Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Saint Who Lost His Head For the Truth

(Sculpture on wood, by Santiago Martinez Delgado, 1942, 
Museo Nacional de Bogota Colombia)

"Since the memory of blessed John the Baptist is not to be passed over cursorily, it is important that we should note who he was, and by whom, and for what cause, and how, and when he was slain. A just man is slain by adulterers, and the guilty passed sentence of death upon the judge. Further, the death of the Prophet was the reward of a dancing girl. Lastly (which all the barbarians even would be likely to shudder at) the order to consummate the cruelty went forth amid feasting and conviviality; and from the banquet to the prison, from the prison to the banquet, the obedient agents of this death-dealing and disgraceful act went to and fro. How great are the crimes contained in this single infamy!"

(From the book of St. Ambrose, Bishop, On Virgins)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

St. Augustine of Hippo

(Icon by Richard G. Cannuli, OSA)

"Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new,
too late have I loved you!
Behold, you were within me, while I was outside: 
it was there that I sought you, and, deformed creature,
rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They kept me far from you, those fair things which, 
if they were not in you, would not exist at all.
You have called to me, and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness.
You have blazed forth with light, and have shone upon me,
and you have put my blindness to flight!
You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you.
I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you.
You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace."
(The Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 27)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

God's Answer To Setting People Free

We are determined to be free in ’63!” Those words were spoken by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years ago at the March on Washington. What more fitting time can there be, than the current celebration of this historic event and of King’s memorable speech, to reflect on the gift of freedom.

The simple message of Luke’s Gospel passage (13:10-17) is that God’s purpose is always to see us free. Luke’s story unfolds as Jesus is teaching in “one of the synagogues”. We’re not told where it is. A woman is there who’d been crippled for 18 years, so that she was bent over and unable to stand up straight. This isn’t a rare thing even in our own day. One of my priest friends has scoliosis severe enough that he has to stand back in the supermarket aisle in order to see the top shelf. 

The woman, apparently, has come as a worshipper, perhaps a regular one. She’s undoubtedly sitting with other women in their section. In Orthodox Judaism, a mechitzah, i.e., a wall or curtain, separates the women from the men, sometimes placing women in a second floor balcony. A Jewish commentary explains the rationale thus: 1) mingling of the sexes can lead to frivolity. One’s mind is supposed to be on prayer, not on the pretty girl praying near you; and 2) even if the sexes are separated, they shouldn’t be able to interact much during a religious service, lest this lead to gazing and impure thoughts. Many pagan religious ceremonies in ancient Jewish times involved sexual activity and orgies. The separation was seen to prevent, or at least to discourage, this. Interestingly, although men shouldn’t be able to see women during prayer, women are permitted to see men during prayer. It may be that women are judged as better able to concentrate on prayer with an attractive member of the opposite sex visible, than vice versa! Because of these restrictions, the mechitzah is usually opaque, at least from the men's side. Some mechitzot divide the front and back of the synagogue; others divide the left and right sides of the synagogue, thus enabling the women to not be farther away from the service than the men.

Notice that the woman in the Gospel, keeping a low profile, isn’t the one who asks for healing. Jesus notices her and simply announces: “Woman, you’re set free from your ailment.” Disregarding Jewish custom, he walks over to her and lays hands on her. Luke says the woman stood up right away and began praising God: out of habit, one could assume. 

As in many congregations, regardless of denomination, there’s always one self-righteous person who feels compelled to enforce the liturgical “rules” by the book! In this case, Luke says, it’s the leader of the synagogue. We can imagine him, with his prissy, indignant face, jumping up and announcing loudly: “People... there are six other days when work is supposed to be done! Please come only on those days, not on the Sabbath!” He’s a perfect example of one who’s made the Law and the Sabbath an idol.

Jesus is quick to challenge him and any others in the congregation who share such views: “You hypocrites!” Jesus draws a vivid contrast between their willingness, on the Sabbath, to rescue a thirsty ox or donkey, leading it to water, and their  hardened resistance to his acting on the Sabbath in behalf of a woman “whom the Adversary had bound for eighteen long years” by her physical ailment: she, who was “a daughter of Abraham”.  Luke notes that Jesus’ opponents were publicly shamed, and that the others, “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Jesus is about freedom, about unbinding people from what holds them back, about releasing them: from physical ailments, from interior anxiety and sickness, from the confining limits of false religiosity. This is the object of God’s ministry to us and among us, and God calls you and me to that same ministry of freeing others to do the work to which God calls them.

