present even in the places we decide to have lunch after church.

Proper 22, 2010 Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

It was said that in the village of Gubbio that there was a wolf which consistently came into town and terrorized not only the livestock, but even injured and killed the people. Day after day the people of Gubbio would check to see that their flocks were safe in the morning, and at night, they would tuck their children into bed. whispering prayers that the wolf wouldn’t come. This wolf, it was said, was so fierce, that when people would go into the countryside, they armed themselves like soldiers going to war…but even then none of them were safe from this ferocious creature…
Well, one day while little brother Francis was passing by the village of Gubbio, he heard the reports of this wolf that held this village in the grip of fear. He talked with the villagers and confirmed all that had been said about the wolf, and in that instant, Francis decided that he would address this issue.
Francis said to the people, “I will go and talk to this wolf, and I will tell him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that he must not behave in this way—especially as our brother…”
As you can imagine, the people’s reaction was a whole lot like yours—“Who is this guy that he plans to go off and confront the beast? I bet he doesn’t get a mile out of town before it eats him up! But, look at how he’s dressed, he’s just some silly fool and beggar…”
Well, along with these people who doubted, there were some who were very concerned about Francis. They had heard about his kindness, and how he had preached to the birds, and had shared the joy and love that God has for all of us with everyone he met… They also knew that the reason that Francis dressed like a beggar was because he wanted to live just like Jesus—a simple man.
As he headed out of the village, the doubters yelled and made jokes about Francis. Others kept asking Francis if he was certain that he should go and face this terrible wolf without a spear or a sword. Francis reminded them that he was going in the name of God and that would keep him safe.
Francis walked out of the village, beyond even the places where the people could still see him from the village. He walked for a little while longer when he heard a howl in the distance. It was the wolf. And if it had anyone else, they would have turned around and ran back to the village as fast as they could. But not Francis, instead he went right in the direction of the howl.
Francis walked for a while longer before he stopped in an open field, with only a few trees, and nowhere to hide. Suddenly Francis heard a low growl, and he saw the wolf coming toward him. This wolf was apparently pretty large, and as it walked toward Francis it snarled and drooled and licked its chops.
Francis wasn’t afraid. He made the Sign of the Cross toward the wolf, and he said, “Brother Wolf, you have done great harm in this region, and you have committed horrible crimes by destroying God’s creatures without any mercy. You have been destroying not only other animals, but in your arrogance, you’ve even eaten people who are made in the Image of God. Because you’ve been so horrible, you should be put to death. You act like a robber and a murderer.” He said, “The people of this village are right to despise you and fear you as an enemy. But, Brother Wolf, I want peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you anymore. And, after they have forgiven you all your past crimes, no one will come after you.”
Well, while this was happening, some people from the town had gathered around. They wondered what might have happened to Francis after he’d left the village. After hearing the saint’s words to the wolf, all of them watched silently as the wolf lowered its head toward Francis.
Little Brother Francis then said, “Brother Wolf, I want you to show me that you promise to change your ways, so that I may believe you.” At this, the wolf raised his paw and placed it into Francis’ hand. Francis said, “Brother Wolf, I order you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to come with me now to the town to make peace with the people there…”
In the end, the people made peace with the wolf, and St. Francis made the people promise that they would feed the wolf everyday, and the wolf was to keep his peace with the people. And, all of them lived happily together until the wolf finally died years later. Even today there is a bas relief commemorating this story, and it apparently is near a church a bit south of Brother Wolf Street.
St. Francis apparently wasn’t very tall. Thomas of Celano, his earliest biographer, and Franciscan writes that he was handsome, and of slight build with a sparse beard and dark eyes. We’re told that he was someone who preached to animals, and bowed to children. He lived simply, dressed in a brown habit tied with a rope cincture. While such clothing would have been common enough for a beggar in his time, to us the image is unmistakable as the saint from Assisi. What is so amazing is that for all of his simplicity, and all of the incredible stories of his life, St. Francis of Assisi still continues to confound us and capture our imaginations.
I suppose it’s not just one thing in particular about the man that attracts us. But what we do know is that when we hear the stories of Francis, or any of the saints, really, we are inspired by their lives of faith. This is because they remind us of what Christian life could look like, and how that can change the world around us forever.
