Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pentecost 13 (proper 17), Year B, Sunday August 30, 2009

Song Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

A few of my Jewish friends still keep the traditional kosher dietary laws. One evening, one of my most strictly observant friends joined a group of us at someone’s house for dinner. She brought her own food and utensils, and everything was fine, until we got to desert. There was a lovely cake that someone had brought, and she declared that it was “parve”, so she could have some, but we didn’t have a kosher knife, or a kosher plate, or a kosher fork. We finally coped with the situation by using a napkin and breaking off a piece for her, and she munched her dessert directly from the napkin. Not an elegant solution, but it worked!

There were special accommodations that we needed to make to include her in a way that was respectful of her tradition and beliefs, but still there was a feeling of separation because we couldn’t share our food as well as our fellowship. We realized that it would be complicated to continue to include her in social gatherings.

The purity laws of the ancient Hebrew people started with basic moral laws, such as the Ten Commandments, and gradually also included prudent practices for hygiene (washing hands before eating is always a good idea) and for public health (better not to eat pork if it might carry disease). As these laws evolved and became more firmly established in the Jewish tradition, they began to foster intentional separation between the Jews and all others.

Eventually, the purity laws also separated Jew from Jew. The Pharisees and the Jerusalem Temple authorities kept themselves as much as possible in a state of ritual purity so that they could at any time offer prayers and sacrifices. This was something of a luxury, since the common people would often become ritually impure just in the course of their daily lives.

Jesus had a very different experience of God from the religious authorities and the Pharisees. The Pharisees and religious elite believed that they had a special vocation and position at the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed that they held the key to holiness for all others, and that they were the closest to God.

Jesus had a very different experience of God. In his heart, he knew that he was close to God, even though he was not from a priestly family or a Pharisee. He felt blessed by God even though he was from a small, poor town far from Jerusalem and even though he grew up in a carpenter’s home. It may have been a shock to him, on his first visit to the temple as a child of about 12, to discover that the religious elite held themselves above the common people. He may been repelled by the elitism of the ritual sacrifice. His father, Joseph, would have purchased an animal for sacrifice, but would not have been able to offer the sacrifice himself and perhaps not even put his hand on the animal as a sign that it was his own offering to God.

Jesus had a more open and inclusive experience of God. Jesus felt absolutely convinced that a close and intimate connection to God was possible for all, especially the poor and weak and sick and the marginalized. For Jesus, any barriers to the holiness and sanctity of God would have to be of human and not divine origin. For Jesus, touching a leper was a way of holiness and service rather than an act that would defile and separate him from God. As he preached of the blessedness of the poor, those who mourn, and the meek, so he also did compassionate acts of healing.

To Jesus, God was close enough for him to call him Father. God was close enough to call Jesus “My beloved Son”. To Jesus, God was so close and so loving, that Jesus wanted to teach other Jews that they too could find God in their hearts and in their prayer, and that they need not rely on the religious authorities or special laws of purity to be able to approach God. Jesus did not intend to abolish the law altogether, but to fulfill it in a way that made it possible for all Jews, and Samaritans, and even Gentiles to know God.

No wonder he kept running into difficulty with the religious elite. He was challenging their special privilege and status to the core. He was undermining their position of authority. He was turning their teachings and traditions inside out and upside down. By not doing the ritual washing before meals, Jesus and his followers were demonstrating that holiness is not dependent on external ritual actions, but rather is dependent on the state of the heart.

A priest I know in New York was in charge of a little church that had been founded as a mission many years ago by a much larger church. He was hired to do some innovative things, such as jazz Vespers, and to start outreach programs in the local community. As he started to put new programs and services in place, he found that the clergy at the founding church would show up and take over the services, they would nitpick his work, and be critical, and generally not let him get on with what he felt needed to be done. I met him about two years after he left that little church, and it took him a good half-hour to tell me all that had happened. Then he said that all that resentment and anger were like poison in his heart, and like a kind of defilement. He said that he was learning to let go of the negative thoughts, and learning to forgive.

We all may hold some such defiling thoughts and sometimes we may speak angry, spiteful, and revengeful words. Following in the way of Jesus, however, is the way of forgiveness, even as he was dying on the cross, saying: “Forgive them, Father.” As we are forgiven and as we receive the blessing of grace, so we can learn to fill our hearts with forgiveness and blessing, which will crowd out the thoughts and words that defile and poison our hearts.