The basis for this is what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks about in the second reading (12:18-29). The gracious God has called us in Baptism as citizens “of the living God”, to “the heavenly Jerusalem”, to a “festal gathering” which is “the assembly of the the spirits of the righteous made perfect...and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood” which he shed in order for us to be unbound, released, truly free. His blood, shed for us, is the unique sign of the communication of life between God and us. We’re sisters and brothers in Christ in God’s family, and, as such, are called to “offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe”. Worship doesn’t happen just at church on Sunday: it happens all week long in the way we relate to and reverence one another, in the ways we carry out our ministries so that everyone with whom we associate can be free from whatever would bind or control or limit them from doing what they’re called to do. The author of Hebrews warns us: “See that you do not refuse the One who is speaking.” We refuse the One who speaks to us any time we cause another to be less free for doing the will of God.

In 1997, Guidepost magazine told the story of a woman from Chappaqua, NY, named Elizabeth Sherold. Elizabeth was working at her computer one afternoon when all of a sudden she saw a skunk stumble across her front yard wearing a yellow helmet, at least it looked like a helmet! It actually turned out to be a yellow plastic yogurt container which was stuck on the skunk’s head. The skunk ran around frantically trying to get it loose, but the container wouldn’t come off. So the skunk continued blindly running this way and that, unable to see. Elizabeth called the Department of Wildlife and asked what she should do, and was politely told that she needed to pull the yogurt container off the skunk’s head! “What if it sprays me?” she countered. “Well, if a skunk can’t see you, he won’t spray you”, said the official.  “Yeah, but what happens”, Elizabeth asked, “when I pull the container off?” “Make sure he doesn’t feel threatened!”, came the answer.
She thanked the official somewhat unconvinced, hung up and went outside. The skunk was nowhere to be found. As she was about to turn and go back inside, all of a sudden a black and white streak suddenly emerged from the bushes and ran straight toward her.  Throwing caution to the wind, she stooped down, quickly grabbed hold of the container, and pulled it off the skunk’s head. Suddenly Elizabeth found herself staring into two alert black eyes a mere two feet away.  But it was free, no longer limited, released! She held the skunk’s gaze for a full 10 seconds before it turned, ran a few yards, then continued on, disappearing down a culvert. 
Here’s what Elizabeth Sherold wrote later about that encounter:  “A timeless parable played itself out, I thought.  For this skunk was all those needs that I hesitate to get involved in.  You know, involvement takes time.  And I have deadlines to meet.  I probably can’t do anything anyway.  And somebody else with more expertise can probably handle it better.  And besides, involvement can be ugly, and the stench may rub off on me.  And all of those things, of course, may be true, but I’ve got a yellow pencil holder on my desk—a rather scratched and battered one—to remind me that every now and then God’s answer to a need is me.
Without pressing the comparison of a skunk to anyone in your life or mine (!),  “every now and then God’s answer to a need”, to helping someone else get, at least metaphorically, “straightened up”, loosened from their burden, made free again, is you and me! 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Andiamo, Diaconos!

Recently I was asked to facilitate a small regional group on spiritual formation 
this semester for four students of the School of Deacons, Berkeley, CA. 
The following are some thoughts in this regard.
+     +     +

(Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 84; 2nd Corinthians 4:1-6; Luke 22:24-28)

In the passage from the prophet Jeremiah, God reminds us all: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you...” I’m willing to bet that many times along the way each of us has pointed out to God, à la Jeremiah, probably that not only we were “a youth”, but that we were only a lowly, humble lay person, and why would God want me in the ordained ministry anyway. Undoubtedly, God has assured each of us over and over, as he did Jeremiah, “I have known you; I have set you apart; I am with you to deliver you...”, just as Paul assured the Corinthian community that it’s “through God’s mercy [that] we have this ministry...”  In the ordination service for a deacon, the merciful, protective God, through the Bishop’s laying on of hands, reaches out, as in our creation and in our Baptism, touching us again, assuring us that we’re commissioned anew to be God’s mouthpiece in a dangerous, unaccepting and resistant world.

