Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pentecost 17 (Proper 21), Year B, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Preached by Rev. John Warner

Easy Street

If there is one thing that the process leading to my ordination as a deacon taught me, it was patience. The initial interview with Bishop Louttit led to a six-month discernment period followed by several years study of scripture, ethics, church history, theology and liturgy. I progressed from discerner to postulant to candidate to ordinand. Like many before and probably after me, I wanted to hurry the process; however, the Commission on Ministry wisely included a series of minimum waiting periods within the process that prevented me from rushing through it. I had encountered the proverbial “hurry up and wait!”

Anyone who is currently in or has graduated with a college degree, especially a postgraduate degree, has had similar experience. When you begin college, all you can focus on is a long series of quarters or semesters arrayed out ahead you. If one needs a college degree for a better job, higher pay or more prestige, the number of courses required can be daunting and depressing. Many may be tempted to short circuit the process and seek an alternative route.

Before retirement, I had the occasion to recruit a professional to fill a vacancy at the regional mental health office in Augusta. As the resumes were submitted, I would review the content and sort each into one of three piles: 1st group interviews, 2nd group interviews, and “over my dead body” interviews. Since the positions required a minimum of a Bachelor degree with experience, a red flag would go up when an applicant’s resume including a Ph.D. hit my desk. Frequently, the schools awarding these postgraduate degrees were unfamiliar to me; therefore, I would use the miracle of the Internet to review the quality of the school’s academics. What I found shocked me.

There are several sites that offer advanced degrees for “life experience.” For a fee you can receive a diploma and a transcript of grades without attending one class. For an additional cost, you can receive a diploma with honors to display, a cap and gown to hang in your closet and a student ID card to allow you to receive those student discounts. While during my Internet research, I discovered a news item about Chester Ludlow, a pug dog from Vermont who received a Masters in Business Administration for its life and career experience. Now, that is one talented dog—my dog Suzy can only sit on command!

To paraphrase Dr. Scott Peck from The Road Less Travelled,”Life is no easy street.” Life is a series of obstacles which requires self-discipline to overcome. I believe that the life worth living isn’t the easy life, one reflected through only the goal achieved, but the life of struggle where obstacles are wrestled with that makes life worth living.

This view of life also applies to our Christian faith, which I believe that Jesus alludes to in the Gospel reading. His words today are disturbing:

· If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
· If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
· If you eyes cause you to stumble, pluck it out.

However, before you believe that Jesus is inviting us into a practice of self-mutilation, remember that Jesus was a master storyteller frequently using metaphor and hyperbole—exaggeration—to drive his point home.

No, Jesus isn’t inviting us to amputate various body parts. I do believe he calls us into a Christian life, one that requires self-discipline and struggles against the world’s temptations enticing us to travel the easy street, a path that leads us away from Christ’s calling.

Some may want to know what the minimum is that we must do to be considered Christians. It would be easy to believe that Christianity only requires us to show up in church, at least on Christmas and Easter, to profess our love of Jesus and to say our prayers for an easy life. However, I believe that Jesus is telling us that to embark on the Christian life that will cost us everything. A similar sentiment is addressed by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”

After the events described in today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples continue their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. His fate is to be betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified. For the disciples and other followers of Christ, suddenly, the cost of following in Jesus’ footsteps became dearer. With the exception of only a few that dared to stand with Jesus has he hung on the cross, the crowds who followed Jesus disappeared fearing a similar fate. During the next few centuries before Christianity was sanctioned by Constantine, hundreds of individuals who proclaimed themselves to be Christians were martyred for their faith by stoning, crucifixion, burned at the state or some other form of torture or capital punishment. For others, when faced with persecution for their Christian faith, continued adherence was too great; therefore, they renounced their faith.

Jesus understood what it was like to be human. He knew what it was like to be tempted to take the easy path through life. He was tempted in the desert shortly after his baptism to accept an easy life of power and plenty. While praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he momentarily asked God to free him from his journey to the cross.

Most Americans today don’t encounter the threats to our Christian faith as did our apostolic fathers. Nor do we experience the persecution similar to many small Christian groups today in some third world countries. Although we are tempted to take Easy Street, such a path isn’t without consequences. A life lived influenced more by the self-centered world outside these walls rather than a Christ-filled life is a life of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Jesus was serious about the way we live our lives and the consequences of not living our humanity to its fullest, our divine potential . That is why Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel:

· It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, where the fire never goes out.
· It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
· It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.

