Friday, August 18, 2017

Gospel text for Sunday 20 August 2017

Matthew 15. 10-28        Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and  understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Reflection     Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland writes, “Racism, anti-Semitism and violence rear their ugly head once again, this time in Charlottesville, Virginia… and another example of the collective failure of our nation to expend the moral and political capital needed to stop our spiral into racial and violent madness.”

“Now more than ever, we need people of good will to speak out clearly and courageously against the disturbing tide of white supremacist rhetoric that wants to divide and prevent us from coming together.”

And there it is. An invitation to people of good will - hopefully that is us - to speak out because, words are powerful. Words are windows into our hearts. And those of us with hearts tempered by compassion must open our mouths and speak out. I believe Jesus might well have said, “What goes into our mouths does not make us holy, but what comes out of our mouths makes us holy.”  

If you are, as I am, appalled by the degrading, debasing, dishonoring words you hear echoing across our nation please take seriously your covenant with God and remember the ageless wisdom that underlies the Holiness Code in Leviticus, “For I am the LORD your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. So do not defile yourselves…” (Lev 11.44)

To consecrate ourselves, to make ourselves holy, we must dedicate ourselves to  divine purpose. One way to do that is to consider and measure our words as they betray the state of our hearts.  When our words (or texts or twitters) are drenched in enmity, antagonism and disgust they are like flaming swords inciting hostility and hatred. This will do nothing more than continue and exacerbate the tragic violence and hostility that besieged Charlottesville. 

Returning to Bishop Sutton’s reflection, “Too often in our nation’s history people of goodwill have chosen to remain silent in the face of bigotry, refusing to risk having unpleasant conversations that might disturb colleagues, friends and the ones we love.” It is time for us to initiate those difficult conversations. Remember, even Jesus had his mind changed by the persistent Caananite woman who broke every social, political and religious boundary to plead for mercy for her daughter. Had the woman remained silent the demons would have continued to torment her daughter.

Imagine how Charlottesville might have looked if a group of us people of good will approached those protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee stature and respectfully asked, “Would you join us for a meal? Tell us about your concern? How does this stature affirm who you are? How would removing it harm you? Does your claim to white supremacy stem from your experience of seeing how minorities have historically been mistreated? If so, it is no wonder you feel vulnerable and want to protect yourselves. What can we do together to insure this will never happen to you or anyone else?” And there is every chance we would have to keep asking, and asking and asking, persistent as the Canaanite woman.

This is hard, in fact, we cannot accomplish it by sheer will. Like the Canaanite woman we must depend on our relationship with God. We must ask to be fed with the spiritual food of compassion to enable us to live in holiness of life.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Gospel text for Sunday 13 August 2017

Matthew 14:22-33       Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Reflection The earliest Sunday School memory I have is sitting cross-legged on the floor amidst a bevy of four year olds  watching our buttoned-up Sunday School teacher bounce Jesus’ cut-out felt figure across pointy pretend waves toward a small brown boat. Though I harbor no recall of what she spoke to our unsullied minds, I can almost feel my tiny pudgy arm waving before I was called upon and protested, “Jesus cannot walk on water. I know because we go swimming in the ocean.” 

What a great teaching moment, but alas, it was lost on the intransigence of my stone-minded Sunday School teacher. Rather than help me wrestle with the Gospel story or remind me that sometimes we love stories that are real in a different way than a table or the felt board or our shoes are real, this supposed purveyor of the Good News passed on the bad news to my parents that I was no longer welcome in her Sunday School class. Post haste I was moved to a class full of big kids and that was the last time I spoke in school.  

Why do we tell stories? We tell stories to make sense of our world and to pass on wisdom from generation to generation. We tell stories because they engage our listeners’ whole selves, body, mind and spirit, and are easier to remember than an exhausting speal of information. 