Francis is a great example of this, because what we see and admire in St. Francis is not some idyllic and unattainable existence. Instead what we look for in Francis is our own need to be freed from our possessions and our reliance upon creature comforts which…as it turns out are fleeting anyway.
We see in him a strength and love of God that can only be the mark of true sainthood. But what we tend to miss is that his life and ministry is a call to the whole Church to come out—to no longer be ruled by the illusions of security and safety that we think we have, and instead to step into the real life of God’s love.
When the disciples asked Jesus to “increase their faith”, his response was ironic. He says if they had faith like a mustard seed, they could tell a tree to be uprooted… But he teaches them that to germinate even that kind of faith, one must do more than what is simply required…
When God called Francis, it was in a broken down chapel somewhere along the road to the Crusades. The call was simple, “Francis, Rebuild my House.” A thing he did almost immediately. After raising money from selling bolts of fabric from his father’s store, Francis fixed the little chapel. But Francis wasn’t finished, because his true ministry was only beginning, and he needed to do more than simply what was expected of him—which we know he did.
St. Francis, did this by confounding the conventions of this life. Like Jesus he refused to allow the social and economic rules of society define how he must live out his life of devotion to God. And following Jesus’ example, Francis laid aside all that his father’s wealth entitled him to and chose to live a life wholly devoted, with and for the greatest and the least. And it’s because of this humility, that we find Francis so very approachable, even loveable.
We remember him for these traits, but even more, we hold Francis up because his very life is a life radically shaped by the Gospel. St. Francis is an epitome of a life so powerfully remade and rearranged by the Holy Spirit that at times we may have trouble even believing the stories about him. But what we also find is that we still need to hear those stories just to be reminded that God still calls saints—in times of war, God still calls saints. In times of economic hardship, God still calls saints. When the cynicism of the world makes it hard to see where God is calling any of us, God still calls saints. And what it is that we need from the lives of the saints are not only examples of faithful lives and great stories, but also the challenge to live just a little less carefully when it comes to our faith. Not that I’m recommending that any of us go out and find wolves to tame, but maybe if we could learn to trust in God the way that the saints in light have, we might yet be surprised at what God may do through us as his saints on earth.

Proper 20, 2010

So what can I say about today’s Gospel reading other than I have no idea what to do with it. A couple of weeks ago I had to write the reflection for the St. Paul’s newsletter which we write a couple weeks ahead, and it’s preferred that we write with the week’s Lectionary readings in mind.
And whether you can believe it or not, I actually do research the passages and read commentary before I write my sermons and reflections.
Unfortunately none of my sources really had anything clear to say this time… Last Tuesday I began again the monthly Fresh Start group for newly ordained and clergy new to the diocese. As is the norm, we discussed this Gospel passage during our morning worship…none of us really had anything clear to say…
Obviously there is a temptation to look at this passage and immediately decide to preach on the Collect for the Day. Some of us might even begin our explanation with the words “What Jesus meant to say…” But the easiest solution by far is just to ignore it…except that the Lectionary of the Church doesn’t allow us.
The truth is, I do believe this to be a teaching of Jesus, whether we are talking about how a teaching like this is missing from other Gospels, or if we want to make a case for the specific arrangements preferred by the respective Gospel Writers—the point is, for all of its difficulty, I personally believe this teaching belongs.
Now when we consider the whole of Jesus’ teachings, it’s hard to place just where it fits…I mean, who wants to hear “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…” especially if we’re talking about the Gospel being hope for the poor.
What emerged from my own research and discussion with other clergy is that there are a couple of ways in which we can begin to approach this reading. First, we may begin by considering that this particular lesson may have such deeply cultural connections that it is hard for us to relate fully. What we may be seeing is a kind of worldly wisdom lesson that better fits with wisdom tradition—and wisdom tradition, as we know from the Book of Proverbs has no trouble borrowing from secular wisdom.
Another piece to this reading is that it is broken into a few distinct parts. We begin hearing about the dishonest steward, who proves his worth through cheating, and the whole thing ends by talking about how believers need to be more wise to the ways of dishonest wealth—but, with the caveat that we cannot serve both God and wealth. In some scholarly circles this is identified as interpolation, and would indicate that the writer, or later revisionists added a sort of internal commentary to try to make the lesson clearer. However, it seems no clearer for all of that effort. But I suppose there is consolation in knowing that even they didn’t know what to do with this teaching.