When Moses first encountered God, God asked him to take off his shoes while standing on holy ground. Removing his shoes was a ritual act that honored God and led Moses to become aware of the presence of God. There are ritual movements and actions that we still make, such as kneeling at the altar, which draw our focus and attention to the holiness and sanctity of God. There are everyday acts of kindness and forgiveness that are also sacred acts. Such actions express and deepen the holiness of the moment, and help us to fill our hearts with peace. As we approach the holiest moment of each Eucharist, we can bend the knee of our hearts, and receive the grace of God, the forgiveness of God, and the love of God, which is offered to all who trust and believe. When our hearts are full of love and a desire for peacefulness, there is no room for anything else.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pentecost 12 (Proper 16), Sunday August 23, 2009

I Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Preached by Deacon John Warner

Family Dinner

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

I thought I was from a large family, being the oldest of five children and one of sixteen first cousins, the children of my mother and her two sisters. However, when I married Marsha and began attending family reunions, birthdays and holiday celebrations, I learned the true meaning of a large family. Marsha grew up in a rural community traditionally characterized by large families needed as labor for family farms. Although Marsha was only the youngest of three siblings, her parents’ brothers and sisters could have outfitted a football league. Marsha’s father was one of eleven siblings while her mother was one of nine.

These family events offered an opportunity to catch up on family news—who’s pregnant, engaged, separated or ill. Food was brought in from the cars and trucks and set on tables being sure to reserve one table for the “sacred” desserts. Everybody had their favorite dessert. You might hear one father tell his daughter to run and grab one of Aunt Mabel’s limited supply of fried apple tarts--or a family member telling her sister that she just had to try a slice of Aunt Louise’s delicious coconut cake. And who could resist a piece of Aunt Mae’s chocolate pie? My mouth waters right now thinking of these heavenly delights.

The church has its own communal meals. Although I have heard church members tell visitors that we at St. Augustine are the “eatiness” group of people with its summer breakfasts, foyer groups and Special Event dinners, I’m not talking about these events; I’m specifically addressing the Eucharist that we share as a community each Sunday.

During August, the Revised Lectionary have taken a break from the Gospel readings from Mark for a series of readings from the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus making a series of claims referencing his role for those who call themselves his disciples. First, Jesus states that he is spiritual food. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Next, Jesus indicates that the bread from heaven is superior to what has come before. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…(John 6:51). Finally, Jesus indicates the communal importance of the Christian meal when he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56).

The students of our weekly EFM classes have learned to tolerate the odd questions I throw out to them to stimulate group discussions. One question that I ask the first year students is as follows: “You are Tom Hanks, a castaway on an isolated South Pacific island and its only resident. Can you begin your own religion? The rationale for the question is that one of the EFM writers pose a premise that any religion, including Christianity, involves two dimensions—one, a vertical relationship between humanity and God and two, a horizontal relationship within a community of man (and woman).

The Eucharist is one of the Church’s great sacraments, an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace. We gather together at the altar to give thanks and praise to God. It is also an opportunity to remember Christ and His sacrifice for us. These actions satisfy the concept of the vertical dimension, our relationship with God.

However, from the earliest times, the Eucharist has involved the community—the family of Christian believers. It has always been a public affair rather than a private devotion. Even when one of our Lay Eucharistic Visitors takes the consecrated host to the homebound, the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics remind us that “it is desirable that fellow parishioners, relatives and friends be present” to take part in the meal. The Eucharist reminds us of the horizontal dimension of Christianity, the responsibility that we have for each other—to love your neighbor as yourself. In this action, we, too, as the body of Christ, become a sacrament—an outward and visible of inward and spiritual grace.

Physicians and psychologists have reported on the benefits of regular attendance in a faith community. Dr. Daniel Hall from the University of Pittsburg Medical Center have demonstrated similar improvements in life expectancy among three experimental groups who respectively engaged in either regular exercise, underwent statin therapy, or attended religious services on a weekly basis. Psychologists have demonstrated a correlation between being an active member within a community of faith and corresponding reductions in stress, pain perception and reduction in risks from depression and anxiety disorders.

Can the health benefits within a community of faith be attributed to frequent church attendance or is it because a community of faith broadens our support systems, family members caring for and looking out for each other? Maybe both have a part to play in health improvement.

Although we generally feel more comfortable with our private connection with Jesus Christ within the sacrament of the bread and wine, we should not come to the altar and receive the Eucharist and neglect the other family members around the table. St. Paul expresses this truth when he says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake from the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). As we individually receive Christ into ourselves around the altar rails, we are inextricably bound to one another as the body of Christ. As Christ takes on flesh and blood in each of us, we become one as the collective body—the body of Christ.

