Monday, August 29, 2011

10th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 16A

10th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 16A
August 21, 2011

The week before last, I spent three days at Gray Center fulfilling some of my diocesan responsibilities in doing the work of the Commission on Ministry, of which I’ve been a part these last several years. The COM is established by Canon law, and functions in every Episcopal diocese with one purpose: to give the Bishop advice and recommendations about the leadership in the church –the raising up and training of priests and deacons, and everything related to their selection, training and continued well-being.
An essential part of our ministry is for us to remain in close contact with people in the ordination process—both people who are currently in seminary being trained and formed as priests, and people who are attending our diocesan Deacon’s school and being trained and formed to be deacons (while still facing all the demands of their day to day lives). It is rewarding work for me, as we ask questions of those being formed for ministry, and we listen carefully to their responses, often inviting them to go a little deeper. There is the highest level of trust among committee members, and I always come away from these meetings reminded of why I began my own journey into the ordained ministry, and it helps me to continue to reflect upon my own vocation as a priest (which has been my part these past 6 and 1/2 years) and how God continues to call me to grow into that.
Last week, we spent our time with 4 people (and their respective spouses) who are currently at seminary and 1 person who is about to enter the Deacon’s school, and we met with them to see how they are progressing on this spiritual journey and to learn from them how they are being formed for the priesthood and deaconate.
As you might imagine, spiritual formation is a rather tricky thing to assess in an individual, but we have found that is actually a fruitful endeavor to look at a person’s spiritual formation when that person has been open to being formed, when he or she has been doing the difficult work of self-reflection and prayer and sorting through external experiences and the internal working of God through the Holy Spirit.
But there are a handful of others whom we encounter from time to time who might win the “rock of ages” awardi that is awarded by a certain seminary professor every year to the member of his class who remains the most unmoved, most unchanged, most resistant to the process of spiritual formation. And those are the ones who are difficult to converse with about their spiritual formation because they refuse to admit it is happening, even though we know that they are being formed in some way, either for good or for ill.
We are changed and shaped and affected—for good and for ill—by what we encounter in this life. Paul writes to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Very few people can truly be “the rock of ages;” we are either conformed to this world or transformed more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.
I like to think of this process of formation—whether it be priestly formation at seminary or Christian formation of all baptized into the image and likeness of Christ--like being a rock in a rock tumbler.ii How many of you have had any experience with rock tumblers?

One of my brothers had a rock tumbler, and we set it up in the formal living room (where no one ever went) just off my bedroom. Into this machine, my brother would put all these regular old rocks with some water and several different steps of abrasive and polishing agents. And he turned it on and just let it run for what seemed to me to be forever! as I could hear it just running and running—this motor sound and rocks tumbling around and around-- every night when I went to bed. And these rocks tumbled around and around in this machine and knocked up against each other over and over again, and when we finally opened it up, we discovered that some rocks had all their rough edges knocked off, worn down, smoothed out; but others had been broken to bits under the force of the tumbling or left with sharp pieces that had not been smoothed.
In our Gospel lesson today, we see Jesus asking his disciples a series of questions. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? And Peter, in a moment of God’s pure revelation, answers Jesus—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus, in his delight at Peter’s answer, bestows upon Peter, a new name—the Rock—and he bestows upon Peter a blessing. We see in this story which is the middle of three Peter stories that our lectionary gives us in a four week span (starting with two weeks ago when Peter tried to walk on water and failed miserable and ending next week, when Jesus rebukes Peter and says, “get behind me Satan!”), that in Peter’s journey with Jesus, he is still very much a rock in the rock tumbler, as opposed to an unchangeable “rock of ages”. He’s still getting his rough edges knocked off and will continue to do so well after Jesus’s resurrection and ascension. And yet in this one moment, Jesus sees the strength of Peter’s character, his ability to be open to revelation, and his willingness to be formed by that. And it is those gifts that Jesus celebrates and blesses.
So what about us? What does this story have to teach us about our lives? We are all of us rocks tumbling around in this rock tumbler that is life, where the sharp jagged rocks of events and people have the very real potential to damage others and also the potential to shape and form us for the better. How do you name these sharp jagged rocks in the rock tumbler of your life? Is it failing health? Is it financial woes? Is it a weighty decision you must soon make? Is it a difficult person whom you keep bumping up against? Is it relationship problems? Is it doubt? Is it the loss of someone you love? Is the jagged rock in your rock tumbler your own self-loathing?
And then what do with this? What do we do when life or others keeps bumping up against us and wearing us down? We can be formed for good or for ill. So how do we keep from being ill-formed? We give ourselves over to the transformation that comes from God—“to the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”. And once we discern that, we hold fast to what is good.
If we are not being formed in the will of God, then we are being conformed to this world. And to be formed in the will of God, we must remain steadfast in striving toward transformation, giving our hearts fully to God’s will and not our own. We do this through regular corporate worship, through a willingness to grow and develop through Christian formation, in the reading and study of the scriptures, and in regular prayer; we do this through silence, through breaking bread together, through the regular giving of ourselves and our resources—our time, our attention, our money. We give our hearts to the way of Christ—practicing mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and an unflinching and steadfast stance in the face of injustice and evil and persecution.
How will you be formed this day? Will you be conformed to the way of the world, giving your heart to the pursuit of your own will, no matter what the cost? Or will you open yourself to transformation and give your heart to discerning the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect in your life—allowing yourself to be shaped and formed, polished and smoothed through the life of faith into the image and likeness of Christ?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