There is also the issue of trying to work through the meaning of the parable. If we’re tempted to plug-in the usual characters into the usual slots, where do we put God? Does God become the Master, while Jesus is the dishonest steward? Certainly Jesus does more than forgive a part of what we owe to God because of our sin—but this falls apart when we think about how the steward was doing what he did because he was afraid to be thrown out of his cushy position. Suddenly this sounds nothing like God the Father and God the Son.
We could try to work in the world’s economic system… Perhaps the steward is like J.P. Morgan Chase, and is forgiving debts for the betterment of the whole economy. The only problem here is that that Master and steward become the same person in a way.
A more traditional way of interpreting is to note that the steward forgives debts based on the interest that would have been charged (obviously this master was not an orthodox Jewish business man, otherwise he would be forbidden to charge interest). However, the steward, by forgiving these debts shows a kind of partiality which would need to be repaid. So, in effect, the steward will not need to dig ditches or beg. He also puts the master in a position which makes him look generous, but also keeps him from offering any retribution against the steward because then the master would lose face in society.
This works, but I can’t imagine how this is at all good spiritual advice. It explains the actions, but we’re still no closer to understanding the whole lesson.
Anyway, you can see that I’ve had a lot of time to really stew about all of this. But through all of that stewing, I’ve had opportunity to see another side to this reading.
This past week I had the opportunity to go to a follow-up meeting for IAF, the Industrial Areas Foundation. This is the oldest community organizing group in America, and they specialize in helping post-industrialized cities recover (There are some information packets on the back table, and it’s something that I think St. Alban’s should be involved in). Anyway, I went to this meeting with St. Paul’s and I was amazed at the turn-out for this meeting. It was held at Fairmount Temple (Anshe Chesed), and there were different brands of evangelicals; there was us; there were Universalist Unitarians, different brands of Judaism, and even a Muslim congregation. Honestly this was just to name a few…
We were each one given a number which corresponded to a table which we were invited to discuss with others certain issues that we felt were important to our families and our community. Of course, all of them were very similar, and each table reported 4 things which they believed to be important. These would later be compiled and a simplified list will be made and the group then will begin the process of addressing these things.
The way that this is done is by inviting public officials to a meeting in which representatives show up from these various religious groups. And basically we ask them questions and hold them accountable… Anyway, what I’m getting at is that like in the Gospel reading, we recognize that there is a system in the world that does not function as the Kingdom of God does, and while we’re told not be taken by this system, we’re no less told to learn it and learn how to live in it. This is something different from what we might expect to hear—often we’re reminded to let go of everything and turn away from the corrupt world. Well, this teaching doesn’t necessarily stand in opposition, because as St. Paul reminds Timothy, we are to pray for those in civil authority as much as we pray for ourselves. But because we hold dual citizenship in the Kingdom of God and the world, we are tasked with the responsibility to hold those in this world’s authority accountable that they may lead justly and honorably for the good of all people. Effectively we use Kingdom principles to work through a dishonest system to bring forth more equality in the world, and that is most certainly the Church’s business.
I suppose if we’re to consider the lesson in this way, suddenly there is quite a lot of responsibility placed on us as believers. We’re no longer allowed to take pot-shots at an unjust governmental system, or even consider ourselves so sacrosanct that we cannot be bothered to enter into the troubles and tribulations of national life. But then, where would we be if Jesus believed that? Perhaps in seeing how mixed-up the whole world was, he had every right to not join us in human life…
The point is, he did join us, and because we’re called to be his Body we are also supposed to learn and live in the system. And today before we leave, we’ll receive God’s blessing, but then we’ll go out with our rallying cry to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Making friends of dishonest wealth and still living as one who is dead to the world…it’s as easy as walking a razor’s edge. But in a world system that must be changed from within, it becomes the responsibility of God’s people to be the soul of that system; to pray for our leaders and hold them accountable. And if we can be faithful in that, perhaps we’ll yet see the change in the world that we all hope for…if nothing else, we can do a lot of good in our little part of the world if we’re willing to try.