The Scriptures above amount to a veritable manual or handbook of what any baptized Christian, much less one newly ordained, needs in order to like in faith, hope and love in this 21st century culture of anxiety and flux. Let me enumerate some of the things which can help us maintain our spiritual balance and sanity:
  • “Go to everyone to whom I send you...”
  • “Say whatever I command you...”
  • “Do not be afraid...”
  • “Do not lose heart...”
  • “Renounce secret and shameful ways...”
  • “Do not use deception...”
  • “Do not distort the word of God...”
  • “Set forth the truth plainly...”
  • “Commend yourself to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God...”
  • Do not preach yourself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and yourself as a servant for Jesus’ sake...”
Though all of these characterize the call by God in Baptism, as well as the call to the oldest ordained sacred order, the last item mentioned above is key. One’s ministry as one who serves, as a deacon, even though for some it will be called “transitional”, will always be central to one’s Christian life and to the life of one ordained. Diakonia is essential in the thinking of both Jesus and the Apostles, as well as of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. The great martyr Ignatius of Antioch envisions the Bishop as representing the unity of one God for all people, and the presbyters as representing the council of the Apostles. In his Letter to the Trallians, Ignatius says: “Everyone must show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ...” And, Ignatius adds, “You cannot have a church without [all of] these.

As an icon of Jesus the Christ the deacon is called to proclaim with Paul, in word and by example, that “...we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake...” Luke’s Gospel passage reminds us of the absolute necessity for those who follow Jesus to be servant leaders. Jesus’ discussion with his disciples about this is occasioned by Jesus‘ revelation that he’s been betrayed by one of his own. Two all-too-human temptations frequently plague people who’ve been “chosen”: 1) unfaithfulness and betrayal; 2) the struggle to be first, to be esteemed, to be known. At table with Jesus, the Apostles, shown over and over again in Luke’s and the other Evangelists‘ accounts to be so typically human, become contentious (the Greek word has the sense of loving strife, keeping the pot stirred) over who seems to be the greater, until Jesus redirects their focus. The secular/pagan leaders and lords, he says, show off and flex their power over others and ingratiate themselves as “do-gooders”, when it suits their purposes, in order to maintain status and authority.

But you are not thus”, Jesus says. “No. Greatness must serve lowliness. The greater among you must live and act as the newest to the group, the least important, he says. The one who leads must live and act as the one who serves, as a diakonos. “I am among you as the one who serves”, Jesus says: not just “as one” who serves, but “as the one” who serves: “the master”, in the words of Fr. Joseph Fitzmayer, “who puts on an apron and serves the faithful.” In these words, Jesus sums up his whole life and ministry, as well as the task of one called to be a deacon.

How one is to faithfully serve God’s people hasn’t been an issue only for Jesus‘ disciples, but for the Church in every age. Commenting on Luke’s passage, Fr. Gerard Sloyan, an old professor of mine from Catholic University days back in the 1960’s, observes: “No church is exempt or above the fray of disagreements and disputes; indeed, we might even be encouraged by knowing that this is constitutive of church life. The tough vocation of Christian life in community, however, is sitting at the table of discussion and at the table of the Lord’s Supper and facing those with whom we have serious disagreements, so that -- if not always agreement -- charity and love prevail.

How utterly apropos of all that one takes on as a deacon. As a bearer of God’s Word in a world, and too often a Church, that doesn’t always want to hear that Word, threatened because of the security they’ve built for themselves, the deacon will probably not be popular, regardless of what s/he says. Rejection in some form is inevitable. The deacon’s call to be uncompromising in opposing injustice, violence, idolatry, and false teaching in any form, will at times make her/him afraid; overwhelmed and uncertain; blasted and stung by others’ criticism; saddened and humiliated when some of one’s own turn away, perhaps even betray, as happened to Jesus. In those times the words of Jeremiah’s God will be a comfort: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” The deacon’s call is God’s work. It is God’s power which make the deacon’s hesitant words efficacious, perhaps at times even prophetic. The deacon is but a touchstone communicating to anyone who will listen that the loving God is the One in charge of our lives and history.