9th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 15A

9th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 15A
August 14, 2011
When I was driving up to Jackson on Wednesday, I noticed a church sign on the outskirts of Wiggins. It said, “When in doubt, don’t pout, just give Jesus a shout.” If only it were that neat and clean and simple!
But our gospel for today is very messy, even offensive and doesn’t quite fit into such a nice, neat formula for faithful living. In our gospel today, the very presence of the word “Canaanite” “stirs up memories of ancient foes—idol worshiping enemies over against whom the people of Israel defined themselves.” And in Matthew’s gospel it takes on an added complexity because the author of Matthew intentionally lists the Canaanite women Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth as a part of Jesus’s own geneology and a part of his family story.i So there’s already the presence of that messy mixture of associations with the people of Cana, and then, in our gospel portion for today, Jesus talks about eating and the bodily function that result, and he calls a woman who petitions him (via shout) to help her sick child a dog (which is a typical Jewish expression for Gentiles, but still quite offensive).
The two pieces of this gospel at first glance seem unrelated—Jesus is teaching the crowds about Jewish dietary law and ritual defilement and about how people should worry more about what is coming out of our hearts, and then Jesus takes a road trip into Canaanite country, where he encounters this woman who shouts at him, petitioning that he heal her demon possessed daughter. These two incidences may seem unrelated, but by placing them together, Matthew’s gospel and our lectionary indicate that there is some sort of connection. “In the first [part of today’s gospel] people who are socially accepted [the Pharisees] emphasize external differences [observance of the Jewish dietary laws] and miss the matters of the heart [what are truly impediments to our relationship with God and others—‘evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander…’] Whereas in the second [part], a woman who is socially marginalized breaks through external differences [of gender, culture, and cultural prejudices] to claim God’s mercy.”ii The encounter between Jesus and his disciples and the Canaanite woman becomes the illustrative parable of what Jesus is teaching the crowds in the first part of the gospel. And interestingly enough, in the second part, the disciples play the part of the Pharisees.
Today, I invite you to take some time and identify with the different characters in the story of the Canaanite woman. Let’s look at the woman first. This is a woman who is not bound by conventional social propriety or norms or even deep-rooted conflicts. She is brazen in her cry to Jesus, and she shouts at him, “Lord, have mercy.” It is a prayer that echoes down through the centuries and has been shouted and whispered by millions of lips—“the cry of the soul in extremis, a raw witness to the depth and misery of the human condition.”iii In the Greek phrase that is translated as “Lord, have mercy,” mercy is not a noun, a sympathetic feeling; mercy in the Greek is a verb. It is an action. This woman’s challenge is for Jesus to act, to do something.
On the other hand, the disciples in today’s gospel are very worried about propriety. First they complain, “Lord, you offended some Pharisees,” and then they complain, “Lord, send that woman away; she keeps shouting after us!” I wonder what it is that they are really worried about in their seeming obsession with propriety? What do they learn by witnessing Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman?
And then there is Jesus, who is especially enigmatic in this lesson. Why is his first response to the woman silence? Is his understanding of his mission changed in this encounter?
In Matthew’s gospel, mercy is absolutely central to Jesus’s ministry. He quotes Hosea on two different occasions (9:14, 12:7) and says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”iv In his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus models for us what this means. He shows us what God’s mercy looks like and that it is all inclusive. He shows us that we don’t get to decide who is good enough (or not) to receive God’s mercy. And what does he mean when he speaks about the woman’s great faith? What is she doing or saying that leads her to the healing which she seeks? (I think it is that she doesn’t care a whit that she is acting against propriety; she gives her heart fully to her demand for God’s mercy and that Jesus heal her daughter, regardless of all that separates them.)
Have you ever acted like that woman and cried out to Jesus, Lord, have mercy! Do something! Help me! What happened? Were you met with silence? When in your life have you been like the Canaanite woman, willing to defy all social convention and propriety to demand your share of God’s mercy?
When are we like the disciples and the Pharisees, more concerned with outward appearances than what is in the heart; more concerned with propriety than with mercy? What concerns of our own about propriety and what is seemly get in the way of the matters of our hearts? How do our concerns about what is seemly get in the way of the healing and transformation that God is offering us? How does our squeamishness impede our encounters with God?
Mercy and propriety seem to be at odds in this gospel, and in fact, they can at times be at odds in our own lives. It is much easier to let propriety rule our hearts than to let mercy rule. Propriety is fueled and dictated by culture, by tradition, by “the way that we’ve always done it.” Mercy is fueled by God’s intervention in our lives and the world; mercy is inspired by God’s invitation to look at others through God’s eyes, and to see others the way that God sees them, to love others the way that God loves them.
But to follow that call, we must be willing to go deeper, beyond the surface of things, to peel back the layers that we build up on our own hearts and the layers put there by our families, our culture, etc. When we encounter someone who makes us uncomfortable because of who they seem to be on the outside, we are invited to peel back the layer of what is outside and try to imagine what might be in that person’s heart. Could it be the hearts of the “other” harbor the same hopes and dreams, fears and sorrows as our own? Can it be that the heart of the other longs as deeply as our own for their share of God’s mercy? And what is it in our own hearts that makes us so afraid of the other? Are we afraid that there is not enough of God’s mercy to go around, so that we try to hoard it all for ourselves? Are we afraid that our place in the kingdom will be diminished by God’s inclusion of all God’s children?
In today’s gospel, Jesus shows us that he will not allow himself and his understanding of his mission to be an impediment between the Canaanite woman and God’s mercy. May we have the courage to follow this way he has set, and to go and do likewise.
Essential idea from Feasting on the Word: Theological Perspective by Iwan Russell-Jones, pp356-357.
From Feasting on the Word: Exegetical Perspective by Jae Won Lee, pp 357-361.
Essential idea from Feasting on the Word: Theological Perspective by Iwan Russell-Jones, pp358