Proper 19, 2010

One of the important elements of parables in the Gospels is that they serve to root concepts into something more concrete. In the Gospel narratives, we see how Jesus employs daily experiences from the common cultural milieu to weave in deep theological truths so that they might be made a bit more plain.
Today’s reading is no exception—in today’s reading we discuss how wonderful it is to have the wayward and lost returned. But we not only find the hope in return, but also the promise that those who are lost will be sought after diligently. What good news…and how easily we can accept it.
I mean, really who of us hasn’t had to leave all of our sheep to go and find that one who has wandered off?! After all of the time we have spent raising that little lamb and seeing that it is healthy…to just have it wander off? Certainly once we’ve brought it home, the first thing we would do is call all the neighbors and tell them the great news…
Then there’s the whole issue of losing your silver coins. Boy, if I had danarii for every time I lost my silver coins…jinkies. But after all of the sweeping and turning on of lights, well, it all turns out alright, and immediately I’m on the phone again to the neighbors…
Okay, so maybe all of that is a bit of a stretch. Granted, if I had 99 sheep living with me in Shaker Heights it is likely that my neighbors would be less than excited that I recovered one which was lost. Besides I’m sure there is some city ordinance about keeping sheep in Shaker, anyway.
It may also be the case that my neighbors are not all that concerned about me losing my silver coins. So, if they suddenly got a celebratory phone call from me telling them that I’d found them—well, I’m sure that they would be polite, but I imagine that the phone call would not be very long.
It’s all a bit hard to put into our own context … But it’s a stretch only because we have some cultural and temporal barriers to get past. Most of us don’t keep sheep and we certainly don’t use silver as a common currency.
But, then what we actually see in parables is a willing suspension of disbelief for everyone—even on the part of both Jesus and his listeners. The point of the parable is to go to such an extreme that those being taught cannot help but really “get” what is being explained.
So, while there may be some cultural relevance to lost sheep and coins in the 1st Century, it’s likely that celebration at their recovery might be a little over the top for them as well…
Luckily the meaning behind these stories is not so hard to get at…
What can we say for this particular lesson is that it promises something that anyone can understand—that Jesus is willing to go to great lengths to find the one who is lost and wandering. Whether we’re just random sheep who get found and picked-up, or we’re sheep who just got a little distracted, we can all probably agree that being recovered after being lost is a pretty good thing…
A particular memory from my childhood comes to mind in regard to this idea. I was probably only about 5 or 6, and my dad took me to some really big store. I don’t recall the name, but it was a store big enough to carry both home improvement supplies and toys—all of the essentials, really. It just happened that we passed the toy section on our way through and something inevitably caught my eye… A “Bert and Ernie Play Doh” set.
Suddenly there was nothing else in the world that I could have wanted more—compared to this “Bert and Ernie Play Doh” set, all else was dross…
Well, I knew I had to have this thing, and so I set about making my plans about how I would talk my dad into purchasing it. I knew I would need to begin by reasoning with him that this would be a toy that I would play with always, and there would be no need to ever buy another toy as long as I lived. My life would be complete.
The first step in my plan however would be to show him the wisdom of this investment, and so I needed only to find someone to tell me the price…
I wandered for a short time before I found two men working at a counter and I inquired about the “Bert and Ernie Play Doh” set, (which more and more I knew I could not live without). To my surprise, these two men looked at one another and chuckled.
Apparently my request was not understood, because rather than responding with some figure, one of them asked “Where are your parents?” Suddenly I was all alone in the world—except for Bert and Ernie, of course. For the first time I realized that my dad had not followed me on my mission—how he had utterly vanished… Without hesitation I bravely began to cry.
The man asked me my name and who I was with, so he could make a call over the P.A. system. I proceeded to tell him my full name, my dad’s full name and our address and I may have even added my birth date. In the end, my dad found me, and I was far less interested in the “Bert and Ernie Play Doh” set afterward… I was just glad to know that I was safe and wouldn’t have live in the store.
I admit the memories of the story aren’t so clear now, but I certainly know the feeling associated with it. I never did get the “Bert and Ernie Play Doh” set, but I was surprised to find that my sisters and my mom and dad were not angry that I had gotten lost—only concerned that I knew I was safe again.