Jesus calls us to walk with him on the Way. The Christian life isn’t always easy; it can be a difficult journey. Being a resident of the kingdom of God is what Jesus is calling us into. It is a journey worth taking.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentecost 16 (proper 20), Year B, Sunday Sept 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

There are many wonderful drawings and paintings of Jesus surrounded by children. The children are crowding around him, and some are leaning against him or hugging his knees. They are looking up adoringly at him and listening to his words. Sometimes he is holding a little child in his arms. These are such very tender images and express to us one of the ways in which we imagine Jesus, as gentle and kind and even fatherly/motherly. These images illustrate His teaching that it is especially the meek and lowly who are most blessed and loved by God.

However, the ancient people who were present with Jesus for the event described in our Gospel reading, and the early Christians who heard this story, would have most likely reacted quite differently. To ancient peoples, Jesus’ actions and words on that day would have been shocking and scandalous!

In the ancient Middle East (and even today), homes were constructed with walls around them to separate the household from the outside world and to enclose family space. The areas outside of the walls were the domain of men. Inside the walls, there was often a courtyard where men could meet and discuss their business, and then there were family spaces for the women and children. Children were usually not running about in the courtyard or the men’s meeting areas.

We also know that in the ancient world there was a definite social pecking order. Men and especially wealthy men of status were at the top. Wealthy women and wives of important men might also be near the top. Then there were ordinary men and craftsmen; then ordinary women; then at the bottom of the social scale were slaves, widows, and children.

In today’s reading we hear that Jesus “took a little child”. Most likely he had to go and find one, perhaps even by going near or into the family section of the house. Then the story continues: “He… put it among them”. He would have had to bring this child into an area where children would not normally be, perhaps in the courtyard where the men had gathered.

Then, he did something even more shocking by taking up the child in his arms, raising up the very lowest in the social order, to make his point even more clearly: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

As we have seen in the modern artistic renditions of this scene, we might interpret this as a lovely moment, with Jesus holding a cuddly, cherubic, gurgling infant. We can imagine a scene of domestic bliss, with the perfect baby and the perfect wife and mother, and the perfect father.

Now imagine, if you will, what this scene more probably looked like. Imagine how most young children would react to being seized from their mother’s arms and taken into a public space with lots of strange faces all around them, and then picked up and held by some strange man. Let’s rephrase Jesus’ statement: “Whoever welcomes this squealing, squirming, squalling baby in my name, welcomes me….” It’s easy to welcome the cute and cuddly, and much, much harder to welcome the messy, complicated, real people whom God actually brings to our door.

At the convent where I live, we sisters gather in our chapel to chant the Daily Office four times a day. Our chant sounds something like the chant that we use in this parish when we chant the psalm. We sisters have chanted together four times a day for so many years that we really get to know each other’s voices and how to stay together (mostly). We sing very quietly so that our voices blend, and we try to make all our voices sound like one. All is well, until we have visitors. We love having visitors at the convent, but sometimes their voices are loud, or flat, or too slow. We try to keep up the pitch and the pace, and sometimes we say in our hearts: we love our visitors, and we love it when they go away again!

Who is usually most welcome in our midst? Certainly those who are most like ourselves, who blend and harmonize most easily, who bring as little change as possible! Who is least welcome? It’s usually the ones who change and challenge us.

There is a church in New York that was not doing very well, either financially or in terms of attendance. As they were searching for a new rector, they told one of the candidates that they wanted to grow and prosper, so he answered them, “If you hire me as your rector, this church will grow. But I want you to understand that you’re not going to like it.” I think he was confronting their very earnest desire to grow, but only to grow in a comfortable way.

At Saint Augustine’s we have expressed a commitment to growing, especially by bringing in younger people. I have to be honest with you about this – at my age, I have been very comfortable here, with all of your help and with the warm welcome that I’ve received. Also, the average age of this congregation about the same as mine! It wasn’t until I saw some results from the parish survey that I realized that we are indeed a mostly aging congregation (as I also am reluctantly but inevitably aging). A substantial influx of new, energetic, enthusiastic, spirit-filled young people would definitely be a change and would definitely bring new life in Christ in our midst. And an influx of new, energetic, enthusiastic, spirit-filled young people would definitely challenge us in every way.

Our mission is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to live in love and to welcome all those who come to us for spiritual nourishment and fellowship in Christ. This means accepting some disorientation. Jesus himself was really good at shaking up the traditions and customs of his time. In the midst of change and challenge, the one constant is God, who is eternal and changeless in His grace and mercy. God knows our need, and will give us the strength and skills to persevere.