According to a 2015 Huffington Post article by Mitch Ditkoff, “neuroscientists, psychologists, theologians, sociologists, advertisers, linguists, and marketers (concur)… Storytelling is the most effective, time-tested way to transmit meaning from one human being to another. It’s been going on since the beginning of time when our first ancestors stood around the tribal fire. It’s how civilizations pass on their wisdom to the next generation. It’s how religions pass on the sacred teachings of their faith. And it’s how parents, via the telling of fairy tales, transmit the values they want to impart to their children.”

Rather than consider the story of Jesus walking on water as a supernatural feat reserved for the only chosen one, my stymied Sunday School teacher might have invited me to to remember a time that I was really, really scared. Once she saw the lightbulb go off in my face then ask me how it would feel if I knew that Jesus was with me even when I was really scared? I have every reason to believe if that had been the case, a smile would have lighted my eyes, turned my frown to a smile, and I would have been content to keep on listening to her story. This is the Good News. 

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Gospel text for Sunday 6 August 2017

Luke 9.28-36        Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Reflection      For many years  I read  Luke’s gospel text with my eyes glued to Jesus and his glowing religious experience. The image of Jesus’ changed face and dazzling clothes blinded me to Peter, James and John’s phenomenal mountain top experience. I was swept away by Jesus’ special status, the chosen one with access to the wisdom of the prophets and divine favor.  Like Peter, I wanted to build a church around Jesus, proclaim a glow in the dark theology and make Jesus separate, sovereign and detached. I struggled to capture him with words and creeds, doctrine and denominational politics. But the cloud of unknowing finally descended and opened my eyes to recognize Peter, James and John’s indubitable religious experience and finally to hear the voice from the cloud… “Listen to him.”

Listening to Jesus is not easy. So rather than listening to him, many of us find it far less challenging to argue about him. “How did his face actually change? If there was a video camera on top of the mountain would we see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah? Does this glowing moment mean Jesus is more than merely human? What is the true nature of Jesus anyway? What is his relationship with God? Is he of the same substance of God, or us, or something else? How shall we preserve and ritualize this moment? What type of organization shall we establish to insure that everyone says and believes the correct things about Jesus? Who  determines what the correct things are? Talking and arguing about Jesus and institutionalizing rituals, creeds and ideas to insure conformity is the stuff of theology and ecclesiology. And, I believe it may have little to do with listening to him.

I wonder if Peter, James and John fall silent because they did listen to Jesus when he preached to them and what he said was very hard to hear? “I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matt 6.13, 27-28, 31) That is what Jesus says to the disciples and us in his sermon on the plain. Are we listening?

Or do we prefer to postulate that Peter, James and John must have eaten some poison mushrooms before climbing that mountain with Jesus? Or maybe we could spend years deciphering ancient manuscripts looking for clues that whoever is telling the story of the transfiguration has some kind of neurological or psychological condition that accounts for the religious experience?  Are we listening?

Or are we more concerned with the institutional aspects of religion and preserving our buildings? Are we listening?

Or are we so caught up systematizing our thoughts about religious experience that we fail to recognize the unseen order revealed in religious experiences? Are we listening?

Or are we determined to defend denominational walls at the expense of trusting religious experience and adjusting our lives to live harmoniously for the common good?

Out of the cloud of unknowing that descends upon the mountain comes a kind of deep and irrefutable knowing that is not made of the stuff of this world. And the disciples hear, “This is my Son, the chosen. Listen to him.” Are we listening?

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Gospel text for Sunday 23 July 2017

2017 07 23 Matthew 13:24-30,36-43         Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Reflection      On this journey we call life there are moments when our true self emerges and we are the seeds of grace and truth in the world. In those moments, like Jesus we engage our life situation exactly as it is. We do not leap ahead into conjectures, “Oh, this does not bode well for the future. I can see the handwriting on the wall.” Nor do we revert to rehearsals of the past, “I have been down this road before, I have met people just like him, I remember the time…  and it was terrible.” Living in imitation of Jesus we are like seeds, full of grace and truth that we bring to every situation we encounter.