As you participate in the Eucharist today, pay close attention to each person in the congregation, both church members and visitors. Do you know them? Maybe today would be a good time to introduce yourself. Are you aware of health or other life trials they might be experiencing? Is someone absent? Ask God to open your heart to be more mindful and attentive to the needs of others. Ask God to allow the shared Eucharistic experience to become an impetus to further bind us into a loving community. Finally, ask God to help you discern how this loving response to our family can be extended into the world. Amen.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pentecost 10 (proper 14), Year B, Sunday August 9, 2009

2 Sam 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

I once met a Zoroastrian priest who explained to me the basics of the Zoroastrian religion. It’s a very ancient tradition that follows the teachings of Zoroaster, who lived in ancient Persia anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 years ago. Today, we mostly think of Zoroastrians as “fire worshippers”, but this priest explained that they don’t worship the eternal fire itself. The fire for them symbolizes goodness and purity, which is the focus of their worship. The light of the fire, or of the sun, or any other light, is a reminder to them to turn towards good rather than evil. The core teachings of Zoroaster were to have “good thoughts, good words, and good actions”.

This sounds a bit like our collect for today, in which we prayed to be given “the spirit to think and do always such things as are right”. It also is similar to a verse in our reading from the Epistle to the Ephesians: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another…”

There is much to learn in the moral and spiritual teachings of world religions. I think we could safely say that something like these basic teachings of “good thoughts, good words, and good actions” can be found somewhere in the teachings of any of these traditions. For example, Buddhism teaches generosity, loving-kindness towards all creatures, humility, non-attachment to possessions, and selfless service to others. Judaism’s earliest teachings are found in the 10 commandments, especially loving God, honoring parents, and respecting others’ property. In Islam, believers are taught to worship only one God, submission to God’s will, mindfulness of God, just actions towards others, and generosity to the poor.

So also in Christianity, Jesus taught about the good things we should do, and good thoughts we should have, and good relationships that we should maintain. Unfortunately, such fine teachings alone are often not enough, and it can be a constant struggle to live up to them.

There is a Greek myth about a man named Sisyphus, who did many wicked things in his life. His greatest sin, in the eyes of the Greek gods, was that he was arrogant and he pointed out the sins of the gods themselves! His punishment was the ultimate in frustration: he was to roll a great stone up to the top of a mountain, and not to stop until he had reached the top. The problem was that each time he pushed the rock up, the mountain got steeper and steeper, and he would eventually lose his footing and his grip on the rock, and it would roll back down to the bottom of the hill. Then, he would go back to the bottom of the hill and start rolling the rock up the mountain, all over again, for all eternity.

Trying to live always in love can be just about as frustrating as a Sisyphean task! We may also slip and slide and sometimes crash. But, we are not on our own, as Sisyphus was. We have a unique and sacred gift in our Christian faith, as we hear in the conclusion of this verse from the Epistle to the Ephesians: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,… and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

The message of the Gospel was something entirely new in the ancient world, and Paul found that it was “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” (1 Cor 1:23) to the Jews and Gentiles who first heard it. On his missionary journeys, Paul could have taken the easy way out, and just preached about the teachings of Jesus. That would have been revolutionary enough, since Jesus always set a higher standard than anyone had ever heard before. It was customary for him to say, “You have been taught such and such, but I say – go even farther; you can even become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matt 5:48) Paul could have just presented this new set of teachings from the Rabbi Jesus, and that would have been challenging enough.

If he and the other early disciples had only done that much, I doubt we would be here today and I doubt there would be a Christian Church. Instead of taking the easy route, Paul preached about the resurrection. He preached that belief in the power of the risen Christ would open up the way to transformation in God’s love. He and the other earliest believers in Christ told of this new way of living in love and walking with God. Some believed, and some didn’t. For those who did believe and who did begin to follow Christ, this new message of God’s love, and forgiveness, and grace was so powerful that it completely transformed their lives and their communities.

If only Sisyphus had heard the Gospel. He could have experienced the forgiveness of God’s grace, and release from his sentence. The rock and the mountain would no longer have bound him. He could have walked away into the new creation and into eternal salvation.

As Christians and Episcopalians today, we too could take the easy route. We could try to reach the unchurched and try to be relevant to secular society with an easy message. In my humble opinion, if we only talk about how to be good people, we lose the very power of the Christian message. We lose the opportunity to introduce others to the risen Christ and by so doing, experience more and more deeply our own transformation by the power of the cross. As we live into this new life and new creation we may then be led to love God more fully, to love our neighbors in more generous ways, and most often to choose a compassionate way. When we do slip, we can return and accept the forgiveness and embrace of an ever-loving God.

I’ve never seen it, but I hear that in some Christian churches there is an impassioned sermon to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and then an altar call for those who are ready to be saved and make a public commitment to Christ. We Episcopalians are not quite so demonstrative and emotional, but we do have our own restrained style of altar call. Our altar call starts with the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God”.