I suppose for any of us who have had one of these experiences—whether we’re the one who is lost, or the one searching—we know how frightening it is to have all feeling of security suddenly pulled from us. Obviously that’s the feeling that comes with being lost…
I often joke that because I have survived my son Tristan for 3 ½ years that my karma is paid up. But there is never a more frightening feeling than when he bolts at the play ground, or if he is out of my sightline for too long. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how many times I tell him to stay close, he will inevitably find an opportunity to take off. When I think about all of the emotions and physical responses that I feel in those moments, I begin to understand a bit of why Jesus would pursue us in the moments when we have bolted.
I think to carry the image a bit further, I might even imagine Jesus saying “I need you to understand that I want you to stay close so that you won’t get hurt or lost. But right now, I’m just glad that you’re safe…”
Sometimes we can get so distracted by things that we find too late that we have wandered off. Maybe it’s not just that we have not attended to our spiritual lives, but also that we have begun to forget the connections and people who keep us safe. Those people who remind us that we are loved and accepted not only by them, but most of all by God. But sometimes we forget…then we’re like wandering sheep, or children too caught-up in getting a “Bert and Ernie Play Doh” set.
Thankfully, like the parent who loves us and cannot imagine being without us, Jesus searches us out desperately and spares no effort in reclaiming us. And that feeling of being found again and returned to a safe place is one that I hope all of us have had opportunity to experience.
It’s true that we might have a tough time connecting to certain parables, but what we know about this one, and what we should never fail to comprehend is that the love of Jesus Christ for us is so strong that we cannot help but be ‘found’ and returned home.
So to everyone here, welcome back to the program year. But more importantly, for all of us who have felt at some point lost and wandering: welcome home.

Proper 18, 2010

Paul’s letter to Philemon, Philemon or Philemon is one which doesn’t come up in the Lectionary very often. And due to its subject matter regarding slavery, perhaps the Church has been happy that it was rarely read in Sunday worship—especially in this past century. We know from even a brief survey of American history that Scripture was used to condone slavery, and this particular letter was likely part of that justification.
Thankfully, however, Paul’s reputation and that of Holy Scripture can be vindicated if we are simply willing to actually read what the letter is about—namely self-sacrifice and reconciliation.
Paul, as we know, is writing to a fellow Christian (Philemon) on behalf of the man’s escaped slave Onesimus. What we can gather from the context of the letter, Onesimus had somehow had a falling out with his master Philemon. We can guess that there may have even been some financial implications to this disagreement, and Onesimus had gone away and somehow came to know Paul. Onesimus is then converted and, perhaps at Paul’s urging, looks to be reconciled with his master, and now, brother in Christ…
Things between Philemon and Onesimus were at the very least touchy. In his letter, Paul recognizes that Philemon believed Onesimus to be useless—but Paul writes that the man had become invaluable to him in his time in prison. But what Paul asks of Philemon runs contrary not only to justifications for slavery, but even contrary to human nature. Paul asks Philemon not only to receive Onesimus back, but also to be reconciled with him and greet him as a brother…
We really do not know to what extent Onesimus had offended his master—again we get a few small hints, but nothing to really make a case. What we do know however is our own experience of being hurt or betrayed. In this case we have no problem putting ourselves into Philemon’s place—or maybe we feel more like Onesimus who continues as a fugitive soul waiting to be redeemed. Wherever we find ourselves, we know that the price of relationship is sacrifice to the end that we may be reconciled. To whatever degree we have been hurt or have hurt others, we know the burden most when forgiveness and reconciliation needs to happen.
There are a few organizations which specialize in what is known as “Restorative Justice.”Restorative justice is a process by which victims and offenders meet to the end that both may try to have some closure to whatever event they were involved in. This work is used from everything as small as verbal bullying in schools to murder.
It seems an odd thing because it’s not just counter-cultural, it’s counter-human-nature. But even for those who are most skeptical of the process they find in the end that the closure is worth all of it. There are even times when these interactions end in some forgiveness and reconciliation.
There was one story in particular in which a woman whose husband had been murdered wanted to see and meet her husband’s murderer. The police had agreed to this in hope for more evidence to surface against the man.