How do we know when we are experiencing our true self? We feel peaceful, secure or accepted. When operating out of our true self we have access to wisdom and real power, living becomes effortless, even living in the midst of weeds. By contrast, when we feel stressed, insecure or unvalued, our true self sinks into hiding behind our everyday self that executes our programs for happiness; with our inordinate desire for security, safety, esteem, power and control. The thing is, these programs are never satisfied because they cannot fulfill the deepest desire of our heart, to be our true self, seeds of grace and truth in the world.

Deepak Chopra, an alternative medicine doctor, offers what I think is an instructive list to help us discern if we are operating out of our true self or our everyday self.  “The true self is certain and clear about things. The everyday self gets influenced by countless outside influences, leading to confusion. The true self is stable. The everyday self shifts constantly.  The true self is driven by a deep sense of truth. The everyday self is driven by the ego, the unending demands of "I, me, mine." The true self is at peace. The everyday self is easily agitated and disturbed. The true self is love. The everyday self, lacking love, seeks it from outside sources.”*

Much as a farmer cannot avoid weeds infesting her wheat, we cannot escape the incursion of our conditioned emotional reactions nor the inclination of our everyday self to enforce our programs for happiness. What we can do is cultivate disciplines of stillness such as Centering Prayer or Mindfulness Meditation that help us be clear minded and consistent, recognize when weeds are infiltrating our thoughts, words and actions and enable us to choose to act with grace and truth instead.  

As people of God we are  intended to live in imitation of Jesus,  to be a seeds of grace and truth in our thoughts, words and actions. If we want to strengthen and tone our bodies we must have a discipline of physical training and practice. If we want to strengthen and tone our true self we must have a discipline of spiritual training and practice. 

August 9, 16, 23 and 30th from 2-3:15  Episcopal Church of the Apostles offers a free four week program for beginners and long time practitioners of Centering Prayer using Fr. Carl Arico’s dvd series and discussion, instruction, and a twenty minute sit. Email for more info. 

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Gospel text for Sunday 16 July 2017

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23        Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Reflection       Who is the sower in this parable? At first glance we might assume it is Jesus, after all he is the one telling the tale  But when we listen carefully to Jesus’ explanation of the parable we notice the Greek word logos, the word of the kingdom, appears four times in four sentences. Surely this word, logos, must be important. It is.

God is the sower, sowing the word, the word that became flesh in the person of Jesus to reveal the will and the way of God to all the world. God is extravagant, sowing the word that is full of grace and truth throughout the world. Just in case you are wondering how broadly God has sown the Word, here is a statistic from The Bible Society of the United Kingdom that reports the number of Bibles printed by 2007 was 7.5 billion, essentially one copy of God's word for each person on earth. That does not take into account all the digital versions we find on our phones. *   

The message is unequivocal.  God is not stingy or exclusionary. God's word is not limited to those who hear the word, understand it and bear good fruit. God’s word is not withheld from us when we hear the word with joy yet as soon as trouble, teasing or ill-treatment arise we withdraw or shy away. Even when we hear God’s word and our desires for security, safety, esteem, power and control choke it out of us like weeds strangling our lives, still the bounteous word is sown.

Here is the twist. God’s word is sown in all flesh. Each one of us is like a seed of God’s word intended to grow and bear fruit as extravagant purveyors of grace and truth. If that sounds like radical marching orders, it is. It is relatively easy to speak of God’s presence and action in our lives to people who are like minded. But, that is not extravagant. In fact it is a bit stingy. We are intended to spread the blessing by scattering the words of our faith on rocks, in the weeds as well as in rich loamy soil. 