With these words, all baptized Christians are invited to come forward, to the altar, to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. The Eucharist of bread and wine is both a reminder of the gift of salvation and also to us a sacrament, which makes real for us the self-giving love of Christ. We are reminded in this sacrament that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” in the healing grace and redeeming love of our Savior. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pentecost 9 (proper 13), Year B, Sunday August 2, 2009

2 Sam 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 2:11-22; John 6:24-35
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

The prophet Nathan had a difficult challenge ahead of him. As the designated prophet and conscience of King David, he had the responsibility of “speaking the truth in love” to the King, and sometimes had to tell the King things he clearly did not want to hear. Nathan spoke “the truth” this time by telling the King a story.

He told the story of a poor man who had a lovely lamb who was to him like a daughter. A rich man seized this lamb and prepared it for a banquet. The story is so clearly one of injustice and improper use of power. King David couldn’t help but be offended, and declared that this man should make restitution for his injustice.

In much fear and trembling we can be sure, Nathan then exclaimed, “You are the man!” It’s not easy to hold up a mirror to a King. Sometimes it takes a neutral story to pave the way, and make the King himself declare such a deed to be a sin.

Recently, a mirror of truth was held up to me. Four Sundays ago our Epistle reading was from 2 Corinthians, and I preached on the passage “Power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9b). I spoke about Jesus’ experience of weakness when he came to his hometown of Nazareth and when he was unable to do any deeds of power. I spoke about our giving over authority and power to Jesus.

Two days later I was in the hospital, flat on my back, stuck like a pincushion with tubes and wires going everywhere. Out of the blue, I had had some sort of a heart incident, and was kept in the hospital for several days while the doctors measured and scanned and injected. I’m sure I glowed in the dark for a few days afterwards. After I was sent home, I had a bad reaction to something I was given or something I caught in the hospital. So, I was flat on my back at home for quite a while longer.

There wasn’t much to do except sleep, feel nauseous and still dream about food, and to start thinking, why is this happening to me? Why right now? Where is God in all this? Ummm, what was it I said in my sermon about power being made perfect in weakness?

This was a very new experience for me. It was a major wake-up call to slow down, eat more consciously and deliberately, take care to find time to rest, to learn to say “No, I can’t do that; not me, not this time”. I couldn’t help but look closely into the mirror that God was holding up to me.

There was also lots of time for prayer. There were sisters, and several people from St. Augustine’s, and doctors who prayed with me. I prayed to be well again, but especially I prayed to learn what the message was that God wanted me to hear. What should I be seeing in the mirror besides “You’re running on empty! Slow down!

I found that admitting my weakness was the first step in looking into that mirror. Then it became possible to give over power and strength and authority to Jesus and trust that he would take care of me and everything else that I wasn’t getting done. He would see that I was healed, as much as possible right now. He would see my weakness and frustration, and stay with me. He would see that I was held in love while I tried to understand and accept a new way of being in the world.

I’m not finished praying through this recent experience, and I’ve only started trying to figure out how to live with better stewardship of my health. Having always been over involved and over committed, it’s going to be a huge life change. And, I haven’t yet understood why God would give me the great blessing of serving here at Saint Augustine’s, and then find that I’m required to give it back for a time. A blessing may be even more special and precious when we acknowledge that it’s a temporary gift.

I think God sometimes calls us to be patient with not knowing. The very surrender of our own authority makes space for God to lead us gently in God’s own time to acceptance and peace, knowing that God’s bountiful spirit will sustain us always.

Some time ago, one of my sisters put a sign on the fridge in the convent that said, “You are not responsible all the time for absolutely everything. That’s my job. Love, God”. In my mind, I know that we are really not in charge. Through this experience, I’m starting to learn to take that message home and to let Jesus be in charge.

We see Jesus in charge especially in the Gospel of John. Just as different people may see and report the same events very differently, so the Gospel of John presents a special portrait of Jesus, somewhat different from the other Gospels. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is even more authoritative, and he speaks with intimate knowledge of God’s will. It’s as if he is speaking from the mountain of the Transfiguration throughout the Gospel. He stands apart from the disciples and people, and he declares who he is through metaphors, such as: “I am the bread of life”.

The manna was food for a transitional time. The bread of life is food for the soul, for all time. It is nourishment that sustains us through any difficulty or suffering or grief, even to eternal life.

What is most important is that Jesus is present among us and he offers to be for us the bread of life. That is the beginning and the end, and from that place of trust and confidence, we can go on to ask forgiveness, to serve and minister, and to grow as the Body of Christ. We are not followers of Christ because we do the good things we ought to do, but rather we can learn to walk in love and serve because first we follow Him.

Whatever suffering we may face, or sins we may have committed, or work we may have left undone, or despair we may feel – we will always have this promise from Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)