Take it as wisdom, or if not that, at least good advice, from an elder that the surest way a deacon can be a faithful servant is by living in deep and close relationship with One whose image s/he is. Psalm 84 alludes to God’s “dwelling place”, i.e., God’s very Presence, in describing the Temple where mother sparrows and swallows find a secure place to nest their young, and where “those whose strength is in [God]”, viz., the priests and Levites, and the people, find a home base from which to go and come on their pilgrimage of servant ministry. It’s important for a deacon not to let a day go by without spending significant time in that “dwelling place” of the “living God”: in prayer and contemplation, in the daily Office, and in the Eucharist. Nothing which the deacon will say or do in servant ministry will mean anything unless it comes from that Source. Without it, the deacon will only be a blind guide leading the blind.

In 2004 my son, Andrew, told me of an experience he had on a visit to the Tuileries Garden, near the Louvre, just before he left Paris. There’s a large fountain there where miniature boats, with poles to guide them, can be rented. Though Andrew knew only a smattering of Italian, he was following the dialogue between and Italian man and his small son. The boy had obviously never done this before, and was therefore somewhat perplexed as to the mechanics involved. His father patiently showed him how to use the pole and to guide the “ship”, to push it ahead in the water, then turned it over to his son. The boy looked up and asked, “But how will it keep floating around?” And the father answered, “God will take care of that. Andiamo, Capitano! (Let’s go, Captain!)”

The late Bishop Stewart Zabriskie published a profoundly thought-provoking book in 1995, entitled Total Ministry: Reclaiming the Ministry of All God’s People. In it he tells of a picture of a ship in his office bearing this inscription: “A ship is safe in a harbor, but that’s not what a ship is for.” The ship of the Church, if it’s to survive and prosper, must always be heading out for the high seas. Each of us “on board” , in the unique way God has called us, has a part in tending to and navigating the Church through the calm weather and peaceful waters, as well as through the threatening storms and squalls. God brings to fruition the gift given to a person, begun in the womb and in Baptism, in their call and ordination as a deacon. God invites that person to be a servant leader in the Church, bearing the “pole”, if you will, of God’s Word, compassion and love as she or he ministers to and helps guide all those committed to their, especially “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” (Book of Common Prayer, The Ordination of a Deacon, The Examination, p. 543) God bids that person:

Andiamo, Diaconessa/Diacono! Andiamo, Servo!”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

In the Steps of Jesus: "The Pioneer & Perfecter of Our Faith"

The author of Hebrews, in today’s Epistle, describes the Christian life in terms of a race which has no divisions or categories. We all run it. Today’s passage (12:1-14) follows the previous chapter where the author gives a sort of short course in biblical history. He singles out the great heroes of faith, from Abel to Samuel and the prophets. In Chapter 12, using imagery of a sports stadium, he pictures this great crowd of witnesses, who’ve already run their races, now cheering us on to run well. He notes the importance of running unencumbered by selfishness and bad habits. The race, moreover, isn’t a sprint, but a run which demands endurance. He says that we must run steadily and pace ourselves, which largely depends on where God wishes you and me to be in our life, at the time God determines, and for the purpose God has in mind. 

The greatest incentive for our running, he tells us, is looking ahead to the finish line, to Jesus, the beginner and completer, “the pioneer and perfecter”, of our faith. Jesus’ vision of “the joy which was still before him, in the future” is what gave him the determination and courage to keep going, even to death on the Cross, despite the shame, even despite opposition from enemies who turned out to be his own sisters and brothers. As if anticipating the likelihood that we may quit running at the first sign of temptation, the author of Hebrews reminds us that none of us has yet fully paid our dues: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”, as Jesus did. Suffering, the Cross, is an inescapable part of our human and Christian lives. Though we don’t like it at the time, by God’s grace it is always redemptive and it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

In Luke’s Gospel (12:49-56) Jesus tells us in most forceful terms about the demands of following him. Jesus echoes what John the Baptizer once said of him: that Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire: “I came to bring fire to the earth...I have a baptism with which to be baptized...Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division...You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
That’s not a message we particularly want to hear! We prefer the quiet, gentle, reassuring Jesus. Luke’s Gospel pictures Jesus and the disciples getting nearer to Jerusalem, the City of Peace where untruth, cruelty and violence -- even death --  will be unleashed on Jesus, as it was on the prophets before him. Jesus goes to the heart of his teaching, namely, the “reign of God”, the reign of truth and all that it implies. Jesus, the Living Word and Example, the Message of God in the flesh, challenges the disciples and each of us to choose whether or not we’ll generously align ourselves for or against the kingdom, the reign of truth.