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

8th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 14A

8th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 14A
August 7, 2011
Jesus and Moses were out one day playing golf. They pull up to a hole in their cart, and they see that this hole had a water element. So Jesus pulls out his 5 iron and prepares to hit. Moses says, ‘I don’t know about that, Jesus. I think you should use your 4 iron here. Jesus replies, “No, I don’t think so, Moses. I’ve been watching a lot of Jack Nicklaus, and I think he’d use the 5 iron here.” Moses says, “Ok, Jesus, whatever you say.” So Jesus hits his ball with the 5 iron and it goes right into the water. Moses takes out his 4 iron and his ball sails over the water. So the two get into their cart and drive down to the water where Jesus is looking around for his ball. Not seeing it on the edge of the water, he proceeds to walk out across the water looking for his ball. Moses sits in the cart waiting when two other golfers drive up to him, and say, “Who does that guy think he is? Jesus?” Moses replies, “No, he thinks he’s Jack Nicklaus.” (I got that joke from Fred Hutchings, who got it from Bill Fellows. Any errors in its retelling are due to my own golfing ignorance).
Our gospel reading for today picks up immediately from where last week’s story of the Jesus’ feeding of the 5, 000 leaves off. And this story of Jesus walking on the water coming straight on the heels of the other is no accident in Matthew’s gospel. The writer of Matthew is drawing upon the identity of the people of Israel and we hear echoes of their stories of salvation in these stories of Jesus’s acts. In the feeding of the 5,000 we hear the echoes of God’s feeding of the children of Israel in the wilderness with manna, and in Jesus’s walking on water, we hear echoes of the salvation of the children of Israel through the parted waters of the Red Sea.
In Hebraic thought, water represents much more than a mere physical reality. It is unfathomable depths; it is the threat of darkness and chaos; it is the potential for drowning and the shadowy menace of the creatures that swim in its depths. For the children of Israel, water is that which is opposed to God’s order that is made manifest in creation and in the salvation of Israel. In the Old Testament, God is consistently triumphing over this chaos of water and trampling victoriously over that which seeks to drown out God’s purposes.
In our reading for today, Jesus has withdrawn to a deserted place by himself, but the crowds have followed him and found him. And so he heals their sick and then he has compassion on them and feeds them. Immediately after he feeds them, he sends everyone away, including the disciples, who he sends on ahead of him in the boat to the other side. And Jesus stays there on the mountain by himself to pray. Meanwhile, back in the boat, the disciples find themselves battered by the wind and the waves, and in the wee hours of the morning, they see Jesus walking toward them on the water. It’s not until this point in the story that these seasoned fishermen truly become afraid. They know wind and water and how to deal with it, but they have no idea what to do with this figure walking on the water. They think Jesus is a ghost, and they don’t seem to recognize them. He speaks to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (the Greek here can also be translated “I am”—the name that God gives to Moses.)
And this is the part that really captures my imagination. The disciples are all unified in their fear and are cowering in the boat. Peter is ostensibly just as afraid as the rest, and yet he asks Jesus to reveal himself to them by commanding Peter to get out of the boat to come to him. I wonder….What is it exactly that separates Peter from the others in their fear? What is it that prompts Peter to get out of the boat?