The woman’s husband had been brutally beaten by a group of young men when he had heard a loud party going on at his neighbor’s house who was supposed to be out of town. When he went to check things out, he was attacked and eventually died from the beating.
After something like 5 years, and an extensive investigation, this woman got her wish. As soon as this man, who had been 17 at the time of the murder, sat down, he began to weep. He began saying over and over again that he didn’t mean to do it. The woman said that she found herself telling him that everything was going to be alright in the end.
As she left the room, she could see that the man was still being filmed in the room and that he was still crying. She found out the day of the meeting that the man had written letters of apology to her and her children. As she watched him continue to weep, she became overcome with the feeling that she didn’t want him to have to be alone in that room.
In the end, he pled guilty and is serving his sentence. As for the woman, she is planning to start an education program to help adolescents avoid the same fate as her husband’s murderer by staying away from substance abuse—a key player in her husband’s murder. She even added that she hoped someday that this man would join her in her work.
When I read things like this story, I’m encouraged that there is still so much good in humanity. I get a charge out of the thought that there could be more than just reform in our justice system, but reform in our hearts that we could see justice done. But honestly, when it comes to forgiving or even being forgiven myself, I don’t know that I can always deliver with the kind of grace that we see in stories like this one.
Thankfully, learning how to be reconciled and how to forgive is exactly what Christian faith is about. Whether we are speaking of Jesus reconciling us to God, or the grace that we’re given to struggle to live in one Spirit—we never stop learning and practicing this spiritual gift.
There are times, of course, when our prayers for grace and acceptance seem to go unanswered. Sometimes our best attempts are shunned and our hand (olive branch and all) gets slapped away. But if we’re willing to practice the gift, and continue to strive for reconciliation, we may find that our own hearts are changed even if the other person seems unmoved. But then, I also believe that God is a God of hard cases and eventually even the tough ones come around. All the same it can be a tough road getting there…
Reconciliation is not easy work because it asks us to look within ourselves—it holds a mirror up to us and asks us to really see who we are that we can see how incomplete we are. At its core, the work of reconciliation is not the stuff of casual or trendy Christianity because it demands sacrifice. If there is any question of that cost we need only look to Good Friday as proof—there is always a cost. However, like Good Friday, that story doesn’t end until Easter morning with the glorious resurrection. If we can trust and try to be reconciled, we may find our relationships are resurrected as well.
We don’t know how the story ends, but Onesimus was willing to be reconciled to a master he had wronged, because he trusted in the grace of Jesus Christ. So perhaps for those of us who need to be forgiven and reconciled, or even those of us who need to forgive—perhaps we can trust that there’s some grace for us too.

Proper 16, 2010

What are the things that get in our way? Not just the stumbling blocks that make life a little rough, but the things that are actual obstacles to our lives of faith. It’s a question worth pondering, because I think that for many of us those obstructions are things we couldn’t have imagined.
Our Gospel reading today begins by telling us of a woman who had spent much of her life crippled. Jesus who happened to be teaching in the synagogue when she walked in immediately called her over and identified her condition as a spiritual affliction. Luke also tells us that she had been living this way for eighteen years before Jesus healed her. So it’s no mystery why everyone was so excited about this, especially the woman. However, not everyone is quite so happy.
This is of course the kind of response we’ve come to expect in the Gospels—namely that Jesus’ opponents are interested in discrediting him at every turn. Once again, Jesus’ opponent is absolutely right according to the Law—the Sabbath laws are very clear about how one should take rest. But, as we can once again plainly see the opponent misses the bigger picture—Jesus has performed another miracle, and one more person is made whole and restored to the community.
For this man who challenged Jesus, perhaps his opposition was related to his strict adherence to the Law. However, whether or not it was because of a sort of pettiness as the Gospel writer seems to suggest, the point is that the man seems to be so detained by his views that he cannot even see divine action right in front of him. His own short-sightedness literally makes him miss the power of this moment.
But if we were to consider a best intentions scenario in this reading, we realize that this man simply could not get past his own ‘stuff’ (to use the theological term). And if we’re willing to be honest, we could probably think of times in our own lives when we’ve missed God. Times when we couldn’t get beyond some thing that had us hung up, and we just missed the boat. Perhaps if we just could have identified those things sooner, things might have been different.