Eight centuries before Jesus, Micah the prophet had foretold that believing in God can lead to painful anxiety, suffering, and division in all a person’s relationships: even in the closest relationship, to one’s family. In shocking detail Jesus repeats Micah’s prophecy in v. 53! It leaves no doubt that, once you commit yourself to God, God’s truth, God’s reign, there’s no thing, no cause, no person, not even a parent, a brother or a sister, whom you can put ahead of Jesus as a priority. 

In today’s first reading (Jeremiah 23:23-29) the prophet says much the same thing, from a slightly different viewpoint. In condemning the people’s reliance on bogus, hypocritical “prophets”, who say only what people want to hear, God reminds them that God isn’t a part-time God, present only when they need something, but that God is always present, even in the midst of their doubt and suffering. God is very truly God and part of one’s life, even when a person has drifted and is caught up in the pursuit of false freedom, pleasure, and possessions, and in the resulting emptiness and disappointment.

Jeremiah points out that phony prophets come and go in every age, while God remains present. We’re all familiar with so-called “prophets” who offer people, especially vulnerable, suffering folks, a whole range of pious platitudes, sweet assurances, magic solutions, but are, in the end, no real help in their suffering. In fact, preaching a gospel of ease and success, of wealth and blessing often compounds people’s problems. The Cross cannot be removed from the gospel, nor can the gospel preached by false prophets be a reliable defense against life’s real traumas. “Let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully.”, God reminds the people.

Scripture scholar Gary Peluso-Verdend writes: “One of the common denominators in [today’s] lections is that telling the truth and deciding who is telling the truth often divides people...A contemporary comedian [Stephen Colbert] who satirizes the day’s news and newsmakers coined the term ‘truthiness’, meaning that in today’s parlance, public words that pass for truth are too mushy and questionable. Real truth often divides and evokes anger from those who live in and with lies. It is always time to speak in a truthful manner...It is not good to isolate the need for truthful speech and actions from the needs for compassion and community; sometimes we are afraid to speak of truth for fear of evoking anger or even violence against ourselves. Neither is it good to allow truthiness to go unchecked. Truth spoken in love nourishes even as it tears down in order to build on a solid foundation. Truthiness neither nourishes nor can [it] endure over time…”     

Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945, wrote from prison that to really believe is to stake your life on the something or Someone in whom you believe. And when you do so, you’re sure to experience, at some point, challenge or opposition or conflict, either from within yourself or from others outside. Religious faith and suffering go hand-in-hand when your life is set on Jesus the Christ. Bonhoeffer observes: “It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit…” 

If Jesus is, as the author of Hebrews says, the One who begins faith and the One who helps faith become fully mature and adult, then you and I must participate in and share His suffering and anguish. Only by involving ourselves in the “reign of God”, the reign of truth, in the life of this world, wherever we are, can we genuinely live in faith. Bonhoeffer sees this as a kind of Christian “worldliness”. It means, for example, that rather than simply add names to prayer lists, we involve ourselves one-on-one in healing, reconciling, encouraging, feeding and clothing our sisters and brothers. It means immersing ourselves in the family, the parish, the community, the world where God is often absent: a world of prejudice, hatred, and violence; of self-serving politics; of racial and sexist injustice; a world of terrorists and hostage-takers; of deceptive, immoral employers and corporations; a world of families ripped apart by divorce, addictions and abuse of all kinds; a world of lonely people, and people with little hope beyond just getting through tomorrow.