The other day someone told me about a friend who recently traveled with her church to Iraq ostensibly to take photographs of the country when in actuality they were passing out Bibles. As the enfleshed word of God these faithful folks continue God's sowing,  scattering the seeds of God's word extravagantly. Most of us are unlikely to travel to Iraq but that does not mean we are not intended to live as revelations of God’s word in the world. What does that look like? Loving our neighbors as well as those who hate or persecute us. Replacing our troubled, unkind, harsh or disagreeable thoughts, words and actions with careful words and compassionate ways. Remembering always that we too are revelations of God’s word sown throughout the earth.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Gospel text for Sunday 9 July 2017

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30        Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Reflection        Jesus’ yoke is easy, his burden is light because he is not weighed down with the baggage of pride, insolence, disrespect and acrimony. Because Jesus consents to the present moment exactly as it is, he is not troubled, irritable, harsh, disagreeable or unkind.  Thus unburdened, Jesus is soft spoken, unpretentious and respectful. He is merciful, “gentle and humble in heart.”

As the prophet Zechariah proclaims, “The king comes humble and riding on a donkey… He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…” (Zech 9.10-11) This is a great paradox. The true king, the one who rules and commands peace in all nations, is humble, rides a donkey not a limousine; is soft spoken not disagreeable;  unpretentious not disdainful;  respectful not unkind. The true king is merciful, “gentle and humble in heart.” 

The psalmist makes the same point, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.” (Ps 145.8-9) Here is the thing. Like Jesus we are made in the image and likeness of God and intended to embody and express the attributes of God, the true king. We are intended to be slow to anger and of great kindness, full of compassion, gentle and humble in heart. We are intended to command peace in all nations.

How are we to do or be this? How are we to ward off the news and the uncivil discourse that assaults and carries us away? We are steeped in a world that endorses pride, insolence, disrespect and acrimony. We are constantly bombarded by troubled, irritable, harsh, disagreeable and unkind words and images. If we allow this negativity to grab us and sweep us away we will not be “gentle and humble in heart.”  We will lose all hope.  

But, we are people of God and we find our hope by choosing to live “with-God lives.” So we come together to worship, study and learn from Jesus.  We come together to exchange our  troubled, irritable, harsh, disagreeable and unkind thoughts, words and actions for Jesus’ gentle and merciful ways. We come together to relieve and replace the burdens of our pride, insolence, disrespect and acrimony with Jesus’ compassion and humble heart. 

No, this is not easy, in fact we probably cannot do it by our will alone.  That is why we put our faith in Jesus’ teaching, “For humans it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt 19.26)

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Friday, June 30, 2017

The Collect for Independence Day 2 July 2017

The Collect for Independence Day. 
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reflection        “Behavior that is morally justifiable or right” is the common dictionary definition of “righteousness,” the habitual way of life upon which rests “liberties” for all people. This begs several questions; What behaviors are morally justifiable or right? Who is the arbiter of standards for morality or rightness? For whom do these standards apply? 

Judaism, Christianity and Islam intersect by pointing to Divine Law as expressed in the Hebrew Testament, the Christian Testament and the Qur’an as the standard for human righteousness. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is given to the Israelites during their time wandering in the desert. Then the Book of Leviticus instructs the Israelites how to conduct themselves legally and morally and provides ritual guidance to restore them to right relationship when they turn away from God or engage in impure behavior. 

In the Christian Testament when a lawyer tested Jesus asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  Jesus said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” (Matt 22.35-40) In other words, the standard for righteousness given to Christians is to be in loving relationship with God and with all people.

Turning to the Qur’an we find a definition of righteousness given to our Islamic sisters and brothers, “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces to the east and the west [in prayer]. But righteous is the one who believes in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Scripture and the Prophets; who gives his wealth in spite of love for it to kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the wayfarer, to those who ask and to set slaves free. And (righteous are) those who pray, pay alms, honor their agreements, and are patient in (times of) poverty, ailment and during conflict. Such are the people of truth. And they are the God-Fearing.” Qur'an Surah 2: Verse 177

All three Abrahamic traditions teach that behaviors that are morally justifiable or right, righteousness, emulate the attributes of God. By embodying the attributes of God we promote, sustain and restore respectful, generous, benevolent and trustworthy relationships among people.  Righteousness, the habitual way of life upon which rests “liberties” for all people, is the root of all three religious traditions. Perhaps it is time for all of us to return to our root. 

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