So, what are the things that get in our way? It’s actually a pretty difficult question to answer, like I said, it’s not always the most obvious things that are our stumbling blocks. In fact, when I asked myself the question, I was a little surprised at what I discovered.
First off, let me say that it is a strange thing being a clergy person. Even if I’m not wearing my clericals, inevitably I will happen into a conversation with someone who will ask me my profession, and I tell them. What happens next is a series of awkward retractions and apologies for certain kinds of language, behavior, et cetera, ad absurdum. As you can imagine, that’s the part I hate. It’s as if suddenly I’m no longer the person they struck-up conversation with, and suddenly I am a sacrosanct prude who just got let out of my prayer cell.
This isn’t the worst part of it, though. Instead, what I find is that in those moments, I tend to understate what my vocation really means to me. It’s as if I’m somehow worried that by me being honest about how much I love this work and all of this Church stuff that I will somehow offend someone, or turn them off to Christianity forever. After all there are a lot of people with baggage when it comes to religious and spiritual life.
But what I realized is that I may also be missing an opportunity to show how deeply my faith affects everything that I do. I miss the chance to show that there are genuinely devout, young clergy people in the Church, and that we’re not all crazy. And if someone does have baggage, couldn’t it be helpful to see and hear positives about the whole thing?
Certainly I want to react against the old clergy-centric models. I do believe in being approachable. But while I want to respect the comfort level of another person, I also don’t want to miss an opportunity to be honest about what God has done in me and might be trying to do through me in the moment.
We find a similar issue in the church, where it feels as though we may be encroaching on someone if we’re honest about the depth of our faith, or our personal piety. And while I do believe there is a time and place for such conversations, it does seem ironic that such conversations never seem to surface—not even at church. Perhaps in this case what we have come to believe to be congeniality may be disingenuous, and as such an impediment to our faith.
But this is just one kind of issue, for each of us our obstacles may be quite different. For the young would-be prophet Jeremiah, he couldn’t get beyond himself enough to realize that God was calling him to be a prophet. It’s true that he would have his work cut out for him, but what Jeremiah missed was that God was calling him in spite of his shortcomings. If God hadn’t set him straight, Jeremiah could have gotten in his own way and maybe even missed God’s call.
Jeremiah’s obstacles may not be the most common, but just like in his case, we find that God is the one who reveals such obstacles to us. And inevitably, God puts them all into perspective and helps us get past them.
So what are the things that get in your way? What’s more, how do we identify them? First, we have to seriously ask ourselves the question, and then be brave enough to hold it up in prayer. And I believe that the God who leads us into all truth will never lead us astray. But, because of the deep love that God has for us, he will make clear those things that make our way difficult—whether we recognized them or not. Because as St. Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).” If that’s the case, we can be certain that God won’t leave us in the dark about the things we allow to get in our own way. But it all starts with our willingness to allow God to help us realize them. In the end, all the work will be worth it if it makes our journey with God that much easier.

Proper 6, 2010

The story in today’s Gospel reading is one with which we’re somewhat familiar. It shows up in other Gospel narratives, even if the characters are slightly different. All the same we are presented with much the same result: a woman with a less than savory reputation comes to Jesus while he is at table with important people. The woman throws herself on the mercy of Jesus, and even though the people around him are offended by the woman’s presence, Jesus receives her humility as a sign of her penitence, and accepts her fully.
There are a couple of ways we might approach this reading. One, of course, is from the point of this woman who comes to Jesus risking quite a lot. Not only does she bring expensive oil to anoint Jesus’ feet, but in doing so she crosses social and religious boundaries. So it’s no surprise when Simon the Pharisee says what he does about her reputation. All the same, this woman knew that Jesus could be found in that house, and she risked everything to be near him. Not even the religious authority, or social conventions could keep her away.
It’s really quite a lovely thing. For this woman, we can only guess at how she came to know Jesus’ reputation. Perhaps she heard something of what he taught in his travels—or maybe she witnessed one of his miracles—but for whatever the reason, she seeks Jesus. This woman’s longing is what Jesus then points out when he rebukes the Pharisees, and is exactly the reason he receives her gift of tears and oil as penance and satisfaction for her transgression. In the end, it was her response to God’s grace in Jesus which brought her.