Setting our hearts on Jesus, believing and following him, means allowing ourselves to be caught up in the way of the Cross, the way of life, being in solidarity with Jesus’ sufferings in the life of the world, living in faith with determination and courage. In the words of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Holocaust martyr whose feast we commemorated on August 9: “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary, Taken Into God's Presence

O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Letting Go Of Fear

In a letter I received back in the 1960’s, during the Vietnam War, a young soldier friend wrote to me: “I guess the way to survive is to expect the worst and hope for the best.” It’s an oft-repeated expression, drawing on two human emotions or attitudes: fear and faith.

We’ve all experienced the reality of fear at some time in our lives:

As children:
  • fear of the dark; the need to have a light on
  • fear of ghosts or monsters
  • fear of loud noises
  • fear of large animals
  • fear that Dad or Mom will leave us
As young adults:
  • fear of embarrassment or of being made fun of
  • fear of standing out in a crowd
  • fear of being rejected by a boyfriend or girl friend
  • fear of the future, of what’s going to happen in college, or in a new job, etc.
In middle-age:
  • fear of being unsuccessful, of not accomplishing, of not meeting others’ standards
  • fear of whether or not we can remain financially secure
  • fear in raising children: that they’ll learn the right values, that they’ll be safe, that they’ll make good life-choices
  • fear that our spouse no longer loves us
In advancing age:
  • fear for one’s physical health, mental alertness, security
  • fear of being a burden on the family
  • fear of losing our close friends
  • fear of dying
Fear is real, not imaginary. It’s a fact of life, and some of us handle it well; some can’t handle it at all. Even Jesus, as he faced the most critical time of his life, expressed fear and asked that the cup of suffering be removed, if possible. Yet he also prayed: “Father into your hands I commit my spirit, my life.” Notice how often throughout Scripture people are advised not to fear:
  • to Jacob: “Do not be afraid...for I will make you a great nation.” (Genesis 46)
  • Moses to Israel: “Let not your heart faint, do not fear...for the Lord your God is the One who goes with you.” (Deuteronomy 20)
  • the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1)
  • God’s messenger to Joseph: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife...” (Matthew 1)
  • Luke 12: “Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
  • Acts 27: “Do not be afraid, Paul...
  • Revelation 1: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living One.
  • in the Genesis 15 reading this week: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield, I am your sure reward.
  • in Luke’s Gospel passage (12:32-40): “Do not be afraid, little flock...

As human beings we’re able to deal with fear and overcome it through faith: when God gives us the assurance of God’s Word, and we risk taking God at that Word, setting our heart and everything on it.

To speak of faith is to speak of the Covenant, the promise, God made with the chosen ones, and which God renews with us, the new people of God. Very simply, God tells us: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7) That’s the promise, God’s Word. Each of Sunday’s liturgical readings expresses that same promise, each in its own unique way:
  • in Genesis 15: “...the Lord reckoned it to him [Abram] as righteousness.
  • in Hebrews 11: “...God is not ashamed to be called their God: indeed, God has prepared a city for them.
  • in Luke 12: “ is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

God’s promise, a unique blend of covenant and hope, is a powerful biblical motif. As our part of the Covenant, God asks only that we trust, that we accept God’s promise, that we have faith. Sunday’s reading from Hebrews (11:1) provides us with, not so much a definition of faith, as a paradoxical description: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Luther translated the first part as “sure confidence”, so that the sense is “Faith is the subjective assurance I have of things hoped for.” Philo and other Hellenistic writers translate it in a more objective way as: “Faith is the reality or substance of goods hoped for, and these by nature have a transcendent quality.” 

In other words, faith makes the future reality present and the unseen presence real. Faith is the confidence of those who live certain that God’s redeeming work, God’s promise, will be done, despite what we see or experience around us. God invites us to believe in the promise despite the fact that we often don’t fully understand “why”, as Abram didn’t; despite the fact that we don’t have any tangible evidence or assurance that those promises are being fulfilled here and now, as many great heroes of faith didn’t; and despite the fact that we do fear, sometimes with reason, that the reign of God may not become a reality for us.