Just this past week, I read the November book club selection—The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. It’s a great book about a family that goes through a lot together, and the entire story is narrated by a character named Enzo, who just happens to be the family dog. Enzo spends a lot of his free time watching racing on tv while his people are away, and he learns about racing from his owner, who is an aspiring race-car driver. Enzo’s owner, Denny, tells him that the secret to successful racing is found in the statement: “that which you manifest if before you.” Enzo spends some time wrestling with this notion and the concept that we manifest our own destiny, and then he translates it into meaning: “the car goes where the eyes go.” In racing, if a person loses concentration for one moment, if his eyes lose their focus, then the car can quickly and easily follow and it can mean the different between winning the race and crashing the car. The car goes where the eyes go.
That’s what got Peter out of the boat. That’s what made the difference between his fear and his faith. And that is why he faltered. When he got out of the boat, his eyes were on Jesus. When he walked those first timid steps across the water, his eyes were on Jesus. When he took his eyes off Jesus and became again aware of the wind and the waves and his own fear, he began to falter and to sink. And Jesus reached out his hand to him, called Peter’s eyes and his heart back to Jesus, and he walked back to the boat with him. “The car goes where the eyes go”.
All of us experience fear. The fear of the chaos of the world around us, the darkness of the hearts of people who live in this world with us, our nation drowning under our over-spending and our debt and our political gridlocks and power plays. The fear of not having enough. The fear of not being able to take care of ourselves as we age, not being able to take care of those who depend upon us. The fear of all the bad things lurking out in the world that might happen to us or to the people whom we love…. (Friday GMA report on how Dow plummeted 500 points, average 401K has lost $12,000—anchor must have said the word “fear” 12 times in 2 minutes).
Fear is rampant. What separates us, like Peter, from those who are paralyzed by their fears? What gets us out of bed early on a Sunday morning to gather here together in this boat amidst the storms of our lives? “The car goes where the eyes go”. We can overcome our fears when our eyes are fixed upon Jesus.
What does that mean for our eyes to be fixed upon Jesus? Living our lives, making our decisions based in hope, not in fear. Living our lives with the belief that the abundance of the kingdom of God is a reality and that the scarcity of the world is an illusion grounded in fear. It means being rooted in the peace and stability of God, who is I AM, and not being tossed here and yon by the fads and fears of others. It means treating all people with care and concern and respect, as fellow children of God, and not as tools to be used for our own agendas or devices. It means offering all of these things, hope, abundance, care, peace, good news, and love to all whom we encounter.
And when fear does get the better of us, which it may from time to time, Jesus is standing nearby with his hand outstretched, offering us grace and peace, and pulling us out of the waters that threaten to claim us, and helping us to remember. When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, then Jesus becomes for us a window to God—who says, “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”