As people who have responded to grace at some point in our own lives, it’s not hard to understand the woman’s reasoning for wanting to see Jesus. While none of us have had an experience quite like this, we nevertheless have had conversions in our hearts in response to God’s call to us.
But then we might ask ourselves where that zeal is today. What has happened to the person who could imagine nothing less than a full prayer life, and opportunity to discuss faith? It is true that we grow in spiritual maturity, but is there a chance that what we have settled into as spiritual maturity or religious modesty something more like complacency and safety? Could we ever imagine risking everything just to offer ourselves to Jesus Christ, now?
Then there is the other side of this story, which deals with Simon the Pharisee and his friends. It’s not surprising that they would recognize a woman with a bad reputation; they were the religious authority—they kept track of these things. However, in Simon’s judgment, he not only shows contempt for the woman, but Jesus as well—almost satirizing the prophetic ministry of Jesus. “Were this man truly a prophet, he would know that the woman touching him is a sinner—rabbis aren’t touched by sinners.”
While Simon is mostly right, what he misses in this moment is that this woman has offers is not only what Jesus would accept, but also what God requires—a contrite heart. But for Simon the Pharisee, and like anyone who is righteous in the sight of their religious observance, it is just too hard to see—to know whether or not this woman is for real. And more than social conventions, Simon knows the score—he’s been around long enough to know the people who will ask him for change to get food, and then buy a 40oz. Simon is probably well acquainted with every hard luck story and every down-and-outter in town. So, maybe it’s more than just the prickly hedge of social status and religious purity which gets him in trouble.
I know that this sounds familiar, because we see it here all the time. There’s no end to the phone calls and pleas for financial help without strings attached. People who would never darken the door of a church know that if they just go to the “C’s” in the yellow pages that they can find relief for their financial woes. And this is because the Church is a great target: people who say they believe in charity and good will and above all unconditional love.
But it’s not just the people who come looking for money. Maybe there are people who, while they might not have a reputation which precedes them, look different, dress different—perhaps they do not fit our framework for the “good Episcopalian type”.
My own experience in one particular Episcopal Church was like this. I know it’s a stretch of the imagination, but when I started attending the Episcopal Church I had long hair, wore sandals and jeans and t-shirts on Sunday mornings. In college, this was the norm—and there were a lot of us who were quite active in the nearby Episcopal parish. So when Charity and I moved back to Ohio after college, our first priority was to find a parish. After some searching, we found one that we felt had really good liturgy, and had a priest who seemed to have a real spiritual depth. He took to us, we took to him—but the parish had no idea what to do with me. Suddenly there was this new couple, and while the wife seemed nice, the husband really needed some work. No one but the priest spoke to us for a month or so—it was lucky that we liked the place, I guess, otherwise we would have been long gone.
Nevertheless, for all of my ‘not fitting their mold’, they later sponsored me for ordination, and here I am. How could they have known that I would discern my call to the priesthood with them? How could they have ever imagined that I would be their first ordinand put forward? Sure, there are still stories about how they “polished me up”, but the truth is that it was God who called us to be there, whether they trusted that or not.
What I think that all of us miss at some point is that God is always the one who calls us to be in community. Even more, sometimes we forget that Jesus really does have the power to forgive all of our debts, no matter how big, or how bad we think they are…
What is so powerful about the Church, as the family which Jesus has redeemed, we are a place where people only have to look in the “C’s” in the yellow pages to find relief for their financial woes. As debtors who know the score, we are a place for people who would never darken our door, but know that they can find help, no strings attached. And while we do need to be careful and discerning, we really must be a people who believe in charity, good will and unconditional love.
It’s a little easier to try and see ourselves as this woman who stops at nothing to come to Jesus—defying odds just to offer her gift. But if we understand Jesus as something of a mirror which shows us our true selves: is our reflection more like Simon the Pharisee? This isn’t judgment—after all, both debtors in the parable had been forgiven their debts. It’s just up to us to truly believe that Jesus is able and willing to truly forgive all our debts—no matter who we are…