If, like Abraham and others, we can learn to be open to the future, to take God at God’s Word, then fear will begin to disappear from our lives. “Perfect love [which includes faith and hope] casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) What fools we are to settle for fear rather than for trust! Last week’s Gospel spoke about the unmindful, unfeeling, unbelieving rich fool who put all his trust in his grain and goods. Luke’s message is that only a fool, staking his claim to perishables, would allow himself to hope for so little that he was unprepared for the enduring realities which God offered him. This week the fool is the person who chooses to live in fear and immobility, to center one’s focus on this world and its possessions out of fear of losing them, in exchange for trusting God to makes Godself known in the kingdom. Jesus reminds us that “The reign, the Presence, of God is within in you...and where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” God’s promises are fulfilled in the person and presence of Jesus the Christ, in us.

As God calls individuals out of fear into trust, so God calls the Church itself. God invites the people of God to set aside all fearfulness, mistrust, and to set our hearts on the promise of what God can make of them. This calls for continual re-evaluation of our ministry, of our very purpose for being the Church. That can be a frightening thing! Frightening, because it means that we have to drop our defenses and to seriously question and study such things as our theology of the stewardship of creation and of all “things”; our motivations for worshipping as we do; the quality of our evangelism and reaching out to the communities which surround us; the manner in which we choose to form our children, our young people, ourselves through education in God’s Word and the sacred Tradition handed down to us from previous generations; and, finally, the quality of how we address others‘ needs and pastorally care for one another. All of this involves risk, because it requires thoughtful change.

How ready, really, am I to let go of my fear, my insecurities, my prejudices? How willing am I to open myself to God’s promise of the only sure thing I need: God’s reign, God’s Presence, Godself? If we’re willing, as the Church, to journey together in faith, it’s likely that we’ll pick up that pioneer spirit reflected in the “honor roll of faith” mentioned in today’s passage from Hebrews: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on earth...” and “...that they are seeking a homeland...a better country, that is, a heavenly one. 

The conclusion of the story in the first reading from Genesis is one of the most moving in Scripture: “God brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.‘ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.And Abram believed the Lord...” 

Can you and I do likewise?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Being Rich Towards God

Here is a story which I gleaned from the blog site of Fr. Rick McCracken-Bennett, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in New Albany, OH:
There is an old story about two brothers who inherited the family farm. They also inherited the core value that, within the family, everyone must be treated with absolute equality. One brother was single and the other was married with three children. As the story goes, there were two houses on the farm, so each brother got one. There were two large barns and two smaller barns and each brother got one of each. The animals were divided equally and when there was an odd number they had a cookout in which they, of course, equally shared down to the last bratwurst. The land was divided equally as well, acre by acre, pasture by pasture.
Now some thought these brothers were taking this fairness thing to extremes because every evening they would make certain that the animals were back to whichever brother they belonged and any grain left over was divided into sacks and taken to each one’s granary. 