When we welcome anyone whom God has sent to us and who is drawn to be part of our worship and fellowship, we welcome Jesus in our midst, who was ready to speak with women, eat with tax collectors, and who gave his life for all who strive to follow Him. When we welcome anyone in His name, we welcome Christ into our midst and we are all blessed by the grace of God to heal our differences and open our hearts to work together and to live always in His love.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pentecost 15 (proper 19), Year B, Sunday Sept 13, 2009

Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the far distant reaches of human history there was a time when the earliest humans began to look up at the stars and across great vistas of oceans and mountains and plains. They were filled with awe and they started to ponder. They began to reflect on what they saw and felt, and they began to think beyond themselves and beyond the present moment.

It was a most profound moment when people started to ask themselves some new and deeply reflective questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Who are we as a people? How did we get here?

Throughout recorded history, people continued ask these essential questions concerning human existence. Today, we still yearn to understand why we are here, how we can know God, how we can be in relationship with God, and how we can understand where God is calling us.

The Gospels were written with the purpose of addressing these questions by revealing who Jesus was and is. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus himself ask the key question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This question underlies all of the Gospel stories, and eventually unfolds as the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

But here, at this point in the narrative, Jesus’ ministry and identity are still unfolding. Here, Jesus explicitly asks the disciples for an answer. He knows that he causes quite a stir wherever he goes, and in his full humanity he may be asking this question quite honestly: “What do you hear people saying about me?”

The answer is that people really don’t know what to think or what to say about him. Jesus doesn’t quite fit any known pattern. The closest they can come is to describe him as a prophet, such as Elijah, or perhaps even as John the Baptist.

Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” We can hear a confident, divine Jesus posing this question to the disciples so that they can learn to know him as the Messiah. I wonder, also, if the fully human Jesus is asking for some reassurance and even for their support. We may be able to hear just a hint of gentle wistfulness in the question: “After all is said and done, who am I to you, my closest companions?”

Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. He gets it just right, and at first he says to Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” So far so good. But then Peter immediately sails off course. He is shocked to hear Jesus describe a very different messiah than he can possibly understand: a suffering servant messiah, who willingly gives himself up to a shameful death and who will “after three days rise again”. Peter’s one moment of deep wisdom, that Jesus is the Messiah, is lost in a heartbeat in his befuddlement and incomprehension of what that will mean for his friend and teacher.

Wisdom is perhaps the most profound form of knowledge, beyond our direct experience and beyond any concrete understanding. Wisdom is the deepest knowledge of God’s will, God’s presence, God’s sanctity and God’s “divine goodness”. Most of us may hold such deep insight for only a fleeting instant, and then lose it in the next moment, as Peter does.

We do well, when we can discern and follow the path of divine Wisdom, which God intends to “pour out” and “make known” to us. Wouldn’t it be nice to have clear sky-writing that tells us exactly what is God’s will for us? Unfortunately, we don’t always understand what God wants to make clear. We may well, as James says, “make mistakes” in judgment and discernment. In our life choices, James describes a “very small rudder” which can change our life directions in major ways. Robert Frost wrote in one of his poems about two paths that diverged in the woods, and how he decided to take the less traveled path, which made “all the difference”. Frost adds, wistfully, that after making his choice, he knows that he will “never come back”.

Whatever our ages, we’ve all made choices and mistakes. I’ve made some real whoppers along the way. All these choices and, yes, even mistakes, become part of who we are and who we are becoming. As I grow older, I’m more and more convinced that mistakes, and side paths, and journeys off-course are never wasted, but they all become part of our stories, part of our spiritual growth, part of our search for God. Who are we? We are the total of all of our stories and our mistakes, our journeys off-course, as well as our successes. We are our happiness and our sorrows, our good as well as less fortunate choices. And we are not isolated, self-sufficient individuals, as we waver on and off-course, but rather we are our relationships with each other and with God.

We do get some sky-writing in this Gospel reading after all. Jesus is very clear in describing who God is calling us to become: a people who can “deny” ourselves, take up our cross every day, and follow him. “Denying” ourselves is not usually meant to be self-destructive, but rather a free choice, without resentment or obligation. It may mean as little as a kind word to a friend; it may very rarely mean as much as a major sacrifice or giving up our lives to save another.

Taking up our cross isn’t about suffering, as in “I guess this illness is my cross to bear”, nor is it about taking up someone else’s cross! Taking up our cross is also a free choice, and a firm, honest, complete dedication to generosity of spirit and to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus in our words and in our lives. It’s not about easy, convenient, half-hearted commitment. It’s not about church-lite. It’s a major life choice and whole-hearted dedication to Christ.

Who am I? Who are we? We are human, created in the image of a loving and merciful God. We are created to wonder and question; to make both wise and foolish choices. We are not alone, or solitary, or isolated. We are who we are in relationship to other people and to God. We are most closely defined by who we say that Jesus is.

As we learn to answer that question, we will also begin know who we are as human beings, as a community of faith, and as Christians who attempt in all things to follow Christ.