Absolutely everything was divided equally, just as their father had wanted it. This worked just fine until one day when the younger brother began to think about this arrangement. “This is not fair…not fair at all. We must change this arrangement. Why, my brother has a wife and three children while I am single. He has more mouths to feed than I. Ah! I know what I will do.” And that evening, under the cover of darkness, the younger brother took a sack of grain from his own granary and  took it to his brother’s granary and left it there. He continued to do this every night thereafter.
That same day the older brother thought to himself, “This is not fair…not fair at all. We must change this arrangement. Why, my brother is single, while I have a wife and three children. They will take care of me when I am old and can no longer work on the farm, while my brother will have no one to care for him. Ah! I know what I will do.” And that evening, under the cover of darkness, the older brother took a sack of grain from his granary and took it to his brother’s. He continued to do this night after night.
One very, very dark night, as the story goes, when each of them was moving grain from their granary to the other’s they smacked into each other. When they recovered and realized what the other had been doing, they embraced in a brotherly embrace and, I’m told, they continued their practice until the day when they were too old to carry the sacks of grain anymore. And to this day, their children and their children’s children, and even their children carry sacks of grain each day to help them remember and honor the unselfishness of their ancestors.
Such people, says the Gospel, realize that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”, outwardly or inwardly. They know how to be “rich toward God.” The Scriptures from Hosea the prophet (11:1-11) and from the Epistle to the Colossians (3:1-11), along with St. Luke’s account (12:13-21), teach us how that is possible for us.
Hosea offers a picture of the Lord God as a loving, nurturing parent, agonizing over the punishment of wayward, wandering children: a parent who is as pained as a child to whom discipline is given. Hosea, having two sons and a daughter of his own, could relate to this, and could thus describe God as a parent lifting an infant to the cheek, helping a toddler walk, picking up and embracing a child. "I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love." Hosea describes the risks of raising children, even the possibility of rebellion. Though God's children turn away to idols, God reacts with tender compassion, rather than anger. At the end of the passage, Hosea envisions a homecoming: “They shall go after the Lord…[God's] children shall come trembling like birds...and I will return them to their homes…” God’s people become “rich toward God” by witnessing God’s uninhibited compassion and mercy at work in their lives.
The result is that God’s people grow from selfish narcissism and spiritual infancy, to toddlerhood, to adolescent arrogance and open rebellion, while God as parent, all the while, remains steady in lovingkindness, until the wayward ones grow weary, their souls faint within them, their inner thirst and hunger for true life drawing them back to the source of living waters. They become “rich toward God”.
The Epistle to the Colossians was possibly written by a disciple of Paul who borrowed his name, a frequent practice in the first centuries. Epaphras, not Paul, had founded the church at Colossae, and Paul never actually visited there. Nevertheless, Paul felt a deep connection to the community. In this passage he responds to reports of divisions within the church. Some of the members felt that they could “supplement” their faith in Christ, particularly by engaging in various ascetic practices, which might aid them through ecstatic visions or mystical experiences to participate more directly in the worship of God. Paul cautions the Colossians: “Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body...grows with a growth that is from God…” He questions unorthodox “human commands and teachings.” “These”, he says, “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Paul then exhorts them, much like parent would a young adult who’s about to leave home, perhaps to enter college, or go to a new geographical location, or be married or to take employment away from one’s birthplace. Many of us have been on the receiving and giving end of such “loving warnings”: ”Remember who you are, be careful, take care of yourself. Make sure you wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident.” In a similar way, the author of Colossians firmly exhorts his hearers: “Seek the things...Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth...your life is hidden with Christ in also will be revealed with him in glory...Put to death...fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)...get rid of...anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth...Do not lie to one have stripped off the old self...and have clothed yourselves with the new self...In that renewal...Christ is all and in all!” These are words which you and I, and anyone who claims to follow Jesus need to hear, even those whose conversion may have been long in the past. In the verses following today’s passage there is a refreshing restatement of who we are, as Christian women and men, and as fellow parish members, and of how we might learn to be truly “rich toward God”. Paul says: "As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body..."
Finally, in Luke’s Gospel passage, Jesus himself shows us how to be be “rich toward God”: 
1) “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” If Jesus, to whom God gave authority to judge, refuses to condemn the greedy brother of the man who approached him, what makes you and I think that we can condemn others, and even do so in Jesus’ name?  
2) Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” There was a  motto back in the 1980s which declared "Greed is good". Obviously, Jesus doesn’t “buy” that.  Sara Dylan Breuer says that Luke “makes clear that Jesus' way privileges reconciliation over merely being right. And that's a very liberating way to live. When we're dead set on accumulation, whether it's some kind of moral points we think we're gathering or wealth to shield us from misfortune and suffering, we end up trapped in anxiety. Behind insisting that we're right, others are wrong, and God will vindicate those who are truly good, there's usually an anxiety that others are getting ahead of us. Behind our efforts to accumulate enough to handle any illness or disaster that comes our way, to live in a ‘good neighborhood’ where bad things supposedly don't happen, and to experience enough luxury to distract us from insecurity and fear, there's usually an awareness that we're kidding ourselves, that life involves vulnerability… 

Instead of cataloguing our personal, or family, or parish, worries and potential disasters, and calculating how much we need to shield ourselves from them, wouldn’t it be much more constructive -- and comforting -- for you and me to bring our mistrust, our anxiety, our fear, to God, and to treat the world, the Church, our parish or our family as places gifted to us by God in which we can witness and participate in God's indiscriminate compassion and mercy, places in which you and I can become truly “rich toward God”?